Tag Archives: Rachel Safeek

Gender-based violence, sexual assault, and HIV

10 Mar

National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day Image from UNDP

National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day
Image from UNDP

Today (March 10) is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. This day is especially important to me, as a racial minority who works with HIV prevention and research. This day capitalizes on the growing need to focus attention toward newly emerging populations that are often overlooked in HIV discourse and rhetoric, particularly racial/ethnic minorities, and especially women of color.

Currently, the highest rise in HIV incidence rates are being observed among heterosexual Black women, comprising a three-way shift in race, gender, and sexual orientation from the group initially observed with having the highest HIV incidence rates in the early 1980’s: White homosexual men. Overall, Black and Latina women are disproportionately affected by HIV when compared to women of other races, highlighting a principal disparity in women’s health.

HIV is often viewed by the general public as its own isolated issue, directly linked to “promiscuity” or needle-use. In addition to contributing to unwarranted stigma surround HIV, these labels dismiss and discount other important factors that affect HIV transmission. Gender-based domestic violence and economic vulnerability (lack of financial means) are two factors that are often neglected in HIV discussions, yet they are integral players in the transmission of HIV, particularly among women of color.

Recently, in an effort to raise awareness around these issues, I published a composition of tweets linking gender-based domestic violence and economic vulnerability to rape/sexual assault and the predisposition to HIV.

Violence limits a woman’s ability to demand condom use & establishes and unfair power dynamic

On the flip side, even if a woman is not physically coerced into unprotected sex, she may forgo condom use with her partner or neglect to mention it out of fear that her partner will become violent with her.

Economic vulnerability also predisposes women, especially women of color, to HIV transmission. Financial dependence on a partner creates an imbalance in power dynamics that limits a woman’s ability to make decisions regarding condom use. A woman who is financially-dependent on her partner may feel pressured to meet the needs of her partner or “repay” her partner with sex, oftentimes unprotected, if it suits her partner’s needs.

 
There are many factors that predispose someone to HIV. Gender, violence, and one’s financial situation are three key players in this equation that we should not discount. Today, on National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, I hope to raise awareness of these issues among the general public. As a healthcare worker and aspiring physician, I recognize that the application of medicine is not limited to diagnosis and treatment. I believe that it is important to have an understanding of the socio-economic factors that predispose populations to poor health. These factors, the “social determinants of health“, should be acknowledged and addressed first, as ultimately, prevention of the onset of disease is the most effective way to eradicate it.

–Rachel Safeek

Email me at rachel.safeek@duke.edu
Tweet at me: @RachSafeek

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Avoiding the White Savior Industrial Complex

26 Feb

The premise of the “White Savior Complex” is derived from the scenario in which individuals who exercise certain privileges–race, class, education, etc.–invade the spaces of certain groups or communities that are culturally different from their own with the intention of uplifting or “saving” members belonging to the groups they are invading. (“White” is really semantics to describe “saviors” from high-income/developed communities).

Those with privilege often wrongly deem the communities they approach as “oppressed”, or otherwise lacking access to certain rights or liberties , and in desperate “need” of help. From desiring to “rescue” sex workers to wanting to “liberate” oppressed women in the Middle-East, the White Savior Complex is a flawed mentality, and the intrusion of those with privilege into perceived “oppressed” or “disempowered” communities is often coupled with a desire for self-promotion that is justified with misguided altruism and harmful ally-ship.

Savior complexes, while perhaps partially fueled by a desire to do good in society, are callous displays of privilege that reinforce social hierarchies. “Saving” implies that certain communities are above others, and only groups with access to certain privileges embody the efficacy to empower those who are labeled disadvantaged or in “need” of help. Broadcasting the perceived struggles of another group in a showcase of pictures from mission trips and research projects can be both insensitive and exploitive to many communities.  “Look at these oppressed and impoverished brown/black women and children from the global south that I helped save”.

Saviorship of those who voluntarily enter the sex industry is a current topic of public spectacle that has generated a community-wide response. The hashtag #NotYourRescueProject was started by twitter activists to express discontent over sex work-related savior mentalities and reject the jarring notion that all sex workers are unhappy in their profession and do not wish to participate.

