What’s Wrong with Helping? Another example from the world of sex work

The word help is very misleading, like rescue and save and rehabilitate.  Who decides which people need help and when and how?  That’s the basic problem. If you simply look at another person’s situation and think ‘How awful, I wouldn’t want to live like that, it must be intolerable!’ then you might jump to the conclusion that she or he would be happy to have any help you feel like giving. You might assume, as pointed out in the previous post on Knowing Best that everyone sees the world as you do. But it’s not true, as I discuss in Leaving Home for Sex and The Sex in Sex Trafficking.

Today’s example of failed helping comes from Thailand. Empower, whose anti-rescue poster I published a while back, has written to say that they refused to participate in the development of a ‘training package’ aimed at UN employees dealing with sex workers. They were asked to reconsider their decision. Refusing a second time, they sent the following letter to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Nossal Institute of Global Health at Melbourne University, which got the UNFPA contract to develop the material.

Dear Brigitte,

Empower had a second long joint discussion about the proposed training. Empower has decided to be faithful to our original position and not take part in the training in Bangkok. We would like to explain this position to your team as well as UNFPA.

We understand the point of the training is to decrease stigma and break down sterotypes. However, we see the very process of the development and implementation of this training reflects the prejudices held by UNFPA programmers. It is simply not acceptable to hire a team of non-sex workers to create a training module about working with sex workers. The fact that your team at Nossal contacted sex woker groups to participate in the development is perhaps to your credit, but it does not address the original insult. There are many very capable, very credible, sex worker organizations that UNFPA could have and should have hired directly to create and implement the training module. How would it be if a sex worker organization was hired to develop and implement a training module on Nossal Institute…it would be senseless, yes? Why should it make any more sense in the reverse? We know we were certainly not the only sex worker organization to refuse to take part. We also felt our expertise was being undervalued by the small token payment you were able to offer under your funding guidelines. The project is 27 months long, obviously funded at UN rates, yet from memory you could only afford to pay Empower around $AUS800 to act as advisers. We are sure the UNFPA would not accept such small payments for their staff.

However, the money is a small part of the issue. The greater concern is that UNFPA thinks this is an appropriate process! It says to Empower that the UNFPA does not believe that sex workers are intelligent, capable, valuable partners in the fight against HIV. It says to Empower that UNFPA still sees sex workers as people who are only capable of providing colour…telling some stories and acting as sex tour guides on training field trips. It says to Empower that UNFPA still does not understand concepts like “community participation” or “best practice”. For example you said [name] was helping with your project. She came to us as a young intern to learn FROM us…we are the ones who tried to teach her how to be a part of a commuity organization and now she is better placed than us to design this training!?

When will UNFPA and others see us as educators, trainers not just targets, tools or fools?

All this leaves us wondering what kind of impact can a training that is not owned by sex workers have on the attitudes of individual UN agency staff especially while the stigma and prejudice about sex workers is so obvioulsy entrenched in much of the UN system. We note that the UNFPA and other UN agencies,as late as March 2008, are still using offensive terms like “commercial sex worker” and “high risk group” in some publications despite promises made. That such a small detail as this has proven too hard for the UN to address does not bode well for the outcome of the trainings, does it?

We acknowledge that Can Do Bar is public property so we cannot decide for you whether you include whatever the video is that you made or not. You asked us to approve the script but we cannot. We have no idea where the quotes you have came from but they are not accurate. For example we never use words like “girls” Pornpit is a sex worker too and does not use terms like “they and them” – it’s “us and we”! There are about 50,000 Thai sex workers who have been involved with Empower over 20 years. We have had a handful of westerners over the same period in minor support roles. If you quote Liz instead of us, the Thai sex workers of Can Do and Empower, it encourages people to continue to believe we are stupid and can only do something if a foreigner helps us. It also just doesn’t sound like us or Can Do Bar!

Our position is not meant to reflect in any way on those groups who chose to help you… or any other group’s involvement.


Translated by Liz Hilton : On a personal note I was horrified to see my name in the acknowledgements in the Handbook. I have not knowingly or willingly contributed to your process in any way at all. Please take my name off all and any materials associated with this project. Thanks.

I might add that the whole idea of material intended to ‘train’ helpers in how to treat sex workers – or anyone else – is patronising, as though they were not human beings or needed some special psychology or sensitivity. Feh! This contract also illustrates the problem with proposing to do research about people you think are fundamentally different from yourself, often just because they live in a poorer country. This is the idea behind ‘Development’, which I won’t get started on today.  I discussed the contradictions of research in The (Crying) Need for Different Kinds of Research and Alternate Ethics. Of course, when the research subjects are sex workers, attitudes can be even more egregious.

15 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Helping? Another example from the world of sex work

  1. Andrew Hunter

    We had a number of issues with this project at APNSW.
    It came at the same time that UNFPA (who the training is being developed for) were refusing to engage with sex workers over the many problems inherent in the UNAIDS guidance not on sex work- which had been written by UNFPA.

