New book, co-written with sex workers, shows things getting worse in the global pandemic

April 21, 2021   |   Blog

Police harassment. Stigma and discrimination. Lack of health and safety protections on the job. Unequal access to sexual and reproductive health services. For most people, these would be wholly unacceptable working conditions. But they are just some of the systemic inequities faced by sex workers across the globe. More than a year into the global COVID-19 pandemic, things have only gotten worse, according to a new book co-edited by CGSHE Faculty Member Dr. Shira Goldenberg.
Sex Work, Health & Human Rights: Global Inequities, Challenges and Opportunities for Action is the first edited collection co-written by sex workers, sex worker-led organization and academic researchers, drawing upon community case studies and data from around the world. “In 2020, sex workers continue to experience elevated human rights violations and health inequities, including a greater burden of HIV, sexually transmitted infections, and unmet sexual and reproductive health needs,” explained Dr. Goldenberg, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University. The book also reveals how the global pandemic led to new challenges for sex workers, including loss of livelihood and eviction from homes and businesses, as sex workers were shut out of government protection schemes like emergency and ongoing employment-related financial support.
Despite these troubling findings, the evidence points to something else: the resistance and resilience of sex workers in their fight to overcome systemic oppression. “The book highlights community empowerment and mobilisation strategies as critical tools used by sex workers to confront the health and human rights challenges they face and affect real world change,” Dr. Goldenberg continued. That is what motivated Dame Catherine Healy, national coordinator for Aotearoa New Zealand Sexworkers’ Collective, to co-author a chapter in the book. “My own history, both as a sex worker and as an activist and advocate for sex worker rights underscores my belief in not giving up but rather continuing to push steadily against those who would silence us and strip us of our gains.”
Dame Healy hopes the book will educate people about the systemic injustices sex workers face, and prompt legislators and policymakers to make much needed changes to laws that regulate, and often criminalize, sex work. “There needs to be an increase in awareness of the issues negatively impacting sex workers, along with an appreciation of the way in which changes to law, policy, and practice can make for positive change in the lives of sex workers,” she commented. “Globally, most law and policy score a big fail if we are auditing the impact it has on the rights safety, health and well-being of sex workers. This book should be read as a small step towards rectifying this appalling reality.”
Kholi Buthelezi, of the Sisonke National Sex Worker Movement in Cape Town, South Africa said she co-wrote her chapter to give voice to the voiceless. “Sex workers are human beings, but they are marginalised, denied access to services and killed because they are sex workers.” Ms. Buthelezi says the book is important because it documents the experiences and challenges of sex workers from their own perspective. She hopes it will pressure governments to improve safety and working conditions for sex workers around the world. “In South Africa, we have a good constitution in writing but not in practice. Sex workers are breadwinners and they need to be able to work without fear for their health, safety or legal status.”
Sex Work, Health & Human Rights launches on April 28, World Day for Safety and Health at Work to highlight the disparities and precarious occupational conditions faced by sex workers, as well as the urgent need for immediate legislative and policy change. “In most countries, sex workers operate under criminalization where they are forced to work and live without legal protections, and with their health, safety and rights constantly under threat,” said co-editor Ruth Morgan Thomas. According to Ms. Thomas, a former sex worker and coordinator with the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, “These obstacles are further amplified for migrant workers who also face barriers to social protections due to undocumented migrants being excluded, as well as fears of engagement with authorities that could lead to arrest and deportation.”
In addition to policy and legislative change, Dr. Goldenberg hopes the book will shift attitudes and approaches to working with sex workers in areas where they are the experts. “Our collaborative methodology aims to address the unequal power dynamics shaping mainstream approaches to sex work-related research, service delivery and policymaking.” This is precisely why Dame Healy believes Sex Work, Health and Human Rights will make an impact: “The book is fresh and grounded in lived experience with research which supports this.”

READ the book for free.

WATCH the recording of the book launch.