In 2012, Teju Cole,  a writer for the Atlantic, published a series of tweets on the White Savior Industrial Complex 

Yesterday, I published a series of my own tweets on “Being a Good Ally & Avoiding the White Savior Complex” . I’ve embedded the full composition of tweets into my post below:

You can absolutely have the best intentions and still hurt groups that you wish to advocate on behalf of. How CAN you be a good ally to the groups you are advocating on behalf of?

Your mentality matters. The premise of all savior complexes lie in self-promotion or seeking public approval and praise rather than true social justice advocacy.

Be mindful of the fact that if you are in a position where you feel like you have the ability to “save” or “empower” oppressed/minority/disempowered groups, you are demonstrating your position of privilege and, in fact, reinforcing social hierarchies.

One great way to know how you can help is by listening and asking groups you are allied with how they would like for you to become involved. By listening and taking into account the words of others, you demonstrate a genuine interest, and you will likely be called upon when your support is needed.

Email me: rachel.safeek@duke.edu

Twitter: @RachSafeek

 

Finding a Role for Women of Color in Anti-Rape Movements

10 Feb

 

The first SlutWalk in Toronto, ON, April 3, 2011 Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Toronto-Slutwalk.jpg

The first SlutWalk in Toronto, ON, April 3, 2011
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Toronto-Slutwalk.jpg


I wanted to weigh in on a topic that I’ve been following on twitter lately, and I’ve been getting many requests from peers about my opinion on this topic: the idea of a community SlutWalk. For those who are unfamiliar with the term SlutWalk, the basic premise is that women and feminist allies can gather in solidarity and parade the streets of their local communities wearing whatever choice of garb desired, however skimpy or “scandalous”. The message that is being conveyed is a powerful one: As women, our choice of clothing, or lack thereof, is not a license for intercourse. Moreover, by embracing flaunting the word “slut” on picket signs, it is perceived that feminists are taking ownership over the word, eliminating use of the term as one of verbal assault against women.

As a self-identifying feminist and a resolute believer in equality, I support the underlying message of this anti-rape movement. However, as a woman a color, I acknowledge that feminism and one’s expression of liberation via sexuality becomes more complex when the intersection of gender and race is considered, and, as feminists, we must remain conscientious of the interplay between various levels of oppression: race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

Recently, a friend of mine raised the topic of women of color participating in slutwalks on facebook. Here was my response:

As women of color, we are often hypersexualized for our skin color and stereotyped before our credentials are discussed. Whether through being assigned playful (read: dismissive) nicknames…”my Turkish delight” or “my spicy Latina”, being asked where we are from or  what we are mixed with, or labeled an “exotic beauty” for our “sexy accents” or our curves, we are readily branded, dismissed, and relegated to sexual objects. For many of us, it’s our skin color and our body type that make us subject to sexualization and objectification, not necessarily the clothes we wear (as the SlutWalk would suggest).

Matter-of-factly, I believe that the idea of a slutwalk is proposed and executed from a position of power and privilege that is not available to women of color. As a woman of color, I do not feel safe calling myself a slut (even within a group setting of “solidarity” with other women), in the same way that I don’t feel like I can participate in the “casual Friday” look at work without compromising some of my credibility or professionalism, as a non-white person. Whereas white women are presumed to be born innocent, WOC are hypersexualized first, so there is already stigmatization involved before we can even discuss what clothing we wear….it’s an added level of oppression that the traditional slutwalk does not address.

Furthermore, I think it’s important to take into account that rape is most often not about the sex, but rather, exerting control over another person. Historically, WOC–minorities, in general– have been consistently relegated to inferior statuses. Rape has also been historically used to oppress minorities during colonialization and during the slave trade between masters and their “property”, which also calls attention to a greater need to focus on the issues of WOC when discussing sexual assault and gender-based violence.

Many of my peers, especially fellow Duke grads, are confused when I don’t respond enthusiastically to this topic, since I am often considered sex-positive for my work with HIV prevention and sex worker advocacy, but I DO think it is especially difficult for WOC to subscribe to a sex-positive and liberal culture at times. It’s not impossible for us (I certainly identify with this culture, indeed), but certain platforms, ie. slutwalks, while radical and forward thinking, can also create drawbacks for minorities. Representation of minorities in this walk is critical, and the sexualization associated with being a woman of color–beyond clothing–should be addressed.

