March 3rd is International Sex Workers' Rights Day. This day, together with the International Day to End of Violence against Sex Workers, which falls on December 17th, was introduced to draw attention to the problems that people working at any level of the sex industry all too often face due to stigma and lack of social recognition, as well as stringent legislation in different countries.
People working in this field are in fact almost always discriminated against by the community and by legislation: the former is all too often only able to consider them as victims of exploitation, as if engaging in sex work could in no way be the result of a free choice, and therefore denies the self-determination of those who voluntarily choose to carry out sex work. This is not to say, of course, that the exploitation of prostitution does not exist: the victims of trafficking are many. In 2019, in our country alone, the NGOs in charge, with the support of the government, assisted 1,877 victims of human trafficking, and of all the new victims assisted by the NGOs, 50 per cent were people who were subjected to some form of sexual exploitation. 1] If we then consider the underground world made up of all those people who are not helped because they remain invisible to the state and to the associations, the numbers become even higher. On the other hand, considering anyone who engages in sex work as a victim sometimes seems more a consequence of an outdated moralistic legacy than a real concern; as if to say that no one (least of all a woman) could ever voluntarily decide to sell their body for a living.
This desire to ignore at all costs the fact that those who engage in sex work also include people who are aware and free (and yet there are various professional associations committed to the recognition of rights and to providing solidarity to those who are victims of exploitation) is often accompanied by a monolithic and unshakable idea of who a prostitute is (because, obviously, we are always talking about women, as if men did not sell their bodies): a woman of the underworld, devoid of any morals, quite different from someone who is a woman to be married. As a consequence, the social stigma that accompanies those who engage in sex work widens to include also the eventual partner, who at best is seen as someone unaware of the profession of the person next to him or her, and at worst can be accused of aiding and abetting prostitution, risking criminal conviction in some countries (such as Italy).
In fact, legislation does not often favour those who decide to engage in sex work either, even though there are extremely heterogeneous models for dealing with the issue of prostitution. In most parts of the world, prostitution is considered a crime with sentences up to and including the death penalty, while other countries have decided to decriminalise sex work completely, following the guidelines of Amnesty International, which in 2015 declared itself in favour of complete decriminalisation. Furthermore, some states (such as Sweden and France, for example) have decided not to penalise sex workers but to criminalise clients, thus severely penalising those who work, who are forced to go underground to protect the people who enable them to support themselves. It is well known that illegality never goes hand in hand with security.
As denounced by the Italian collective Ombre Rosse, if forced into hiding, sex workers are more precarious and weaker: therefore more easily subject to exploitation.
As already mentioned in part, not even our country criminalises prostitution per se; on the other hand, however, the law against those who favour or exploit it is rather stringent, risking going so far as to include anyone who shares in the earnings from sex work (such as a partner) or facilitates the activity in any way: even then, for example, merely accompanying the sex worker to the workplace is a crime.
Although prostitution is not criminalised, it is not even officially recognised as a profession in our country: this pushes sex workers into a condition of liminality before the state. The lack of recognition of an existing reality makes it more difficult to control it, as well as less collaboration with the police, health services and non-governmental organisations on the part of sex workers. This often means facilitating violence and exploitation by third parties.
While the condition of sex workers is often a problem, the situation has worsened dramatically in this period of serious crisis due to the pandemic that the world is going through.
Periods of lockdown and the need to protect their health have pushed many sex workers beyond the poverty line; unable to work and not even professionally recognised, they have found themselves without earnings and benefits. Many organisations and collectives are taking action to draw attention to this problem, which is why the anniversary of March 3rd was so important.
As often happens, therefore, it is a question of recognising the complexity of the world and of social phenomena: the exploitation of people for prostitution exists and is widespread, and it is right that anyone forced into prostitution against their will should be protected and saved. But sex work is not limited to this; as is always the case, human stories are full of nuances. Of course, it is impossible to keep track of every single one of them: there are as many as there are people. On the other hand, a society, and consequently a legislation, that cannot accept the existence of any difference does nothing but flatten a reality with a thousand faces into a two-dimensional drawing incapable of describing the world around us.
Translated by Francesca Cioffi
Original version by Simona Sora