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Alexandra Oliveira: Respect for sex workers. | Alexandra Oliveira | TEDxPorto | TED Talk​

Let me ask you a question: Who thinks that adult people, in a free and consented way,can have sexual relationships with other adults? Can you raise your hand? Ok, so we all agree. Two or more adults, in a free and consented way, can have sexual relationships. This is what happens in prostitution, or in sex work. - which is the expression I prefer to use - The only difference, or the main difference with non-commercial sexual relationships. is that there is a monetary exchange, that is, there's a party that seeks a profit from the sexual relationship and another party that intends to obtain pleasure. And there are thousands of people doing it. I know hundreds of them. Men and women who manage their own business autonomously:they publish their own adverts, receive their clients in apartments, in hotels, or even in motels, and who are not being exploited by anyone. It's about them that I want to talk today I won't talk about cases involving children, or adults who are being coerced.The cases involving children under the age of 16 or adults who have not given their consent are criminal cases. They're cases that must be prosecuted criminally and judicially, and the offenders must be punished. Also, I think it doesn't make sense to talk about child prostitution, instead, we should talk about the sexual aggression of children. And the same applies to cases of forced and coerced prostitution, I think they're criminal cases as well. Hence, it's important to discern between voluntary prostitution and forced prostitution. I also didn't come to talk about sexual trafficking or exploitation. There is a tendency to confuse prostitution with sexual trafficking and exploitation. But taking all sex workersfor victims of sexual trafficking and exploitation would be to mistake a small part as if it were everything. Research has shown that here in Portugal, the phenomenon of sexual trafficking and exploitation is not very prevalent. Besides, they are phenomenons that are not identified but that could emerge. To have a notion of what I just told you —that in Portugal, it isn't a prevalent phenomenon— I'll give you some data from the Observatory of Human Trafficking,which is the state agency that here in Portugal gathers information on issues related to human trafficking, and that, by the year 2016, which are the latest data available, indicate that there were, in Portugal, 108 confirmed victims of human trafficking, most of them were under labor exploitation Victims of sexual exploitation, there were only three. Of course, it was enough to have just one victim, to justify a judicial action. What is not justified, is that there is a whole speech and media that are out of touch with reality. There is a very strong image, and many stereotypes regarding prostitution. Often, people regard sex workers as victims, vulnerable, exploited, waiting for someone to come and save them. But this also does not correspond to reality. It's barely another stereotype. Most people involved in prostitution don't consider themselves as victims, they believe they have made a choice. Of course, we know that not everyone has the same options. The world is extremely unfair. There are structural limitations, such as gender inequality, or inequalities between rich and poor countriesthat force so many people to emigrate.There are also economic inequalities,sociocultural inequalities in other words, there is a great diversity of limitations that influence decision making. But, when we talk, when we interview — because, as a researcher, I interview, I talk, and I share with sex workers— what they say, is that they made a choice. A meditated decision,after taking into account the advantages and disadvantages that comes with an activity that is profitable, but that is highly stigmatized, and unrecognized. If I asked you to think, what is the image that first comes into your minds when you think about a sex worker. Think. Ok? And I bet most of you thought in one of two situations: In any "pretty woman" or in a bad looking woman,wearing a miniskirt, standing in a corner, in a dark city street, who is very likely a drug addict, and who, almost certainly, has someone exploiting her. But these are only two stereotypes. They are simplified images, that do not reflect strictly reality.There is a very large diversity of people involved in sex work. There is a diversity of people, of practices, of experiences, — not everyone has positive experiences, and not everyone has negative experiences— and of life projects. It's not just women, it's not just women of the streets. There are men involved in sex work and also transgender women, not only cisgender women. There are also a lot of transgender women in sex work. For example, about our stereotypical images and about our thoughts of prostitution based on someone in the street,I have to tell you that, the studies carried outin western societies that seek to estimate the number of people involved in sexual commerce, tell us that street prostitutionrepresents just around 10 to 20% of the total of sex workers. And when we think only in women, we are ignoring male sex workers:there are less of them, and they are a minority, but they are not negligible. I'll present you some data from a study carried out here in Portugal which had a larger sample of sex workers. This study was led by professor Sónia Dias, from the University of Lisboa, and in it, they interviewed 1040 sex workers both from street environments and indoors environments, men, women, trans people, all around the country. They found a proportion of 10.2% of men, and 7.8% of trans women. And there are even studies that tell us that, in other contexts, this proportion could be even larger. Thus, when the speech is made around the female victim and the oppressive male, it is ignored that there is also a proportion of meninvolved in sex work. Let's talk about an idea that has also been very popular in Portugal lately, and that, although it may seem an apparently humanist idea, when deeply analyzed, it becomes clear it has had negative consequences for those involved in sex work. I'm talking about the idea of criminalizing the client. In Sweden, since 1999, it is not forbidden to sell sex, but it is a crime to buy sex. The idea at the base of this law is that people who engage in prostitutionare victims without exception. Therefore, if they are victims, there is an oppressor, andthe oppressor is the client, and so, their behaviour must be criminalized. This law has been adopted in other countries besides Sweden, and the Swedish government has talked a lot about the "great success" of this law, and about how it has reduced prostitution. But strong evidence has emerged, - specially from non-governmental organizations working in the field who work everyday with sex workers -showing that this law puts sex workers themselves at greater risk and at greater vulnerability to violence, to stigma, and to diseases. This other idea we have, that people involved in sex work are victims, is an idea without much support, once we listen to the people talk. And this idea of the client being a criminal is an idea that to me, seems ideologically biased, because even research has shown that relationships between sex workers and their clients are complex relationships, but mostly, they are not abusive relationships. And, there's a type of client that I think, represents perfectly how this law, this idea of criminalizing the client,is inhumane. It's people who have some form of disability or people with functional diversity, or differently abled, - as it is correct to say - who resort to sex professionals. Sexuality is a human right.People with disabilities have the right to have a sexuality and have pleasure. Many of them can only get that resorting to sex professionals. There are even countries with a legal figure called sexual assistant who refers to someone trained to know how to have sexual relationships with people with disabilities. I think this example is clear enough about the social relevance of this job, about the social relevance of sex work,and, what's more, it destroys any argumentin favor of the penalization of clients.Therefore, if people can do this as a choice,if people think it is, to them, the best option at that point of their lives, to face their economic needs, if this can be done without violence, if it can be done with control over working conditions, if this can be done without any further exploitation that that of any other work activity, why do we still condemn so strongly the people who engage in sex work? Why is it that stigma is so intense and so strong against people who engage in this activity? Why is it that we keep disrespecting sex workers? And my answer is: because of moral, specifically, sexual moral, that divides sexuality in two types. On the one hand, we have a sexuality that's considered legitimate, normal, and natural, and on the other hand, we have a sexuality that's illegitimate, abnormal, antinatural, and it's there where sexual commerce is placed. The fact that sexual commerce is considered illegitimate,abnormal and antinatural, is the base of stigmatization, of social rejection, of discredit, of sanction, of the devaluation of people engaged in this activity. Stigma is a mark with a hot iron of profound discredit.The stigma that falls upon sex workers is very strong, and has many consequences.Stigma dehumanizes. Stigma, is a form of violence that's the base of so much discrimination against sex workers. Like, for example, when they try to reach health, justice, or social security institutions, and are treated with prejudice. I'll say it in a different way. Now, I have some doubts because I don't if anyone has ever used this word in a TEDx, but, the whore stigma, is the worst that can fall upon a woman. The worst offense we can make to a woman is to call her a whore. The whore stigma divides women in two kinds: the honest and the dishonest ones the serious and the non-serious ones, those who behave well and those who behave badly. and, in that way, the whore stigma is an instrument to the service of the control of female sexuality. It's some sort of Damocles sword, hanging above any of our heads. Any woman knows that, if she has a sexual behaviour that strays away from the socially dictated norms, she's at risk of having the whore stigma fall upon her. Any woman knows that if she crosses the line, she could be called a whore. So, what can any of us do to stop the disrespect against sex workers? I think Human Rights is the right path, human rights for everyone, including those engaged in sex work. It is also the path of policies construction based on scientific evidence. - It was already talked enough this morning - On scientific and empiric evidence, and not, on policies built from ideological assumptions. And also, to recognize this group as a group that has been historically oppressed, and to fight for the end of the oppression, is to defy the stigma, as I'm doing it right now. Is to give voice, to listen sex workers. To give voice to a group that has been subject of the most vile attempts of silencing throughout time.Sex workers are organized around the worldsince the 70's. But, precisely because of the stigma, their voice has no credibility, they are not listened. We can't hear them saying:"We don't want compassion, nor tolerance.We want rights". And that is to me, the path we must follow. After all this, and to finish,do you think it makes sense, that it's natural,that we should keep disrespecting, stigmatizing and criminalizing sex workers?Thank you. (Applause)