    The fact that UNFPA had decided to ignore nearly 20 years of sound evidence on what worked with sex workers in regards to HIV programming, and instead adopted an approach strongly influenced by abolitionist approaches to sex work, was a major concern- as we knew they would have to approve the contents of any training package- as they were the donor.

    Secondly, I think the whole issue of “training” needs to be looked at. There is an assumption that if someone, or an institution is treating sex workers (or any other group) badly, or is promoting bad policies or programming that what they need is training. This assumes that they hold their current positions because of a lack of knowledge- and that with correct knowledge they will alter their position.

    UNFPA’s position on sex work was not based on a lack of knowledge. It was clearly an ideological position that opposed a rights based approach to sex work in favour of a prevention of entry to sex work approach.

    Whilst individual UN staffers may have benefited from the training- their jobs would still be bound by the abolitionist policies.

    In these sort of circumstances I think struggle and resistance are much more important than training- and more likely to bring results favourable to sex workers. Hopefully with a new UNAIDS director we will finally see some leadership and engagement with sex worker organisations around the UN guidance. If UNAIDS and UNFPA come up with a guidance note that is grounded in the evidence of what works, and that adheres to basic UN Human Rights principles- then training UN staffers will be something that sex work organisations should take the time to engage in.
    Andrew Hunter

  2. Elena Jeffreys

    Thank you to Empower and APNSW for sharing your experiences.

    Scarlet Alliance, the Australian Sex Workers Association, does consultancy and project work in Australia and the region, and we work closely with government, development organisations, and within the HIV sector.

    Our organisation is a peak body of a dozen sex worker organisations, groups and networks in Australia, and we have indivudual membership also. As an incorporated body our audited accounts are approved annually by our sex worker membership, and we are accountable to the sex workers we represent.

    Many sex worker organisations across the globe work this way. Our leadership (including myself) is elected annually. If our membership don’t like our decisions, they can vote us out at the national election.

    In 2007 Scarlet Alliance updated our consultancy rates for Government and Non-Government organisations.

    When approaching Brigitte from the Nossal Institute of Global Health, prior to discussing our involvement in the Guidelines development in detail, we sent her our 2007 consultancy rates. Brigette responded that our consultancy rates were outside of their range and thus they were unable to proceed with discussing Scarlet Alliance involvement in the preparations of the Guidelines.

    Why are sex workers expected to have lower prices and act as charities for large institutions such as UNPFA? Our rates are the same as any similar consultant in Australia, and we are regularly engaged by our long term partners, Australian Government and Non-Government organisations alike.

    Just like any other organisation, we are financially accountable to our membership. I would be doing my organisation and my membership a disservice if I suggested that we should drop our prices for UNFPA. I would be justifiably voted out of my leadership role!!

    The UNFPA has a funding pool – Guidelines for their staff should not based on the intellectual exploitation of sex workers who are not getting paid for expertise.

    If UNFPA is serious about working with sex workers, projects must be approached as an equitable partnership. To date, both the Three Pillars and this latest set of budget bungles indicates their policies are working at cross-purposes. UNFPA have had the rhetoric of working with sex workers, yet their practise is more of exclusion. Their budgets treat us as free advisors, and their ideological approach treats us as victims.

    In conclusion, Scarlet Alliance would like to mirror the thoughts of APNSW – a new UNAIDS Director brings new opportunities for working together in meaningful ways.

    See http://www.scarletalliance.org.au/library/unaidspcbsub_07/file_view to download Scarlet Alliance submission to UNAIDS on the topic of the Three Pillars

  3. swoplv

    Excellent post, and great comments! I am so happy to read that EMPOWER refused to work with them.

    Andrew makes an excellent point concerning the inherent inconsistencies of the UN across its sub-organizations when it comes to sex work. One day, perhaps, someone sensible will get everyone at the UN on the same page. [It was encouraging (and amusing) to have seen (caught? lol) Peter Piot chant, “Sex worker rights are human rights!” on YouTube:

    And it is great to know that Scarlett Alliance is charging decent fees for consulting (thanks for posting, Elena!), but sad to see that an enormous, over-funded organization like UNFPA were not willing to pay them. And AU$800 for EMPOWER??? How long would this project have lasted? Yegads. Talk about taking advantage! When will they realize that in our work, especially, time is money??

    But I remain optimistic that we will increasingly be taken more seriously, especially as both APNSW and EMPOWER have recently received international awards and acclaim for their excellent work. You can only ignore such a mountain of evidence for so long. 🙂

  4. Stella

    Good posting, Laura. Do only Liz Hilton and Andrew Hunter speak for sex workers or can sex workers speak for themselves? I am concerned that there may be a broad spectrum of opinion on this issue in the sex worker community inside and outside of Thailand but we only hear from these two. Is it possible that they are filtering opinion?

