Why the Asian American Movement has a responsibility to support our sisters of all genders in the Global Sex Worker Rights Movement in Asia, who are harmed by U.S. policies and NGOs, as well as the immigrant sex workers inside our own communities.
Why the Asian American Movement
has a responsibility to support our
sisters in the Global Sex Worker
Rights Movement in Asia, who are
harmed by U.S. policies and NGOs, as
well as the immigrant sex workers
inside our own communities.
Why should Asian
1. Because our moral panic in North
America is killing sex workers in Asia,
increasing levels of exploitation and
violence in the name of “rescue,”
while enriching our imperialist NGOs,
and funding our military, police, and
immigration border control
agencies, at the expense of Asian
and migrant sex worker lives.
2. Because in the U.S. and Canada,
the police target and raid Asian
workers and Asian communities in
the name of fighting trafficking, but
this more often results in arrests and
deportations than providing actual
help. This is a form of racially
discriminatory state violence.
3. Because the stereotype of the
helpless Asian immigrant sex slave is
largely untrue. Asian and migrant
sex workers are daring and
entrepreneurial people in our
communities. We are all negatively
impacted by false stereotypes of our
racial and sexual victimhood.
“We want bread, but we want roses too.”
1. Global sex worker movement as a labor rights struggle across borders.
Sex work as gendered care work in the invisibilized informal economy.
2. Migrant sex work is NOT the same as human trafficking.
3. Race / class / gender discriminatory policing, state violence, impunity,
extortion, social exclusion, and human rights abuses against sex workers,
globally and throughout history: it’s time to change this NOW!
4. Criminalization and stigma increase violence against the most marginalized
people in the sex trades (10-15% of sex trade street-based people of color,
receiving 92% of criminal sentences). Prohibition empowers pimps and
incentivizes organized crime, giving more bargaining power to customers and
discretionary power to the police, while disempowering workers, and making
survival strategies more hazardous for people in the most vulnerable sectors of
the sex trade. Instead of focusing on enforcing existing laws against kidnapping,
assault, and labor exploitation, the criminalization of sex work makes it
impossible to trust the police or get justice for specific acts of violence.
5. The U.S. Anti-trafficking Movement currently serves the state agenda of
carceral politics and militarization: Post-9/11 legislation with hidden clauses
used to tighten border controls, finance militarized policing, and disguise
state violence against people of color under false “moral” rhetoric of
rescuing femininity-as-victimhood (while reinforcing heteronormative,
patriarchal sexual mores, and racist / xenophobic stereotypes.) The
movement should focus instead on: global economic inequality and border /
trade injustice, forced labor across industries, predatory migration policies and
labor recruitment practices, and social services / jobs for homeless youth.
6. “Rescue Industry” NGOs appropriate, silence, and take away funding from
grassroots movements in the Global South, while profiting from increased
state and societal violence against sex workers, and deliberately deceiving
the public in the mainstream media of the Global North. This is a repetition
of history: anti-immigrant moral panic of “White Slavery” during
Progressive Era, lead to the Chinese Exclusion Act and creation of FBI.
7. Decriminalization does not increase human trafficking; it increases
migrant sex work. “End Demand” through partial criminalization does
not work. Labor rights and community organizing achieves desired human
rights outcomes more effectively than policing and immigration control.
Beyond dichotomies of
coercion vs. “choice” –
global trade justice, &
migrant labor rights.
Part 1. “Save Us From Our Saviours!”
RESCUING SEX WORKERS
BY LOCKING US UP IN
Collateral Damage of Militarized
Humanitarianism by Western NGOs in
Thailand, Cambodia, and India
“Hit and Run”
“In reality, migrant sex workers are being held against their will, in
detention in police cells or women’s shelters, whilst awaiting the court
hearings for weeks and months. Migrant sex workers have been
detained as witnesses for periods up to a year, due to delays in the
court hearings. This amounts to arbitrary detention. The police do not
provide women with their legal and basic human rights and
“Hit and Run”
– Report by Empower,
grassroots org of Thai Sex
Workers since 1984, reaching
20,000 sex workers on a
regular basis, leading fight to
implement labor laws that
exploitation in sex trades
during 1990s. Empower has
been suppressed by Western
anti-trafficking NGOs since
Sweatshop Suicides & Cambodian peer health outreach
Cambodian sex workers: forced into sweatshops to
“reintegrate” them and rescue them from trafficking. Garment
factory workers organizing with sex workers against
exploitation in the garment and sex trades. Rescue raids are
violent, degrading, and violate human rights. Pushing sex work
underground in Cambodia has led to increase in HIV / AIDS -
Cambodia sex worker peer health outreach NPR radio interview.