-Not your princess Jasmine

email me at rachel.safeek@duke.edu
tweet me @RachSafeek

#FightStigma Campaign

25 Jan


#FightStigma is an anti-stigma campaign that was launched by the Duke University group, Know Your Status, to encourage HIV testing and combat stigma around HIV.

Due to an expressed interest in the #FightStigma t-shirts from the Twitter community, we are working on having more t-shirts made for anyone who is interested in participating in the campaign. Follow the #FightStigma campaign on Twitter for more information about HIV testing, HIV facts, and updates on #FigthStigma t-shirts.

FightStigma Campaign

Rachel Safeek and Jasmine Cross, KYS Co-Directors "Fight Stigma" image

Rachel Safeek and Jasmine Cross, 2012-2013 KYS Co-Directors “Fight Stigma” image

Free HIV Testing at Duke every Monday!

Free HIV Testing at Duke every Monday!

Rachel and Victoria of #FightStigma Campaign

Rachel and Victoria of #FightStigma Campaign

Jasmine and Rachel, KYS Co-Directors 2012-2013

Jasmine and Rachel, KYS Co-Directors 2012-2013

 

Daniel and Li of the #FightStigma Campaign, 2013-2014 Co-Directors of Know Your Status

Daniel and Li of the #FightStigma Campaign, 2013-2014 Co-Directors of Know Your Status

"Fight Stigma" Campaign

“Fight Stigma” Campaign

#FightStigma would like to thank Shayan Asadi for his amazing photography skills

 

Human Rights Activism: End of the Year Reflection

25 Dec


Image

#FightStigma is a campaign that was started by students at Duke University involved with Know Your Status, an HIV testing and education group dedicated to providing free HIV testing to individuals on academic campuses in Durham, NC

@RachSafeekFollowing the incident with Justine Sacco, we should use #HasJustineLandedYet as an opportunity to educate about #HIV/ #AIDS & prevent future insensitivity https://bluedevilbanter.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/a-little-lesson-in-hiv-101/ …

This past week, former PR executive, Justine Sacco, was fired after posting a tweet connecting HIV transmission to race in South Africa. The tweet, which was posted by Sacco to her twitter while waiting to board a twelve hour flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa, was deemed insensitive and racist by twitter audiences, prompting an uproar among HIV/AIDS and human rights activists in the Twitter community. Airborne and without internet access, Sacco remained unaware of the frenzy that was occurring on social media sites in response to her tweet. The most notable response included the generation of the hashtag “#HasJustineLandedYet” to host discussion around the infamous post. Upon her arrival in Cape Town, a newly-unemployed Sacco was greeted by a crowd of journalists and angry activists demanding an explanation.

Whether a poorly executed joke or a genuinely crude display of carelessness, the callous nature of Sacco’s tweet comes as a disappointment to many. Such frivolity from a PR exec, REALLY? At least one thing of which we can all remain assured is society’s willingness to address overt instances of social injustice. Hence, the thousands of Twitter viewers who were quick to denounce Sacco’s behavior, albeit via 140 characters or less.

Another recent human rights victory related to health and HIV prevention comes in a different form: The Ruling of Canada’s Supreme Court to Strike Down Anti-Prostitution Laws. Having worked with female sex worker populations in the past, the issue of decriminalization and regulation of sex work is one that I am particularly invested in. This past week, Canada’s highest court passed a ruling that condemned the nation’s anti-prostitution laws, arguing that such laws endanger individuals within the profession, ignoring the health-related risks of the trade.

Finally, another recent personal victory comes from my own work with HIV and human rights-related causes on World AIDS Day 2013. December 1 (World AIDS Day) always marks an important day for anyone committed to work with HIV.

Last year, while working with Know Your Status, an HIV testing organization run by Duke University students, I spearheaded an HIV testing and launched a photo campaign entitled #FightStigma”, along with the amazing photographer and my former classmate, Shayan Asadi. (More pictures here.)  Every year, I take some time to reflect on the events from World AIDS Day. Last year’s reflection was actually a Facebook post turned very short blog posting:

“Today is World AIDS Day! Exactly one year ago, I spent this day testing for HIV and educating about the disease with female sex workers in Salvador, Brasil. It was the most meaningful experience I had until that time, and I never thought I could make a difference in the same way. One year later with Know Your Status, we (a group of 20+ Duke students) have managed to test hundreds of students and Durham residents over the course of one semester…It makes me so incredibly proud and inspired to see so many college students invested in a cause, whether political advocacy or human rights activism, I am so honored to be a part of a college campus with such progressive enthusiasm.”