  5. laura agustin Post author

    The original letter refusing to participate was translated by Liz from a text agreed upon by the group. The need to write in English skews what gets out to international lists. That said, I’ll ask Andrew and Liz if they want to comment.

    Best, Laura

  6. Andrew Hunter

    The post from Stella first assumes I’m not or wasn’t a sex worker- big assumption to make……The APNSW’s position on the UNAIDS’s guidance note was taken after consultation with sex workers in organised groups across Asia and around the world. Of course no one can speak for all sex workers- but we do our best to consult with the organisations who are our members to come up with policy positions and push for them.
    The idea put here from Stella is the same argument used by UNAIDS, UNFPA and the anti-trafficking movement to push their position that the majority of sex workers would rather be rehabilitated than have proper health and rights programs- they accuse the whole sex workers movement of not representing the “real sex workers.”

  7. empower

    Thanks Stella. Are you Stella the Canadian sex worker org or Stella someone else? …not so important…but just curious. The question of filtering or gate keeping is a good question that should always be asked. At the same time its polite and respectful to find a way to acknowledge the strengths of the sex workers you are concerned about. For Empower the people who monitor and question this most regularly and efficiently are us, the sex worker leaders and sex worker members of Empower. For 25 years we have been recognized as one of the strongest sex worker organizations in the world and this would not have been possible if we were working through filters and foreign mouthpieces. Like us or not… we are Empower and we are the largest representative of women doing sex work in Thailand….its good of you to question the process but rest assured the its us…we do find it a bit insulting when people try to imagine we are not here, or that we are being co-opted or manipulated by others. We understand the politics as well as any white person. Have you never tried a small hot Thai chilli …. much sharper than an old Australian potato! The other thing we want people to consider is that Empower is a Thai organization. Naturally most of our important advocacy takes place nationally. Others do not see the daily ongoing work of Empower. Of course at international level we operate in English but we know many of you don’t understand Thai or our kind of English so well (ha ha ha) therefore Liz and others translate for us. This is a tiny part of our work so don’t let it fool you…what we say and do in English is just the tip of the iceberg. Please look at our website Thai and English!
    Still thanks for worrying about us…but its not necessary!
    Sweet Smart Strong Sexy

  8. Pingback: Thailand: Letter from Empower to UNFPA « The Struggle for the City

  9. js

    very important article. These issues are relevant outside this arena. Its relevant for any poor community. NGOs, government agencies and other organisations always try to speak FOR poor people. Poor people should be allowed to speak for themselves.


  10. Pingback: peripheries » Blog Archive » MSM in Cambodia: A personal stake?

  11. Gulnara

    Exactly what I thought. And more: Big donors like GFATM, with their demand ‘to cover’ sex workers or others ‘by services’, use the same ‘model of help’, implicitly. There is no place for people in their local programs. That’s why they are not able to demonstrate adequate results in countries. It is obvious if you look at the diagram with three curves: one for funds available in country, one for HIV prevalence, and last one for mortality, year by year. From small and poor countries like Kyrgyzstan the GF looks like Global Fiction. Another example is AFEW supported by Dutch (!) government. So, we can add: help = rescue = rehabilitation = ‘services providing’ in GF etc. understanding.

  12. Helena Torre

    There is a strong belief here in representative democracy. If voting or auditing changed anything or made financial dealings Ok it would be stopped. For me it is funny to see Australia faith in that process. Maybe these things work in Australia.

    Stella even does not support recognised leadership even where sex workers rights issue is agreed. What ‘broad spectrum’ of opinion is she talking about ? Poor sex workers who want to be rescued ? Ones who support UNFPA? Maybe Stella is really a UN spy.

  13. Anna-Louise Crago

    I am not sure who the “Stella” who posted is. I am Anna-Louise Crago, coordinator of outreach and clinical services at Stella, the community organization by and for sex workers in Montreal (www.chezstella.org).
    We have been partners and have great respect for the work of Empower and APNSW over many years. They have achieved tremendous things under sex worker leadership and as part of sex worker mass movements. As such, they should be inspirations not only to other sex workers but to any one in the health and human rights fields. Like both those organizations (and their various members, including Liz Hilton and Andrew Hunter), we believe the leadership of sex worker groups and other evidence-based programming are key to fighting HIV.

  14. Robbie

    Good night, Happy April Fool’s Day!!

    For the first time in many years, a an old man traveled from his rural town to the city to attend a movie. After buying his ticket, he stopped to purchase some popcorn.
    Handing the attendant $1.50, he couldn’t help but comment, “The last time I came to the movies, popcorn was only 15 cents.”
    “Well, sir,” the attendant replied with a grin, “You’re really going to enjoy yourself. We have sound now”

    Happy April Fool’s Day!


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.