Sex workers at AWID reject feminist fundamentalism

kthi win plenary awid istanbul 2012I am Kthi Win from Myanmar and I am a sex worker. I manage a national organisation for female, male and transgender sex workers in Burma and I am also the chairperson of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers. Until now, organising anything in Myanmar has been very difficult. People ask, How did you set up a national programme for sex workers? And my answer to them is Our work is illegal. Every night we manage to earn money without getting arrested by the police. We used to work and organise together, so we use this knowledge in order to work out how we can set up the National Network without making the government angry.

This is the opening of Kthi’s plenary speech last Saturday at the AWID conference in Istanbul; at the end Kthi asked those in the hall – 1500-2000 – to stand and repeat with her Sex work is work! Most people did what she asked; no one protested. I presume hard-core abolitionists chose to stay away from this session. You can listen to Kthi’s speech, too.

laura agustin awid 2012

Photo by Debolina Dutta

I was at this event most of last week, part of a group promoting a vision of sex work, migration and feminism that emphasises agency, the state of being in action, taking power, making decisions even when presented with few options. We overtly challenged the reductionist, infantilising ideology that has come to dominate mainstream policy and faux journalism (like The New York Times’s) by attending many sessions and commenting.

I spoke at Don’t Talk to Us About Sewing Machines, moderated by Meena Seshu from SANGRAM in Sangli, India. Wi from Empower spoke first about her research into the state of sex work in Thailand; then she showed the film Last Rescue in Siam, which makes fun of police raids on bars where people are harmlessly singing and drinking. Dale from APNSW then showed a clip from a raid in India that shows sex workers physically resisting police ‘rescue’.

Rebekah Curtis of TrustLaw reported the session in The Word on Women – Anthropologist slams raids “rescuing” sex workers, and I am glad she reproduced these words of mine:

Large amounts of money go into these programmes to rescue people who in many, many, many cases do not want to be rescued, she said, adding that many women choose sex work as a preference to jobs such as domestic work.

We’re talking about the ability to recognise that someone else can make a different decision from your own about her economic or mental or emotional empowerment, she added. That if you want to rescue someone you need to know very well first what it is that they want before you rush in to help them.

I hope our interventions in this very large international women’s event have been worthwhile: one never knows.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

4 thoughts on “Sex workers at AWID reject feminist fundamentalism

  1. Maggie McNeill

    Since the US provides most of the money, guns and rhetoric which drives the fundamentalist view (and allows its imposition on new regions), we really need a conference like this in the US. Eventually it has to happen, but I wonder how long that will be?

    1. Laura Agustín

      This is an international event and there were many people from the US there – the frame is ‘development’, to me a problematic industry, but obviously lots of nice people work in it.

  2. Pingback: That Was the Week That Was (#17) « The Honest Courtesan

  3. Sugel

    When moral crusaders attempt to close advertising venues relied upon by sex workers, they make it more risky for sex workers to earn a living. The ability to advertise and do business online has been important to the safety of independent sex workers in the developed world. It allows us to screen potential clients for warning signs of danger (such as checking sex offender databases or local “bad date lists”), and it creates a digital paper trail. The notorious “Craigslist Killer” was caught in part through his online exchanges with the women he attacked. Online venues — like the former adult services section on Craigslist, and the current use of — are embraced by sex workers because they make our jobs safer, plain and simple. Taking those advertising sites away from us only makes us more vulnerable to predators, and hinders police investigations if the worst does happen.


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