Fight Stigma is a campaign that was started by students at Duke University involved with Know Your Status, a volunteer group dedicated to providing free HIV testing to students in Durham, NC

Fight Stigma is a campaign that was started by students at Duke University involved with Know Your Status, a volunteer group dedicated to providing free HIV testing to students in Durham, NC

One year later, I’m still continuing my work with HIV prevention as an HIV Education Specialist, researcher, and, of course, blogger. I spent the majority of the first week of December (unofficially deemed “HIV /AIDS Awareness Week”) engaging in various outreach events throughout my community, including helping to launch an HIV testing marathon event, entitled “#LoveSafely” and a panel discussion about “Caring for HIV/AIDS Patients in the United States”.  Check out the details below:

HIV/AIDS Awareness Week

HIV/AIDS Awareness Week

HIV Testing Marathon

HIV Testing Marathon

We tested over 65 people in just a few short hours, and I did a few of those tests in Spanish. Over the course of the week, over 100 tests were administered. The successes of these events, coupled with the very fulfilling research/outreach I do leading up to December truly make this season the most wonderful time of the year.

Email me at rachel.safeek@duke.edu

-Rachel Safeek

HIV as a Human Rights Issue: Intersection of Gender, Race, and Violence

10 Nov


 

I Care about HIV/AIDS because...

I Care about HIV/AIDS because…

Why should people care about HIV if they are not personally affected by the disease, or if they do not know of anyone who is personally affected? I’ll tell you why: HIV is a human rights issue. 
One of the things that I love about my job is that when I’m discussing HIV prevention, I’m never just restricting my conversations to talking about HIV. I talk about STD concerns, general sexual and reproductive health, issues of consent for sexual activity, and finally issues related to power dynamics within relationships.
Here is one thing many people don’t realize, at least not consciously: condom use is all about negotiation. Okay, logically, to prevent the sexual transmission of HIV (and other STD’s), one should engage in all sexual or intimate encounters using condoms. That makes sense.
What if no condom is available at the moment? Or how about if your partner doesn’t want to use condoms? Okay, let’s focus for a second on the latter: Your partner is pressuring you into not using condoms.

There’s that classic line:

“You’re on birth control, and I don’t have anything (read: Sexually Transmitted Disease)….and neither do you. Why do we need to use condoms?”

If your partner doesn’t want to use condoms when you do, then logic tells us to just kick him/her to the curb. But unfortunately, logic cannot always be applied to instances of sex or intimacy. Beyond the emotional attachment which may cause someone to abandon his or her preferences “out of love” for their significant other, there are a few other matters to consider: What if you are in a long-term relationship and your partner is upset or offended by your request to continue using condoms? What if he/she threatens to leave you if you go against his/her wishes. Or…..

What if your partner threatens to (or does) hit you for resisting his/her demands? Ultimately: HIV transmission is not as simple as someone forgetting to wear a condom or not having any condoms available. It’s not even JUST an issue of a lack of education around HIV or sexual health. It comes down to negotiation. It’s and issues of power dynamics: who has the power (or IS empowered) to demand that condoms are (or are NOT) used.

The Three-Way Shift

In the early 1980s, when HIV was first observed in the United States, it was considered a “gay disease” because it was primarily observed among young, Caucasian, homosexual men in the Los Angeles area. Almost thirty years later in 2013, there has been a three-way shift in the race, gender, and sexual orientation of the demographic group with the highest incidence rate of HIV: from Caucasian, homosexual, men in the 1980’s to African American, heterosexual women in present day.

That’s a pretty remarkable shift to consider. In just thirty years, a virus has completely changed its course to disproportionately affect an entirely different demographic. This was what initially drew me toward researching HIV and its relationship to women.

