ROME – March 3rd is International Sex Workers’ Rights Day. The day has been celebrated since 2001, when over 25,000 sex workers gathered in India for a sex workers’ festival but the government attempted to revoke their permits for the event. Sex worker groups worldwide continue to celebrate the third day of March as International Sex Workers’ Rights Day.
The original event was organized by the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee. Called Durbar for short, the name means “Unstoppable Women’s Synthesis Committee.” It has approximately 65,000 sex workers as members and has been advocating for their rights and safety since they were established in 1992. Durbar has been working on women’s rights and sex workers’ rights advocacy, anti-human trafficking, and HIV/AIDS prevention.
Durbar ran its first major advocacy campaign in 1997, which included a national conference in Calcutta. The conference captured international attention with its slogan “Sex Work is Real Work.” The slogan continues to be in use today by many organizations that advocate for sex worker rights, often used alongside the international symbol of sex work, the red umbrella. The umbrella symbol came into use in 2001 when sex workers’ rights advocates gathered in Italy during the 49th Venice Biennale of Art, which had a “prostitutes’ pavilion” covered in red umbrellas, an installation by Slovenian artist Tadej Pogachar. The red umbrella was formally adopted as symbol of the sex workers’ rights movement by the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) in 2005.
On March 1st, Zero Discrimination Day, the ICRSE launched a new advocacy initiative with the launch of a new documentary titled Crossing: Stories of Immigrant Sex Workers. The film was produced by multiple sex worker rights groups in different European countries and focuses on the stories of stories of five migrant sex workers living and working in these countries. “By sharing their experiences as women, men, migrants, LGBT people, single mothers, Muslims, Roma, and sex workers,” notes the documentary’s website, “they challenge the sensationalist portrayal of all sex workers as ‘prostituted women’ and ‘trafficking victims.'”
In addition to ICSRE, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NWSP) published a consensus statement detailing the expected rights of sex workers.
Sex Worker Rights and Religion
The history of opposition to sex work is intimately bound to the rise of certain religions, particularly the branches of the Abrahamic faith that describe the consequences of infidelity and the consequences of prostitution. Texts that emerge from the Abrahamic faiths, such as the Bible and Quran, insist that while prostitutes are not beyond forgiveness, their behavior is sinful and exceptionally so – at times punishable by death. Prostitution is presented as a force of corruption that destroys not only marriages but the souls of all involved.
Especially in Islam, conservative Judaism, and Pauline Christianity, there is an institutionalization of opposition to sex work and liberal approaches to sex and sexuality generally. Secular legislation appeases the religious interests against sex work. In order to inhibit corruption, laws were established to further social controls on women specifically, while adjacent issues, such as normalizing heterosexism and monogamy, underpin that control.
Paganism and Sex Worker Rights
The rise of modern Paganism parallels the sexual revolution that began in the 1960s. Most branches of Paganism embrace feminism as a functional and powerful core ethic. To many, these co-occurring movements are nothing less than the energies of goddesses, in all their manifestations, re-asserting themselves into society. Feminism, some argue, is the culmination of a long absence of women’s spirituality and the feminine spiritual force being rendered secondary and oppressed by patriarchal forces.
I spoke with a few Pagan workers who echoed that sentiment immediately. Near a fruit stand on a highway outside Rome, I met Mariah. She works multiple jobs, one of them being sex work. Our meeting was happenstance; we were both purchasing oranges at a stand, and I noticed a goddess necklace. We laughed about misreading the other’s intentions in opening the conversation.
Mariah didn’t want to give her full name; she says it’s dangerous. “If some men know who you are, they can find out where you live. They hunt you.” She is new to Paganism and wants to become a Witch. “The Church offers forgiveness, and will then let you starve forgiven.”
