Sexuality Policy Watch

Sex work and human rights: Under the shadows of (de) regulation

Michelle Agnoletti [1]

In July 2015 a heated controversy around sex work and human rights erupted globally. A campaign was launched by international organizations that advocate for the abolition of prostitution to eradicate the trafficking of persons against a new policy, announced by Amnesty International, to support the human rights of people involved in sex work. In response, organizations and networks of sex workers and their allies and partners, from various regions of the world, have also raised their voices to defend the policy announced by Amnesty, to once again reiterate that the rights of people involved in sex work are human rights and to argue in favor of the decriminalization of prostitution. (See SPW compilation of statement, letters and articles on the subject).

Significantly, also in July, two criminal episodes occurred in Brazil – which had neither major impact on the national press nor any visibility at all in international media –, which, glaringly illustrates the detrimental effects of criminalization and non-regulation of commercial sex and of the constant ideological and simplistic overlap between prostitution and trafficking. Both cases demonstrate why the voices are correct in their argument in calling upon Amnesty International to continue their pronounced policy of supporting the human rights of those involved in the sex trade.

On the morning of July 15, 2015, Patricia Regina Nunes, Antonia Francisca Vicente Bezerra, Maria da Conceição Pedrosa, Daiane Maria Batista, and Cassia Rayane Santiago Silva were brutally murdered. The massacre occurred in the brothel where they worked in Itajá, a small a city located 200 km from Natal, the state capital of Rio Grande do Norte. A few hours later and thousands of kilometers away, the Federal Police unleashed another one of its spectacular operations aimed at dismantling international trafficking schemes for sexual exploitation in a number of nightclubs in Boa Vista, the state capital of Roraima located at the Northern border of Brazil.  Of the women who were ‘rescued’ in this operation we only know the profession and nationalities: they are Venezuelan and Guyanese prostitutes.  Their names cannot be disclosed because the investigation and prosecution runs under the rule of ‘secret of justice’. In addition to the tragic coincidence of having occurred on the same day, these two episodes are also linked: both cases illuminate the reasons why it is urgent to regulate prostitution in Brazil.

Four masked men perpetrated the crime in Itajá and two of them have now been arrested. The investigation revealed that the massacre was triggered by a disagreement between the manager of the brothel (one of the murdered women) and the leader of the crime (one of the arrested) in relation to sharing profits from the sex programs and the sale of products supplied to the prostitutes, such as drinks, cigarettes, and drugs. In other words, the crime is directly connected to the clandestine nature of the trade. If this is true, then clear rules regulating prostitution would provide conditions for these commercial and financial agreements to be legally defined, thereby preventing clients or business administrators from resorting to violence. Regulation will also facilitate the surveillance of illegal activities connected to sex work, such as controlling the entry and habitation of children and adolescents in the places where commercial sex activities take place. It will ensure that the relations between sex workers and property owners/employers are more transparent and safe and that the oversight of labor conditions is facilitated, such as the duration of the journey, hygiene, availability of condoms, and even drugs use.  If these regulatory measures were in place the Itajá tragedy and other similar episodes would have been prevented.

In Boa Vista, the operation was facilitated by an anonymous tip and was preceded by two months of preliminary investigation. Twenty people were forcefully taken to the Regional Direction of the Federal Police in Roraima to provide testimonies.  Among them, 16 were alleged victims, women who had come from Guyana and Venezuela to work in prostitution in Brazil. In a press conference, the female local police official responsible for conducting the investigation declared that the ‘rescued’ women had come to Brazil voluntarily, despite the fact that the investigation has proven that sexual exploitation occurred in the five investigated establishments. Interestingly enough, she also mentioned that although the conditions of the clubs were precarious and unhealthy, no coercion, or forced private incarceration, or false imprisonment was identified. Her remarks sharply contrasted with the note released by the Social Communication Dept. of the Federal Police, which justified the operation named “La Sombra” (The Shadow), referring to the “… obscure ways under which the crime of trafficking of persons is practiced. Negotiations are conducted in the darkness, propelling false promises of a life of luxury and ostentation, when in reality the women who are tricked by these nets become victims of violence, mistreatment and abuse of all kinds, and most of the times they do not have anybody with whom they can resort to and, therefore, continue silently suffering in the darkness of a room where they are exploited“. [2]

As said by the local police officer, these women were engaged in prostitution – often purposely confused with sexual exploitation – but they were not subject to restrictions in terms of their freedom to move. If this is so, then there is no justified reason to typify their conditions as that of violence, fraud, deceit, duress, or any other situation that would nullify consent. We can imagine that if there was coercion, violence, and fraud, there would be no need to take them forcibly to provide testimony; instead they would probably be willing to seek help.

Despite the dramatic discourses justifying the operation, no one was arrested. Among the prostitutes, however, three of them were irregularly in the country and a fourth one had a tourist visa which was immediately canceled. They were notified to leave the country and if they did not do so voluntarily, they would be deported. It is important to remember that this police operation was done under the purview of the national policy to eradicate the trafficking of persons, guided by the Palermo Protocol. The well-known protocol condemns the deportation of trafficked persons when they collaborate with the police, in which case they must be treated as victims. As a whole, the police operation in Roraima once again disregarded the autonomy of female sex workers, turning them into mere allegories within the context of an institution that quite often rewards the public officials involved, which includes transferring them to other locations where labor conditions are less stressful than near the country’s border, such as Roraima.

More importantly, the human subjects at the center of these two cases — the murdered women of Itajá and the evicted women of Roraima — had their voices silenced. One of the most important women’s organizations in Brazil issued a statement about the crimes of Itajá, interpreting them as the culmination of violence to which these women were submitted to because, in their view, “prostitution is an integral part of this capitalist, patriarchal system and manifests itself as a major form of women’s oppression, created to maintain male supremacy, in which the body and the lives of women are treated as commodities “. [3] By overlaying gender violence, feminicide and prostitution, the note typically disregards the choice of made by these women to engage in commercial sex voluntarily.

The note also does not refer to the fact that, in Brazil, prostitution is not a crime. The 1940 Criminal Code only typifies the exploitation and sponsoring of prostitution or any act that sponsors the practice.  This definition is still in the books despite few attempts to change it. In 2009 an attempt was made to define sexual exploitation, but it was vetoed because, as proposed, it would inappropriately cover all crimes against sexual dignity.  In the absence of a clear definition of sexual exploitation, legal and juridical opinions tend to oscillate in a Manichean way between the vilification and the victimization of female prostitutes, and debate around the subject is usually motivated by a sort of compulsion or mass hysteria in regard to public issues involving patterns of sexual conduct that differ from the dominant moral norms. If a clearer definition is established and prostitution is regulated, clearer parameters will be available to guide the application of criminal law with situations pertaining to the realm of commercial sex.

Prostitution is a profession and as such it should be conducted freely, under decent labor conditions, and protected against the risks involved in the activity, such as violence, abuse, marginalization, unwanted pregnancies, disease, drug abuse, etc. It is a labor activity like any other, and must be regulated to ensure that those engaged in it can legitimately exercise their professional and sexual freedom. In that regard it is therefore urgent to also establish a clear conceptual distinction between prostitution and trafficking, which is characterized by coercion, fraud, deception, and abuse of authority, aspects that are not necessarily present in the case of sexual services provided by consenting adults. Consequently, the question that remains to be answered is: can the lives of people engaged in commercial sex work be protected and enhanced if their voices and human rights are constantly denied?

[1] Michelle Agnoletti is a Brazilian lawyer and sociologist. The article was translated by Sonia Corrêa and revised by Ana Maria Ramirez, Kelly Gavigan and Jack Milnor.



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