Reasons cited by scholars for this shift in HIV to targeting women, particularly African Americans, include the power dynamic between men and women engaging in heterosexual intimate/sexual relationships, particularly in relationships in which:

  1. Gender-based violence (GBV)/Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), including domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault, are involved
  2. Women are financially unstable/”economically vulnerable”
  3. Men in heterosexual relationships bear attitudes of dominance or patriarchy

Because condom use is a direct product of negotiation, the individual with more power has the greater efficacy to control whether or not condoms are used in a relationship. Below I discuss the three situations listed above and describe their relationship to power dynamics within heterosexual relationships, condom use negotiation, human rights issues, and HIV transmission.

Gender-Based Violence (GBV)/Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in Heterosexual Relationships

Julia Kim (2008) describes the most visible “manifestation of the unequal power balance between men and women is violence against women”, specifically, violence against an intimate partner. If violence or sexual assault is an impending threat for a woman while she is in a relationship, she may not feel empowered to demand condom use from her partner out of fear of physical or sexual abuse. GBV and IPV constrain of individual agency and consequently lead to issues with women’s health. Women are physically at risk of being hurt from being hit or sexually abused by their partner. Additionally, they are left scared and in a disempowered state, in which they are unable to defend their human rights and protect themselves from STI’s and HIV.

Currently, the intersection of gender-based violence, intimate partner violence and HIV prevention among women is an initiative that is being undertaken by the White House (see link below).

Financial Disempowerment/Economic Vulnerability of Women Engaging in Heterosexual Relationships

Demonstrated lack of financial security among  women characterizes another social factor that contributes to female disempowerment, and subsequent transmission of HIV. Oftentimes, women who are struggling financially may turn to men for financial support.  In many of these situations, financial dependence upon men, the “sole bread-winners” of the household, places women in vulnerable positions. Women who are poor, many of whom are minorities, may rely on their partners for housing, food, or other forms of financial support. As a result they may be pressured to submit to the sexual needs of their partner. Women are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors, such as unprotected sex, because they believe they owe their partners in exchange for money, food, and resources. These type of sexual transactions in exchange for money or other material goods, including housing, clothing, food, or even drugs predispose women to HIV and other STD’s.

Patriarchy/Structural Violence

A woman who engages in sexual relationships with a man who bears attitudes of superiority toward women may be pressured to submit to the needs of her partner, including forgoing condom use if her partner demands it . If a man asserts his dominance, as the male “head of the household”, a woman may have limited control over protecting her body during intimacy, leaving her in a position of little control. Women may unwillingly submit to the pressures of her partner out of fear that her partner will leave her or engage in affairs outside of their relationship. The “subordinate status of women”, particularly of minority women, directly influences the health-threatening decisions made by women in relationships and characterizes a violation of women’s rights (Farmer 2003).

Dr. Paul Farmer (2003) cites structural violence,  the historically adopted behaviors or attitudes, e.g. sexism, racism, or classism, “that conspire to constrain individual agency”, as a key contributor to health disparities. Sexism, racism, and classism deprive certain groups of their basic human rights, creating “inegalitarian social structures”. Sexist or patriarchal styles of thought establish a hierarchy and division of power between the sexes, in which men are afforded the power to make final decisions. As a result, women are denied their right to assert control over their bodies and their health.

References

Farmer, Paul. (2003). Pathologies of power: health, human rights, and the new war on the poor. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Farmer, Paul. (1996) Women, poverty, and AIDS : Sex, drugs, and structural violence In Simmons J. (Ed.), Monroe, Me. : Common Courage Press

Kim, Julia, Pronyk, Paul, Barnett, Tony, & Watts, Charles. (2008). Exploring the Role of Economic Empowerment in HIV prevention. AIDS Journal (2008) Volume 22. Lippincott Williams & Willkins.

As always, please feel free to email me. I limited much of my discussion for ease of reading, but I’m always open to questions/further discussion and reading.

–Rachel Safeek

Voluntary Female Sex Work vs. Sex Trafficking of Women

13 Oct



sex-workers-rights

@RachSafeek: Not all #sexworkers are products of sex #trafficking. There are women who enter sex work of their own volition.

