Taking a lesson from Southern Poverty Law Center

Elizabeth's picture

 US National Archives photo of women posing for safety promotionIn my mail today from Southern Poverty Law Center:
 

"No woman should be forced to sacrifice her personal dignity and human rights for a paycheck ... These women -- some of the most vulnerable people in our society -- are being raped, violently assaulted, and otherwise exploited .... "


No, this isn't a story about sex trafficking. This is a story about immigrant women working in factories in fields all across the country. And SPLC's response is not to criminalize their work, thus penalizing the victims, but rather to help them file lawsuits against their employers and attackers. You can read about one such case, U.S. EEOC, et al. vs. Tuscarora Yarns, here.

It struck me as a stark and important contrast to the antiprostitution activists who claim to be working to help victims of exploitation but who are really further victimizing them by criminalizing their livelihood instead of prosecuting abusers. SPLC's strategy makes it clear that they understand the issues: All people have a right to earn a living. No person should be subject to abuse, violence, or exploitation at work. Workers in many industries put their bodies at risk to do their work, but those risks should be minimized and worker safety is everybody's concern.

This is a lesson that feminists who claim they want to protect women in the sex industry ought to learn.

In its report on guest worker programs SPLC cites an Equal Employment Oppportunity Commission report from 1995 in which workers told government investigators that they had to have sex with their supervisors in order to get or keep jobs, and that the fields were called "green motels" or labeled "fields of panties" (fil de calzon) because of the regularity with which bosses forced workers to have sex. Obviously sexual abuse at work is not unique to the sex industry.

Southern Poverty Law Center has the right approach: Object to the abuse, support the workers, use the law to penalize the abusers and stop the exploitation. They also understand the need for networks of organizations that can provide legal assistance and education, and the importance of grassroots community organizing to help workers advocate for themselves and fight for their rights. Their approach sounds very much like the one advocated by the sex worker rights movement! Why, then, do so many who understand the need to fight abuse and exploitation in other industries get it wrong when it comes to sex work? Surely in sex work there is exploitation and abuse. Yet only in relation to sex work do we so universally blame the victims and refuse to acknowledge that working conditions are variable, with some workplaces being safe places to work and others being dangerous.

It would be laughable to suggest criminalizing farm work or manufacturing work because such industries are rife with exploitive working conditions and abusive management. How can we live without produce and products? But sex is also an essential part of life, and many scoff at the idea that sexual services should be legal precisely because of concerns about exploitation and abuse. (See the recent legislative battles in Rhode Island for an instructive lesson on the politics of recriminalizing prostitution.)

Just as there are minimalists in the material sense, certainly there are ascetics and asexuals who live quite well without much sexual interaction. But for many of us sex is important to happiness and health. So why can we not understand the buying and selling of sexual services? The difference must lie in the dominant culture sense that sex is dirty, dangerous and yet paradoxically to be saved and given for free only to those you really love.

When we can see sex as an important part of human life, and something we all have a right to enjoy whether or not we are married or have romantic partners, and as something that we can choose to give to others in a range of different exchanges, then we can appropriately address the abuses that do exist in the sex industry without criminalizing workers and blaming victims. Meanwhile, I wonder if Southern Poverty Law Center wants to take on the issue of sex work. They certainly seem to understand the importance of self-determination, dignity, and worker safety.

 

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Information about the image above, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license, is provided on the U.S. National Archives Flickr page for this photo.

Original caption: Safety garb for women workers. The uniform at the left, complete with the plastic "bra" on the right, will prevent future occupational accidents among feminine war workers. Los Angeles, California. Acme, ca. 1943

U.S. National Archives' Local Identifier: 86-WWT-33(41)

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World War, 1939-1945
Labor
Women

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