Sex workers rights are human rights

There are extremely heterogeneous models for considering sex work at a legislative level around the world, but a common trait in many countries is the social stigma that accompanies those who decide to take up this profession.

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]. 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 On the other hand, considering anyone who engages in sex work as a victim sometimes seems more a consequence of an outdated moralistic legacy than a real concern; as if to say that no one (least of all a woman) could ever voluntarily decide to sell their body for a living.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[2]).

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[3]. Furthermore, some states (such as Sweden and France, for example[4]) 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[5], if forced into hiding, sex workers are more precarious and weaker: therefore more easily subject to exploitation.[6]

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[7].

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[8]. 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[9].

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[10], 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

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  • L'Autore

    Simona Sora

    Laurea triennale in Lettere Moderne ad indirizzo storico, laurea magistrale in Antropologia Culturale ed Etnologia. Nel 2014 ha fatto volontariato in un pueblo delle Ande peruviane perché voleva sapere cosa si prova ad essere straniera; nel 2018 ha fatto ritorno sulla stessa catena montuosa, seppur in diversi confini nazionali, per scrivere una tesi sul rapporto tra volontari italiani e campesinos, o forse solo per fare di nuovo ricerca su sé stessa.

    Nella vita ha fatto la receptionist di un ostello in Portogallo, la cameriera a Brescia, la promoter sul lago di Garda, la commessa a Milano, tenendo sempre le orecchie e gli occhi ben aperti su tutto quello che le capitava intorno.

    Da grande vorrebbe continuare ad ascoltare le storie delle persone, per fare esperienza del mondo attraverso i loro occhi; vorrebbe prendere un’altra laurea cambiando completamente ambito o forse discostandosi solo di un po’, perché studiare le piace tanto e le piace anche spaziare tra le conoscenze, e vorrebbe anche scrivere.

    Si sente sempre un essere umano in costruzione.

    In Mondo Internazionale è autrice di pezzi per il progetto TrattaMI Bene e revisore di bozze.

    Bachelor’s Degree in Modern Literature with a major in history, Master Degree in Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology. In 2014 she volunteered in a pueblo in the Peruvian Andes, because she wanted to understand what it is like to be a stranger; in 2018 she returned to the same mountain chain, although in different national borders, in order to write her thesis about the relationship between Italian volunteers and Campesinos, or maybe just to research herself again.

    She worked as a receptionist in a hostel in Portugal, as a waitress in Brescia, as a promoter on Garda lake and as a shopping assistant in Milan, and she have always kept her hears and eyes opened to see all the things around her.

    When she will grow up, she would like to keep listening about people’s stories, to experience the world through their eyes; she would like to pursuit a new degree in something completely new, or maybe in something just a little different from her degrees. She loves studying and learning different subjects too. She would also like writing.

    She always feels herself like a constantly evolving human being. In “Mondo Internazionale” she writes articles about DirittiUmani and she proofreads articles.


From the World Sections Culture Human Rights Society


DirittiUmani Sexwork humanrights Legge Leggemerlin Ong attivismo pandemia Lockdown

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