The difference between human sex trafficking versus consensual and/or voluntary sex work among women is a topic that I’ve been meaning to address for a long time. Oftentimes, when I mention that I work with HIV prevention among Female Sex Workers (FSWs), many incorrectly assume that the women with whom I work are all victims of female sex trafficking.  Just this morning, I received an email from a fellow Duke graduate with a link to Nicholas Kristoff’s column about sex trafficking in the United States. The sender noted that I would likely appreciate the column  “because of the work [I] do with sex trafficking victims”.

Indeed, I value the article for the education that it reinforces to readers regarding sexual exploitation in the United States. However, I believe that an important piece of the story is missing, the part of the sex trade that includes the group that I DO work with: women/girls who choose to enter the profession “willingly”. (Note: I refer to “willingly” as such because I do acknowledge that it is debatable whether women who do enter the sex trade without being forced by a third party pimp or madam choose to do so 100% agreeably. Many who do choose to engage in sex work do so out of desperation or a lack of better options, including a lack of skills, resources, and education. These women, however, do not fall under the category of trafficked women, which is problematic, as I will discuss later in this post.)

In any case, global health students, researchers, and health care workers alike have responded to my work in a manner similar to my classmate’s, assuming I work solely with trafficked women. While directing attention to an important cause, they are simultaneously dismissing the value of work with women who voluntarily engage in the trade, an unintended effect.

Personal Experiences with Trafficking

Before delving into further discussion of consensual and voluntary sex work, I would like to first like to acknowledge that I do not wish, in any way, to alleviate the seriousness of human sex trafficking. We can all agree that the effects of unlawful human sex trafficking are damaging to the individual and society as a whole. Even Hollywood has made a supreme effort to portray the traumatizing and dehumanizing side effects of trafficking in films such as Taken (2008).

I myself have been the personal target of trafficking because of the work I do. On World AIDS Day 2011 (December 1), while leaving my workplace in Salvador, Brasil, I was grabbed by two individuals who attempted to force me into their vehicle. The two men were later identified as pimps. As an HIV researcher and activist, I am committed to decreasing stigma around HIV through prevention education and research. Eager to assist in the World AIDS Day festivities at my workplace, I stayed at work late into the evening, a dangerous decision which put my own life in jeopardy. Due to extreme luck and some willful attempts to fight back, I was able to escape the situation and run to the police, who were not much help and mostly likely involved…but police corruption in Brazil is another topic which I’ll reserve for future blog postings. In any case, having almost been forced into the trafficking system, I am without a doubt privy to the manner and degree to which sex trafficking is an issue of paramount concern and represents one of the highest and most inhumane human rights abuses.

From World AIDS Day 2011. Holding a red candle for HIV awareness and wearing a red ribbon HIV activism shirt

From World AIDS Day 2011. Holding a red candle for HIV awareness during a candle light vigil and wearing a red ribbon HIV activism shirt.

Sex trafficking is not the same as consensual Sex Work, but discourse should develop around each topic equally

Nevertheless, even with my own personal experiences with trafficking, I believe it is important to consider cases of women who are not forced or kidnapped and sold into the sex trade. There are a several reasons why I am against the singular portrayal of female sex workers as products of human sex trafficking:

First, I believe that assigning the title of “trafficked” to all women engaging in transactions of sex relegates women who voluntarily enter the profession, labeling them as “victims”. This is both an unfair and disempowering assumption. Many women, some of whom are highly educated and accomplished, willingly choose to enter the sex work trade. One rather famous case involves the Ivy League graduate who documented her experiences with prostitution.  Additionally, I have worked with many female sex workers in the past who noted that they were comfortable working in the sex trade. Sex work was their profession–their source of income. It was what they were comfortable with, and while perhaps they would not want their daughters to continue with the trade, they personally did not identify with feeling “used” or “victimized”. If anything, they were happy they could provide for themselves and their children. While the notion of “empowered” sex workers may not represent the overwhelming majority of sex workers in the United States or internationally, and while they certainly may not be the headlines for discussion around sex work, these women cannot be overlooked when engaging in discourse about sex work.