1. Cambodian police conduct violent raid
for anti-trafficking, resulting in sex
workers forced into sweatshop labor –
2. Rise in HIV after foreign
antitrafficking movement pushed sex
work further underground. Sex worker
peer health organizing in Cambodia. -
“No More TIPs Please”
“A Grade 3 means the USA can stop or reduce aid and trade with
Thailand e.g. stop buying from the Thai seafood industry who exports
30% of their products. We have not heard of any strategy or plan to
assist workers who lose their livelihoods from such actions….
In practice for the past 13 years enforcement of anti-trafficking laws
has been limited to conducting raids and apprehending migrant
workers in seafood, factories, and entertainment places….
America prides itself on being the leader of human rights yet it just
reports the same thing over and over every year for 13 years. Labor
standards and quality of life for migrant workers has not been
improved by American anti-trafficking policy. Actually we see the
opposite in that under Thai labor law workers, skilled or unskilled, can
come together to address issues of unfair wages, dangerous work
practices and working conditions. The anti-trafficking law is an
obstacle to this process as migrant workers who complain face the
threat of “rescue and deportation” as trafficking victims.
The budget spent on anti-trafficking is substantial to say the
least…yet all this money has not resulted in a better human rights or
labor conditions for working people. Life and travel has become
harder, more dangerous, and more expensive.”
“No More TIPs Please”
The International Labor
Office for Asia and the
“TIP report harms, not
helps, sex workers”
“The TIP Process and Anti-Trafficking Law Harms Poor People”
“We have now reached a
point in Thai history where
there are more women in
the Thai sex industry who
are being abused by
than there are women being
exploited by traffickers.”
- Empower, Thailand
VAMP - Sex worker peer health project in India: http://saveusfromsaviours.net/
Sex workers trained as paralegals in South Africa: http://www.sweat.org.za/
Sex workers that work with / employ the disabled in Australia: http://www.touchingbase.org/
65,000 member strong sex worker union in India: http://durbar.org/
Effective Anti-Trafficking by DMSC:
65,000 Member Sex Worker Union in India
Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee
- Labor rights: set worker hours and wages, number of clients per day, workplace safety and
health regulations, childcare facilities and schooling for children.
- Effectively combat STI’s. Provide help and retraining for exiting workers. Prevent underage
workers and forced labor from being in the market.
Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Bank in Kolkata:
- Largest sex worker-run financial institution in Asia, with membership of over 17,082 sex
workers and annual turnover of $2.7 million USD
- Microfinance model – financial institution with one of the best recovery rates in all of West
- Credit union offering loans to sex workers, financial advice and training for sex workers,
and help with starting new businesses.
- Educational services and employment plans: vocational training, employment networks for
retired sex workers in different fields.
- Savings and retirement programs for sex workers holding each other accountable to
successful industry exiting plans.
- Success of Usha led way for more than a dozen major financial institutions (banks,
insurance companies, etc.) offering support to sex workers. Member of Federal National
World Health Organization recommends decriminalization: http://www.who.int/gender/documents/sexworkers.pdf
UN Woman recommends decriminalization: LONG LINK – see packet
UN Development Programme & UNAIDS recommends decrim in Asia and the Pacific: LONG LINK – see packet
UN Global Commission on HIV and the Law: http://www.hivlawcommission.org/resources/report/Executive-Summary-GCHL-EN.pdf
Amnesty International leaked document: http://tasmaniantimes.com/images/uploads/Circular_18_Draft_Policy_on_Sex_Work_final.pdf
See attached pdf for all documents below:
Human Rights Watch
China: arbitrary detention for up to two years without trial, physical abuse and killing
of sex workers by police, rampant police extortion/bribery and politician corruption.
Cambodia: police arbitrarily arrest, detain,
beat, rape, and kill sex workers with impunity.
Link: “Running from the Rescuers” by Gretchen Soderlund, PhD
Link: “Special Report On Money and Lies in Anti-Human
Trafficking NGO’s” - TruthOut.org LINK HERE.
Part 2. White Lies, Yellow Peril
History repeats: “The
Angel of Chinatown” (Liar),
the Chinese Exclusion Act,
the creation of the FBI, and
the wire-tapping “Hero
Corps” of the JVTA 2015
• Racial targeting in
• Is it fair to give the police
this much discretionary
Red Umbrella Project: “Criminal, Victim, or Worker?” (2014)
Savior with Handcuffs?