When I asked her about International Sex Workers Rights Day, she didn’t know there was such a day but immediately embraced the idea. She said that advocates are needed. “It’s the oldest profession, and the last to get retirement benefits.” In relation to Paganism, she commented that she knew some Pagans in the area and “not a single one of them has judged me”; to the contrary, her Pagan friends are proud of her. She says they know her, but do not judge what she does for money.
Maggie, a sex worker in Florida who identifies as a polytheist devoted to Ganesha and Inanna, echoed much of the same sentiment. Maggie noted that every Pagan event she has interacted with has addressed consent. She noted that sex work is about consent at the personal and the legal level. “I own my body,” she says. “I should get to decide what to do with my body. You get to decide to work with your hands, or your eyes. I get to decide the same thing. I bring no harm. If the client is married or with a partner, he or she has to make that decision. It is not my position to judge what they do or police their relationships.”
Mariah agreed. She also noted that consent is the essence of the work. Both agreed that organizations working to support the rights of sex workers help to establish financial security, but more importantly, they help minimize abuse, especially of minors. Mariah and Maggie both noted they cannot call the police if they are abused or raped. “The police will simply say we are looking for it,” Mariah said.
A Deeper Intersection with Paganism
“As a woman and a Witch,” says Rowan, a longtime member of the Pagan and Witchcraft community, “I support human rights for everyone. We are all kinfolk on this planet, and anyone who is marginalized and discriminated against is worth standing alongside and advocating with them on their own behalf. I have spoken to and advocated with sex workers over decades.”
In our conversation, Rowan spoke to her familiarity with the topic of sex work and the importance of the fight for sex workers’ rights. “In my 20s, I briefly worked in the sex trade. I had a friend who put herself through college doing sex work. I had a friend who bought the training for her commercial pilot’s license doing sex work. We’re talking strong women who take stock of their options and go for something that provides money for their dreams. Given the marginalization of women’s work in general, and the nature of low pay for women in most ‘conventional’ jobs, sex work can be incredibly empowering.”
Rowan underscored the importance of self-accepting our sexuality, a topic adjacent to sex work but intimately bound to both Paganism and the agency we have as individuals. “I belonged for a number of years to a community that was about creating sacred connections between members, exploring and going deep into the realms of love, sacred sexuality, and shared community. No, that wasn’t about sex work, but it opened me further to the possibilities of pursuing sex work as part of sacred sexuality, bringing wholeness and pleasure to those who need it.”
Maggie also mentioned the intersection of Paganism and self-acceptance. “My spiritual work helps me understand who I am and that who I am at any moment is who I am meant to be.” She noted that sex worker rights do not create legitimacy – “only my work with my gods create that” – but recognition of rights will stop harassment, trafficking and abuse.
Rowan also noted that she attended Annie Sprinkle’s Sluts and Goddesses workshops, which teach women to interface with the multiplicity of understandings related to pleasure. “I do consider that important magical work,” Rowan says, “creating deep heart-centered and sex-centered connections between people. Over the years, a number of my friends have become Tantrikas and studied the arts of pleasure extensively as a magical calling. I want to distinguish between sex workers, those who work providing sexual services, and victims of trafficking. The latter are not sex workers, they are trafficking victims. We, and the law, should make that distinction and get victims the help they need.”
The three individuals pointed out that sex worker rights enhance the agency of individuals to decide what to do with their bodies and unhook the patriarchal oppression describing how people should behave sexually. Each also emphasized that rights will reduce sexual human trafficking by giving power and voice to those whose consent has been silenced. They noted that voice, consent, and empowerment were manifestations of a Pagan spirituality.
“There was a time when Pagans looked to the Temple Priestesses of the ancient world, who provided sex and healing from within the temple,” says Rowan, connecting the need for sex workers’ rights more immediately to the Pagan community. Rowan notes that sex workers rights should matter to Pagans as a manifestation of one’s own capacity for power and healing. “The sex negativity of the over culture has infected our community as well.”
Editor’s note: Mariah’s statements have been translated from Italian. Maggie’s statements have been translated from German.