Secondly, and related to the first reason, dismissing all women who engage in sex work as “trafficking victims” ignores the job-related risks of women who voluntarily engage in the profession. Women who engage in consensual transactions involving sex cannot be discounted when considering the needs and, more importantly, the RIGHTS of those involved in the trade. If all sex workers are readily labeled trafficking victims–or victims, in general–, those who have chosen to enter and remain in the trade willingly (or for lack of better options), will have their rights overlooked. The focus will be shifted mainly to helping women leave the profession. As I noted earlier, not every woman wants out. Many are comfortable with the work they do, and so, it is essential that women who do choose to remain in the trade are not denied their rights e.g. safer working conditions, protection from rape/sexual assault and gender-based violence, and addressing key health concerns, including prevention of STDs and HIV. Focusing on cases of female sex trafficking ONLY subtracts from the much needed attention that should be paid to public health and gender-related risks associated with women who are not being forced and sold into sex work by a third party pimp/madam.

Finally, and this is a more subtle yet very important point, focusing solely on sex trafficking ignores the reality of women who engage in casual transactions using sex. For this point, I refer back to the definition of sex work:

“Sex work is the exchange of sexual services, performances, or products for material compensation”

Considering this definition, an individual who has offered sex in exchange for food, money, or a place to stay has engaged in a transaction that is deemed sex work, even if he or she does not formally identify as a sex worker. Take, for example,–a situation that I have heard time and time again from the women I work with–the case of a young woman/girl who is homeless, lacks formal skills and education, and the support and resources that a family can provide. She may see sex work as her only option for money and choose to enter the trade, albeit out of desperation. Oftentimes, she is not being forced by a pimp or madam, which does not qualify her as a trafficking victim. And while she may have entered the trade out of desperation and circumstance, she is still voluntarily engaging in sex work for money, shelter, or food. An unfortunate situation, but for many women who do voluntarily engage in sex work, it can be a reliable source of income which some (NOT ALL) women may be comfortable with.

This is a more common occurrence than society is willing to accept. However, even if we do not always include these transactions as instances of “formal prostituting”, we must acknowledge the role that they play in leading women to officially entering the trade and the number of health risks that develop as a result of engaging in these types of desperate transactions. Women who engage in sexual encounters for goods for money out of their own volition (even if out of desperation), and in the absence of a third party pimp/madam or John who forcefully demands that a woman submit to prostitution, represent an under acknowledged group.

This sheds light on a need to uncover the greater issues at hand: Ultimately, female sex trafficking and female sex work (excluding cases of women who entered the trade voluntarily and not out of lack of other options) are two micro issues in a macro problem: gender disempowerment. Whether actively forced by a third party, e.g. a pimp/madam or a John, or voluntarily engaging in sex work out of desperation or lack of skills, education, and resources (forced out of circumstance), the macro issue at hand is the vulnerability of women in each situation.

We all recognize the dangers that are present for women who are kidnapped, trafficked, and sold into the trade. However, if we choose to focus solely on female sex workers who are the products of female sex trafficking, we are ignoring the macro issue of disempowerment among women who are compelled to enter the trade due to circumstance ( lack of skills, education, and a strong support system/resources). This disempowerment should be a topic that is capitalized upon and addressed via public policy, and it is often overlooked by the assumption that all women in the profession are forced in by pimps or madams, rather than also by circumstance or choice.

Finally, there are various other issues to consider with regards to sex worker rights and public health/human rights issues. For the purpose of this post, I have restricted my discussion to women. I did this on purpose to demonstrate the role that gender plays in increasing vulnerability among sex workers. Gender is continually cited as a factor which predisposes women to violence and disease transmission, two key topics that I choose to focus on with my research. I focused on female sex workers, given my extensive background working with this group and in an effort to highlight the particularly devastating effect that financial disempowerment, gender-based violence, and rape/sexual assault can have on women in the trade. However, it is also important to consider the situation of male or transgender sex workers.

Additionally, one must consider what is truly consensual sex work.  I mentioned that I have met some women who are truly content with their earning income through the sex trade, but what percentage of all sex workers do these cases account for? Furthermore, do young girls/women who express content with engaging in sex work really have the ability to engage in consensual transactions using sex? All very important questions to consider. In any case, these questions represent even more of a reason to consider all instances of sex work, despite only the “sexiest” and most shocking stories of sex work/trafficking which are often highlighted in the media.
Email me at rachel.safeek@duke.edu
–Rachel Safeek