Why Sex Workers Must Be Part of the Global Human Rights Agenda

Published: September 23, 2012

A few years ago, I traveled to Thailand where I met a sex worker for the very first time. A 37-year-old mother of three, she very succinctly told me about her life: “These were my options: I could be apart from my children for 10 hours each day while working in a sweatshop sewing buttons on shirts, or I could spend the day with my kids and, at night, talk to an interesting Western man, lie down with him for 20 minutes in a familiar, safe place and make a lot of money. Which would you choose?”

Like many Americans in my generation, I was taught that prostitution is immoral, “dirty” and coercive. Selling sex for money has always been loaded with stigma—and it still is today.

Now I am the president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international organization that supports the human rights of marginalized people in the developing world, including sex workers. In recent years, I’ve heard countless stories from sex workers themselves. Their stories are human stories, and their struggles are human struggles. Many sex workers that AJWS supports are mothers doing what they need to do to support their families, just like the woman I met in Thailand.

In some ways, these women are much like me: they work hard and they care about their kids. But our lives are radically different in one fundamental way. These women are denied the basic human rights I’ve always had: protection from violence, access to healthcare, and the opportunity to earn a living however I choose.

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