“White Slave Trade”:
The First Moral Panic
(and its collateral damage)
• Rose Livingston, “Angel of
Chinatown” – self-styled savior, the
Somaly Mam of the Progressive Era,
who lied about her enslavement in
Chinatown, and how she saved
“hundreds of women” from terrible
Chinese men. Eager suffragettes gave
her a national touring platform, and
nobody listened when Chinatown
locals protested that they’ve never
heard of her.
• Legislation for xenophobia: Page
Act of 1875, Chinese Exclusion
Act of 1882 – The first immigration
law barring a specific ethnic group
from entering the country, led to the
exclusion of Chinese from the U.S. for
almost a century.
• Mann Act of 1910, FBI – Also led to
the creation of the first Federal
criminal investigation agency.
• It took many years for investigative
journalists to expose all of the lies.
(READ: academic article HERE.) Only
now, in retrospect, do we call it a
Mary Ting Yi Lui, “Saving
Young Girls from Chinatown:
white slavery and woman
suffrage, 1910-1920.” (2009)
Mary Lui is a professor of
history at Yale University who
focuses on Chinatown and
Asian American history.
Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act
(JVTA) of 2015
Passed through U.S. Senate on April 22, 2015. Now in House of Rep.
Funding for law enforcement. Legitimizing the militarization of police:
Recruiting wounded and retired veterans into special “Hero Corps” to rescue child
trafficking victims [Sec. 302].
Priority funding for expanding law enforcement units, paying police salaries and
training, and creating new units of judicial prosecutors,
Funding wiretapping initiatives [Sec. 203] and a Cyber Crimes Center [Sec. 302]
specializing in computer forensics and internet surveillance technologies to be
used by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in collaboration with
the Department of Defense, for “investigative capacity building” and “data
Emphasis on child pornography. The Child Exploitation Investigations Unit
funds law enforcement initiatives for cyber-surveillance.
First They Came for the…I Did Not
Speak Out – Because I was Not a…
Morality language on sexuality and the global increase of state surveillance
UK laws panning pornography coincide with increased government surveillance of
the private lives of its citizens over webcam (Yahoo).
Civil liberties and privacy – sex workers and migrants as first wave.
Rights not rescue: global justice framework.
Words of migrant sex worker in Butterfly, Toronto:
“Without Asian workers, Europe and North America would not have reached its
level of development. We neither steal nor rob, so don’t criminalize us for working
now in your country. Ask the police to stop targeting our businesses.”
Who does the global north owe its wealth and development to? Analysis also applies to
indigenous people and migrants from non-Asian countries.
Rights Not Rescue: A Global Justice
Framework for Sex Worker Rights
“Since all forms of migration are potentially exploitative, strengthening labor
rights and labor organizations of all migrants – including sex workers’
organizations – is an antitrafficking and a human rights strategy.
The challenge is to ensure that trafficking is not marginalized from such forms
of empowerment and relegated to a humanitarian ghetto, and that
undocumented migrants are not legally or socially isolated from state
protection and self-defense.
Advocacy groups may be needed to bridge the gap on an interim basis, but
their goal should be to establish a legal framework and social capital for self-
representation by migrant workers in sending and receiving states.”
- Alison Brysk
Rethinking borders, citizenship in a globalized world, the role of
states, markets, and human rights - for economic justice.
Part 3. Migrant
Sex Workers Project
WE ARE GETTING
Our grassroots movement is for
global trade justice, migrant
labor rights across borders,
people over profits and police,
bodily self-determination and
freedom from violence, for
people of all classes, races,
legal statuses, abilities, genders
and sexual orientations.
Yellow Fever? Objectification?
Binary fears of Asian women’s sexual power /
submissiveness = both exoticization and silencing.
How would the empowerment of Asian sex
worker voices allow for more authentic and
dignified expression? Free from stigma / mystique?
Not “objectification” but performance to racial
ideals that are constantly negotiated in power
Mariko Passion, East Asian Sex Workers Roundtable: LINK.
Support Amnesty International
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF)
along with several other Asian human rights organizations have
signed on to letters to support Amnesty International’s internal
policy decision in defense of the human rights of sex workers.
Here is SANGRAM’s (India) letter to AI:
Here is EMPOWER’s (Thailand) letter to AI:
Here is NSWP’s (Global Network) petition: CHANGE.org
Please convince your organization to sign on to this letter: