Human Rights Watch on women’s sexuality: Nice women don’t have one (1)

lesbian invisibility

Still hazy after all these years

This is Part 1 of a three-part post

Missed connections; or, how not to find lesbians

Here’s some of what a friend of mine, an Egyptian lesbian, 33 and butch, told me about days and nights during the Revolution in Midan Tahrir, where she put her life on the line.

We felt the presence of women, very strongly — and the presence of queer people very, very strongly, on the front lines, at essential moments. How amazing it was when people were just dealing, without judging. On February 2, the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] were there, and in a couple of hours they organized an assembly line to break the stones, to carry them to the front lines, with water and food supplies — they organized a hospital. I was with the shock troops, in the front line.   … We needed to frighten the other side, so they would think that we were stronger than they’d thought. They had guns, Molotov cocktails. We were fighting them with sand and rocks.  I was up there wearing a hood, to protect me, and you couldn’t tell if I was male or female. There was this Salafi near me, and he kept eye contact. He came down to me, to give me water. He said, I’ll take you further up, to the real front, the most dangerous zone. Just keep me in your line of vision, we can support each other.

I stayed there for hours, with eye contact with this man, on the line—and in the end I was positive that he realized I was a female. And he helped me stay there. …

It was moving for me, later, when I got to know about other protests in the global North inspired by Egypt. I’m not into this kind of petty nationalism—I believe in human rights.   But I am tired of being told: you are a second class individual, because you’re from the global South. You’re third class, because you are female. You are fourth class, because you are lesbian.   Suddenly we are at the center of the world. And suddenly we know that we can do it.

After the Revolution, Human Rights Watch, like other rights groups, sent hordes of workers to Cairo to interview Important People and figure out what had happened. One was Minky Worden, a colleague of mine, who’s editor of HRW’s spanking new anthology, “The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights.” I doubt they found my friend, a grassroots activist, Important enough to spend time on; zero of her passion or vision animates the book.  The volume claims to be a comprehensive picture of “the recent history of legal and political battles to secure basic rights for women and girls”; it banners a rah-rah quote from Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee: “Women are not free anywhere in the world until all women in the world are free.” Well: some women. In 332 pages, the book doesn’t contain even one substantive mention of lesbian or bisexual women, their struggles, or their human rights.* Talk about being fourth class.

Ugandan demonstrator in New York, 2011

It’s 2012, and this should not happen. It’s shocking on many grounds. You can’t describe the international women’s movement in the 20th and 21st centuries without describing lesbian and bisexual women. They’ve been there at every juncture — as Charlotte Bunch and Claudia Hinojosa, for instance, have shown in documenting just one part of this rich history, lesbians’ activism at the UN. (Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights owes a lioness’ share in its creation to Eleanor Roosevelt, who was, by modern biographers’ estimation, bisexual.) These fighters, like my friend, have stayed on the front lines: they’ve helped keep feminist movements conscious of difference and honest about the raw realities of sexuality. If they’ve been a target for violent attacks on feminism — more reason for HRW to acknowledge their importance! — they’ve also been among its boldest thinkers as well as bravest defenders.

I won’t even obsess here over the volume’s complete silence about the massive rights violations against transgender women and men — or its indifference to trans activists’ amazing successes at encoding progressive conceptions of gender in national laws. Some things no longer surprise me. But as a former Watcher, I do wonder what HRW was thinking, or failing to think. There are only a few possible interpretations of its perspective:

  • There are no serious human rights violations against lesbian or bisexual women.
  • Lesbians are not women.
  • Lesbians are not human.

It would be interesting to know which of these reflects HRW’s current official position.

Lesbians are real women, and sometimes it bears repeating: Dyke March in Soweto, 2007, © Behind the Mask

Of course, I started the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, almost nine years ago. We did a slew of reporting on lesbian, and bisexual, and transgender women, and trans men. We hired the first-ever researcher at a a major human rights organization to work primarily on lesbian issues. One therefore feels particular disillusion that all this hasn’t filtered into the organization’s understanding of women’s rights. It’s tempting to mutter, with the grandpaternal gruffness of encroaching senility, that this omission wouldn’t happen if were around. Non ego hoc ferrem calidus juventa consule Planco: feed that to your Babelfish. But that’s absurd. The silence speaks to deeper structural problems as pressing during my tenure as they are today. It illuminates at least three things:

  • how a large organization like Human Rights Watch fails to foster conceptual or practical connections within its work;
  • how lingering insecurities about sex (especially visible around sex workkeep it from accepting sexual autonomy as a fundamental value;
  • and how human autonomy itself remains a problematic principle for institutions across the rights-defending business.

Let’s start with the first.

I’ve pretty much spent twenty years trying to mainstream sexuality within the work of human rights. We rolled back many prejudices at Human RIghts Watch; but barriers in attitude persist. Three, hardly confined to the organization, remain relevant here:

Demonstrator in Windhoek, Namibia, 2001

Sexuality is not respectable. You may have a right to exercise it, but don’t expect me to bring it up in decent conversation. One sees this in the diehard reluctance of human rights researchers to raise the matter in their colloquies with “mainstream” partner organizations. I can easily imagine Minky thinking you can’t really promote the positions of lesbians (or, God forbid, pr-st-t-tes!) in a volume with a contribution by one Nobel winner (Shirin Ebadi) and a blurb by another (Gbowee). Never mind recent events in Liberia, which suggest Gbowee may not need a reminder that sexuality is always politically central. Sometimes they grasp these things better in Freetown than in New York.

Sexuality isn’t that important. Here what I’ve often called the “humanitarianization of human rights” kicks in: in an era of massive humanitarian catastrophes, cases seemingly on the scale of individuals shrivel in significance next to the gargantuan, aggregate anonymity of a Rwanda, a Darfur, a Sri Lanka. Without a queue of zeroes trailing the numbered victims, a situation can’t merit the diligence of crisis. Of course, if you tabulate the women and men jailed every day under (for example) anti-prostitution laws, many tortured or raped as a direct result, the zeroes start to accumulate, and the crisis becomes real. More below. But it’s still hard to persuade rights institutions of the simple, obvious fact that asserting one’s sexual autonomy is one of the major triggers for abuses worldwide.

Sexuality is private. It’s something you only do (legally) behind closed doors, and it can’t possibly be implicated in grand public events like revolutions. This is a delusion sustained by never talking to revolutionaries about why they were really there. Suffice it to remember Audre Lorde, who wrote that

In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives. …

During World War II, we bought sealed plastic packets of white, uncolored margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring perched like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag … Then taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly coloring it.

I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.

This goes without saying

All three presumptions, however diminished at Human RIghts Watch, still haven’t gone away. Moreover, the organization’s structure reinforces them.  For the uninitiated, the group (typical of large rights institutions) is proudly centered on its regional divisions, dealing mainly with “mainstream” issues on the several continents. Then there are a range of thematic divisions — LGBT, women, health, business, and others. The latter are small, generally underfunded (during the seven years I was there, the LGBT program never got access to Human RIghts Watch’s general support money), and distinctly understaffed.  In order to do the work they need to do, they must depend on other divisions’ cooperation: not only to propose press releases or take on reporting on their own, but to assume the yeoman labor of talking to groups that represent thematic interests, not just “mainstream” ones, in their areas.

Connections: sign from a lesbian feminist march, June 30, 2011, Aguascalientes, Mexico

My staff worked extremely hard to sell sexuality issues to other divisions as, well, sexy. Yet overcoming the three attitudes above was a challenge. Ordinary practice and accumulated prejudices whispered to an ambitious researcher that an interest in LGBT issues would not, in the long run, embellish one’s career. What was needed and not forthcoming was a clear mandate from the group’s governance: a message that thematic issues were not poor stepkids, a child among the ashes doing work ancillary to the great stream of human rights, but were intrinsic to its current and core — and the organization’s “mainstream” sectors had to take them up.

Habit is a great deadener: so Beckett said. In 2009, someone in the organization’s program office analyzed which thematic division’s concerns were most or least taken up by other parts of the organization in their work. Not surprisingly, LGBT issues came out near the bottom. The program office (responsible for overseeing all the programmatic work) attended on me with a guilty hangdog-Hamlet look, saying This was an organizational failing and was there anything they could do? I had plenty of suggestions, starting with a general instruction from the leadership that each relevant division propose at least one project on LGBT rights. But the conversation faded at the crowing of the cock, as Shakespeare wrote in a famous play about a Denmark where nothing quite gets done.

The wrong kind of activists: LGBT rights demo in Beirut, 2009 (Photo: Alexandra Sandels)

This anthology is the result. Minky — the book’s editor, and, as I say, a colleague whose work I generally respect — writes how in April 2011 she spent her time in Egypt “interviewing human rights activists, women’s rights activists, and organizers of the Tahrir Square protests.” Now, I don’t know all the questions she asked, but I’m 99% sure some never occurred to her: “Do you know any lesbians? Were there any lesbian women in Tahrir? What were sexuality’s roles in the revolution?” The third would have gotten plenty of interesting responses. The other two, asked of most people, would have led ultimately to my friend, and to quite a few other women whose stories would have been compelling. But moral hesitation, or a monolithic category of “women” that foreclosed any subdivisions, or some other internal censorship kept the idea, I’m betting, from transiting her mind. And as a result, she never learned. The problem at Human Rights Watch is that the information to establish the urgency of the issues doesn’t arrive in sufficient quantities, because the questions don’t get asked across the organization. So the organization still doesn’t learn.

Part 2 continues below.

*The word “lesbian” occurs exactly twice in the book, both in an article by Gara Lamarche, HRW’s former Associate Director. One instance refers to his efforts in 1994 to expand “Human Rights Watch’s mandate to include lesbian and gay issues” — which the rest of the book might leave you supposing hadn’t succeeded. The other mentions Atlantic Philanthropies’ funding in South Africa “to address gender-based abuse and hate crimes against lesbians.”

CORRECTION: I’m reliably told the demonstration against Ugandan legislation shown above was in London, not New York.

Human Rights Watch on women’s sexuality: Nice women don’t have one (2)

This is part 2 of a three-part post. Part 1 is above.

It's still the same old sex panic: cover of "Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls," 1910 book on white slavery by Ernest Bell

The traffic in ”trafficking”: or, Nicholas Kristof rescues Nicole Kidman from a Paris brothel

Inhibitions over sex lead to a more encompassing problem: failure to acknowledge sexual autonomy as a guiding principle, as an integral concern of both feminist activism and human rights.

My first work with Human Rights Watch dates back to 1997, when, as a director at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), I researched and wrote a joint volume our two groups did on Romania’s sodomy law.  It was HRW’s first full report on LGBT rights. At the book’s close, I included recommendations for Romania to repeal other laws repressing sexual rights, taking for granted that the analogies were evident. One was the criminalization of adultery. The legal reviewer at the Watch wrote in large letters on my draft: “Human Rights Watch takes no position on adultery, nor is it likely to.” 

In ensuing years, I often felt this should be carved in stone above the reception desk, rather like “Abandon hope, all ye that enter here.” If you substitute consistency for hope, in fact, the two sentences say the same thing.

Why would you frown on jailing men for boffing men, but gaze benignly on the clink for those who copulate outside marriage? The answer had to do with a jittery reluctance to put sex at the center of one’s thinking about sex laws. It was easy to condemn sodomy laws as offending the equality, or the privacy, of gay people as a group. It was less easy to admit the provisions struck, much more basically, at an individual’s power to put her equality or privacy to one particular use: to have sex, consensual sex with adults, in a way the state didn’t like. Sodomy laws aren’t about equality or privacy, though they infringe them. They’re about sex. To campaign against them means taking on that fact, and affirming the right to have sex. A queasy uneasiness made this analysis difficult for the Watch; defending abstractions is one thing, but defending sex itself? This fed its fidgets over rogue, rutting individuals breaching the marriage bond. They weren’t even part of a self-defined group, Wedlock Warriors or Adulterers Anonymous, so what equality argument could possibly fix a distracting fig leaf over the ungarnished act?

Jesus and the woman taken in adultery (Lucas Cranach the Younger): If it's all right with Human Rights Watch, it's all right with me

The result was that, for years, while advocating for women who faced stoning for adulterous sex in Nigeria (for example), Human Rights Watch wouldn’t condemn the law itself: it would only say the penalty was disproportionate. I take partial credit for the organization’s finally assuming a position on adultery. A few days after I was hired as LGBT rights director, I pointed out the Nigerian absurdity to Ken Roth; and some time after, an invisible ukase saw the website language on stoning change.

Yet the same inconsistencies persist in other areas.

Think sex work, a realm where women (and men, and transfolk) around the world face brutal repression from governments, with no protection from violence in other quarters. HRW has done truly vital work documenting state persecution of sex workers: mostly through its Health and Human Rights Division, with some small contributions from my old LGBT program. But its full impact is stymied by HRW’s inability to arrive at a coherent policy on the criminal-law regimes repressing sex work. It can’t bring itself to say: Decriminalize.

One sign of the problems this causes is the presence of an article by Mark P. Lagon in HRW’s new anthology. What the hell is he doing there?

Probably you haven’t heard of Lagon. My own first encounter with him, back in 2006, was when he served as chief defender of one of the Bush administration’s most homophobic UN votes. This renders it doubly offensive to find him published in the book: not only does HRW’s anthology completely ignore LGBT people, it invites their opponents under its covers. (I’m sure the International Lesbian and Gay Association, which he falsely accused of pedophilia, will not be charmed to see HRW embrace him.)

Who is that strange man? Mark Lagon, eyed by suspicious child, presents 2007 US State Department report on trafficking

Lagon brings bigger baggage than that to the assignation, though. In his last Bush gig, from from 2007-2009, he headed the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. This put him in charge of some of the worst policies the W. presidency carried out anywhere other than New Orleans and Iraq.  Ann Jordan, an authentic expert on trafficking – she advocated against all its forms for years at Global Rights, before heading the Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor at American University  – writes:

[T]he Bush administration, supported by the evangelical right-wing and some radical feminists, spent eight years promoting laws to criminalize prostitution and clients as the means to abolish prostitution and stop human trafficking into the sex sector. The ideology-driven approach is notable for the absence of any concrete evidence that it works. Proponents of such an approach have also failed to demonstrate that it avoids harming women or provides other livelihoods for those it aspires to help. It reduces all adults in the sex sector (even highly paid “call girls” and those working legally) to victim status and considers all prostitution to be a form of trafficking.

After leaving government, Lagon steered the Polaris Project, a right wing anti-trafficking group. SWAAY (Sex Work Activists, Allies and You) calls it an organization “fighting against improving conditions for sex workers, especially in the developing world.” And in the global North too: Lagon has led anti-free-expression campaigns to censor sex ads from Craigslist and other venues.  Although he talks a pseudofeminist line from time to time, little about Lagon’s positions suggests sustained concern for women’s rights – or well-being. (As I’ve observed here, closing down sex ads eliminates one of the safest ways for sex workers to select clients. It puts them in danger by driving them onto the streets.)

From the perspective of those who value sexual autonomy and sexual rights, Lagon’s views are destructive and appalling. He’s a militant proponent of using the punitive extent of the criminal law to eradicate consensual commercial sex between adults. He piously descants of freedom, while demolishing the freedoms of others.

Banner from the late $pread magazine, a US mag produced by sex workers for sex workers and others who support their human rights

In government, Lagon did shift State’s attention slightly from a single-issue focus on sex trafficking toward addressing forced labor.  But he avidly promoted, and still promotes, the Bush coterie’s main moralistic point: that all prostitution is exploitation, that sex work and sex trafficking are the same thing. As the administration helpfully explained in a “fact sheet“:

The U.S. Government adopted a strong position against legalized prostitution in a December 2002 National Security Presidential Directive based on evidence that prostitution is inherently harmful and dehumanizing … Few activities are as brutal and damaging to people as prostitution.

When an embarrassed Obama administration tried to back off slightly from this weird dictum, Lagon damned them in testimony before Congress. “Emphasizing that prostitution is not trafficking,” he told lawmakers, “is counterproductive.” What a cynic! He doesn’t say it’s not true: just not productive. Acknowledging that sex work can be freely chosen undermines his “abolitionist” goal, to hawk its unattainable utter eradication.

Lagon’s article for HRW says little that’s specific. It shares with most eradicationist arguments a deictic indifference to evidence, the equal of Ring Lardner’s immortal sentence: “’Shut up,’ he explained.” His main point is to paint the trafficked –or  the “prostituted,” which is how he refers to sex workers in his other writings — as pure creatures of the passive voice, victims skinned of volition and humanity.  (In the past, after all, Lagon has said that sex workers lead “nasty, immoral” lives for which they can’t be found “culpable” only because they don’t have the choice.)** Usually this kind of vague allegation-mongering wouldn’t make its way through HRW’s editing process. (The editors seem to have collapsed before the intransigent problem of Lagon’s prose, unable to correct either dangling participles or his false claim that Karl Polanyi was a Marxist.)

It’s impossible, though, not to notice three key things Lagon leaves out: He never defines trafficking. In his one stab at explaining it, he simply says, “Human trafficking is indeed about people being turned into commodities.” Of course, he sees sex as central:

Moreover when those ‘commodities’ are girls or women who are sold for their bodies’ sexual consumption, left, right, and center can agree this is an acute violation … At its heart, human trafficking involves groups of people being consigned to less-than-human or non-person status.

I loves me some hot commodity fetishism on a Saturday night

This defines nothing. It could be (and has been) said of any form of commodified labor in a capitalist society. Mark, go read Marx, or Mrs. Warren’s ProfessionBut it’s a bastard crib of socialism or Shaw, and it’s insidiously corrosive.  No credible economist would so deliberately obscure how both trafficking and stigmatized work really work.  Ann Jordan writes of the similar rhetoric of Siddharth Kara, a widely-read eradicationist and “poverty tourist”:

The most seriously flawed assumption he makes is to equate human beings — trafficked persons and sex workers — with commodities. His economic model treats women as passive objects that are pushed and pulled by exploiters using forced labor to lower costs to meet demand, and ignores the poverty, discrimination, and violence that compel women to make risky decisions. Adults who make rational choices from among limited options are actors who don’t fit a neat supply/demand economic model, and so they are factored out of the equation in order to situate trafficking as a commodity business.

Such broadbrush simplification is routine in sex work debates. Brandishing the “trafficking” term as a synecdoche for horror drives off serious thought. Fiona David, of the Australian Institute of Criminology, finds this rooted both in racism and in history:

[M]uch of the discussion today reflects and reinforces outdated stereotypes of Asian (or other developing world) women as passive, helpless victims, in need of rescue, thereby ignoring the reality of the difficult choices that these women might have made. I will note that present approaches to the issue strongly reflect the approaches that were taken to the issue in the nineteenth century, when European migrant sex workers were said to be victims of the “white slave trade.” Now, as then, interested organisations and the media are relying on what is really a “myth” of trafficking – a simplistic explanation for a messy and complex reality.

And the brilliant Gayle Rubin shows how views like Lagon’s draw on older, visceral fears about migration, race, and morals. “The constant conflation of trafficking and prostitution is neither accidental nor new. In fact, these contemporary confusions derive from the discourse about trafficking that emerged in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.”  The age of the anxieties doesn’t at all detract from the present fact that forced labor happens, in many forms. Yet it means we must analyze both presumed causes and proffered answers, to sort out superannuated prejudices from real solutions.

Human Rights Watch prostitution

Panic comes in both waves and articles: Graphic shows use of terms "white slave traffic," "traffic in women and children," and "human trafficking" in publications 1890-2008. Note how with the Bush ascendancy (and passage of a US "anti-trafficking" law) in 2000, the latter goes off the charts. Hat tip for the idea to

Lagon also omits any reliable figures about the size of the problem. This imprecision is epidemic in the trafficking panic.  Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist who has studied sex work extensively in many countries, writes,

Interest groups, the media, and the U.S. government have given very high estimates of the number of persons trafficked each year into the sex industry or other labor arenas. In some instances, the numbers appear to be pulled out of thin air, as in a Washington Post editorial … declaring that “trafficking is understood today as a global phenomenon exceeding 20 million cases each year.” [emphasis added]

The US government’s figures for trafficking victims globally (including trafficking within national borders) oscillated wildly, between “2 to 4 million” in 2006 and more than 12 million four years later. No real evidence backs either number. In 2006, when the government tossed around a “600,000 – 800,000” figure for worldwide trafficking across borders, its own internal watchdog, the General Accounting Office, studied the issue and found

such estimates of global human trafficking are questionable. The accuracy of the estimates is in doubt because of methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies. For example, the U.S. government’s estimate was developed by one person who did not document all his work, so the estimate may not be replicable, casting doubt on its reliability. Moreover, country data are not available, reliable, or comparable. There is also a considerable discrepancy between the numbers of observed and estimated victims of human trafficking.

1913 US film about "white slavery"

That last difference, between the numbers bandied around and those actually counted, is especially disturbing. Look at the State Department’s 2010 estimates again: 12.3 miliion allegedly trafficked around the world.  And how many concrete “victims identified” among those? 49,105.

Get out your calculator. That means only four-tenths of one percent of the people supposedly trafficked, from that heady 12m number, were actually identified as such.  By State’s alarmist reckoning, this shows a failure of services. But what if it’s a failure of the math? What kind of insane statistician observes x number of victims, then “estimates” the total by multiplying this by 250? Surely many trafficked people are invisible to law enforcement.  But 99.6% of them?  It’s not just a matter of the tip of the iceberg we’re talking here. The anti-trafficking paranoiacs think like drunken sailors who infer an abysmal berg from a snowflake melting in the waves.

No one would claim the unreliable numbers mean trafficking is insignificant. They do mean, though, that we need investigations first, not intemperate persecution. Yet Lagon’s métier is neither facts nor figures. It runs rather, as with other sex eradicationists, to rhetoric and morals. Tellingly, the blog of Lagon’s Polaris Project seems to have abandoned trying to find any individual sex-trafficking victims at all.  It’s turned to identifying fictional characters who may have been trafficked without the viewer’s knowing. These include Nicole Kidman’s role in Moulin Rouge (Nick Kristof, raid that movie now!), Verdi’s Aida, and Bizet’s tempestuous temptress.  The blog says:

The character Carmen is a joy to sing because she is active and aggressive where so many female characters in opera are passive and abused. But even with this, Carmen had many other ways to express her sexuality without taking money for it. Perhaps she sold sex because she had to. We as a society need to decide if we should force anyone into that position.

This concludes our 10 week series of posts on human trafficking in musical theater.

You cannot make this nonsense up.

Rare scenes of enslaved sopranos from an Andalusian brothel

Weitzer summarizes:

We are left with a set of farfetched claims about trafficking, claims that hardly lend themselves to evidence-based policy-making. The available evidence does not allow us to draw any conclusions about the magnitude of the problem. There are no reliable statistics on trafficking in any one nation, let alone worldwide. Even ballpark estimates are guesswork, given the clandestine nature of the sex trade. But precisely because the asserted numbers, trends, and proceeds cannot be verified, they can easily gain a life of their own and a veneer of credibility when repeatedly cited by the media and in government reports.  And such grandiose claims certainly have shock value.

Alas, the vaunting claims and the plausible veneer are how Lagon makes his living. Armored in moral nostrums, armed with ersatz estimates and a manufactured aura of emergency, the brave protector of Carmen from the pimps is able to convince Human Rights Watch he has serious things to say about women’s liberation.  Again, though, anybody can see his third omission: he has nothing workable to propose.

Lagon says his approach is “idealist,” not “materialist,” in solidarity with the old Bushite core constituency: the ideology-based rather than reality-based community. “It is true,” he admits to HRW grudgingly, “that the root cause of trafficking is poverty,” and

This materialist premise leads to the conclusion that fighting poverty broadly and creating economic opportunities is the solution … But we cannot just wait for the end of poverty. We need to act now and address the ideas that reduce women to second-class citizens … Of course, changing perspectives and cultures is enormously hard. [emphasis added]

This sounds cool. “Addressing ideas” is both a really long-term project – no irritating quarterly reports required — and cheap. We won’t be raising taxes on the 1% here!  But it doesn’t feed anybody. For people who have actually been trafficked (and people who chose domestic work or sex work but want a job that will let them leave), neglecting the material conditions that made them vulnerable is a map of failure.

The Bush administration liked failure. That was one thing it was good at!  Reporting on the “crusade against sex trafficking” for the Nation, Noy Thrupkaew tells of a USAID-supported Philippine NGO that, over two decades, “developed a rigorously holistic program for children in the commercial sex industry. It reaches out on all fronts–offering the families and children comprehensive psychosocial counseling, livelihood initiatives, microloans and tutoring and vocational training.”  Their programs showed a high success rate compared to evangelical Christian projects. But why encourage “materialism”?  Bush defunded them. Thanks, Mark.


In truth, Lagon aspires not to change minds but chain bodies. He falls back on the criminal law, that bluntest of instruments. His concrete call here and elsewhere is to criminalize demand, a project commonly named the “Swedish model” (not to be confused with “Stockholm syndrome,” though it reflects a similar confusion between captivity and freedom). This simply shifts state repression of sex from worker to customer (and everyone else around her). Laura Augustin, an anthropologist and expert on sex work who lives in Sweden, finds this “naïve” policy founded on a fantasy

that without a demand for commercial sex there will be no supply, ignoring the complicated ways sex-money markets work in cultures with different concepts of family and love, reducing a wide range of sexual activities to an abstract notion of violence and brushing aside the many people who confirm that they prefer selling sex to their other livelihood options.

It won’t end sex work; it’ll ensure it’s all underground. Two Swedish researchers discover no tangible decrease in commercial sex since the model strictures against clients took force. “The general estimate … is that sex workers have begun using other means [than public spaces] to find clients, and vice versa.” Meanwhile,

The most common and perhaps most serious complaint [from] sex workers themselves is that they experienced an increased stigmatization after the introduction of the Sex Purchase Act. … Sex workers object to the fact that they were not consulted in the making of the law. Since sex workers feel they are not able to influence their legal or societal situation, they feel powerless. And since the ban builds on the idea that women who sell sex are victims, weak and exploited, many claim that the law propagates stereotypical notions.

As Ann Jordan concludes, but Lagon implicitly denies, “To develop effective, evidence-based, do-no-harm policies, advocates and policy makers must work collaboratively with persons who may be helped or harmed by the proposed laws and policies.”

My body is my business: sex workers and their allies march for decriminalization in Nairobi, Kenya, March 6, 2012. For more images (and facts!) see

This leads to the question: Who most publicly treats women as commodities bereft of will? Answer: Eradicationist campaigners, who refuse to ask them what they want. Eradicationist videos rarely allow sex workers to speak. The women, Agustin comments, “are left in the background and treated like objects.” SWAAY says of Lagon’s last org, “By treating all sex workers as passive victims who can’t be allowed to make their own decisions, Polaris dehumanizes and objectifies us to serve their own conservative goals.”

Unfortunately, Human Rights Watch’s lack of a policy on the criminal penalties for sex work also leaves it lacking an “effective, evidence-based, do-no-harm” principle to inform its interventions. This makes it intellectually vulnerable to a doubtful character like Lagon trafficking its good name.  But there are worse consequences. The silence damages a highly competent organization’s ability to achieve all it needs to in the field. There is no good reason to equivocate in defending people’s autonomy.  But absent recognizing that criminal penalties for consensual sex are wrong, the group is left fatally hesitant about who its allies are and what it can demand abusive governments do.

Some years back, after speaking to sex worker activists in Cambodia, researchers urged a report on the devastating impact of a new anti-trafficking law passed there (at the Bush administration’s behest). Comments by HRW’s legal office on the preliminary proposal show how leery the leadership can be over suggestions that sex workers should own their sexualities:

We are not taking a position that sex work should be legal, and we have to be careful not to cross that line. We can make clear that sex workers have rights – just as undocumented workers have rights –that must be protected, and which enforcement of the law against those involved in abuse, exploitation etc should not trample on etc.  – but we are not advocates for establishing a sex industry. …

Regarding the legal framework, the report is going to have to try hard to position itself as anti-trafficking and at least neutral on prostitution per se in order to have impact. The goals should be focused around how to better prevent trafficking, and not how to protect prostitutes from the law. …

We [should] challenge the basis of detentions of sex workers as not complying with international human rights standards on detention, not on the basis that they should not be arrested simply for sex work. …

Banners at a 2008 "Day of Action" in Phnom Penh, organized by Womyn's Agenda for Change and Women's Network for Unity (WNU). WNU, a Cambodian sex worker union, has over 5,000 members. © Heidi Hoefinger

Even looking down from the high balcony of years, I am still embarrassed by the reluctance to “protect prostitutes from the law.” The law is what they usually need protecting from. I’d just note one thing here. None of us ever asked HRW to be “advocates for establishing a sex industry.”  A sex industry is established in every country, thank you, and it will flourish whether the Watch wishes or no. The line, with its nervous exaggeration, doesn’t reflect legal reason. It’s the language of fear: fear of the slippery slope and the corrupting precedent, fear of sex, fear that if you support the basic rights of sex workers to deploy their bodies you will find strip clubs under your desk by morning and a brothel in your refrigerator next week. Laura Agustin cites the arguments the state made in fighting Canada’s recent court decision commanding regard for sex workers’ rights. Decriminalization, lawyers claimed, would carry “irreparable harms to the public interest,” “more drug trafficking, violence, garbage, noise and traffic from johns,” rampant red-lightery,  police “powerless to protect residents in vulnerable neighbourhoods.”  In other words, Agustin says, “they are afraid of Change. They are fantasizing all the scary things that could happen, but they cannot provide any evidence that they will happen.”  Similar anxieties inflect Human Rights Watch’s inability to come up with a policy respecting sex workers’ sexual rights.

The resulting report on Cambodia was a disastrous mess, one that alienated sex worker activists across Asia. Although focused on the anti-trafficking law, it couldn’t manage to condemn its key provisions. Andrew Hunter, of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, has declared on this blog:

The recommendations are shockingly inadequate, and internal arguments over them delayed the whole report until it was really too late for it to be of any use at all. We argue[d] and argued about recognizing sex workers’ right to livelihood, but to no avail.

The same reticence and insecurity will continue to erode HRW’s relationships with sex worker activists.

Sex workers in a small town in Maharashtra, India, march for their human rights , March 3, 2012

Indeed, The Unfinished Revolution shows a suspicious inability to recognize that sex workers can be activists for themselves. Consider this misleading sentence from its introduction:

Meena Seshu, the founder of the Indian non-governmental organization Sampada Gramin Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM) is an example of a human rights defender who has used education in her organization’s efforts to prevent HIV/AIDS in the provinces of Maharashtra and northern Karnataka, particularly among sex workers who have a relatively high risk of contracting the disease.

I know Meena – even before she was an HRW awardee in 2004 – and this picture of the rights defender as elevated educator-from-on-high couldn’t be less accurate in SANGRAM’s case. The landmark NGO’s focus is empowering sex workers to protect their rights as sex workers, as well as beyond sex work. SANGRAM and groups that grew out of it (such as Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad or VAMP, the Prostitutes’ Collective Against Injustice) helped start a wave of sex worker activism sweeping South Asia, with politicized prostitutes demanding decriminalization, legal protections, and workers’ rights. To watch a coven of empowered Indian sex workers slap down earnest white people who imagine they know better, check out this fierce VAMP video – in answer to a Western film that falsely claimed they were trafficked and coerced:

Message to HRW: Don’t mess with these folks.

It’s sad that a book like this fails to applaud these heroes and furnish them a platform. By contrast, when The Unfinished Revolution addresses the exploitation of female domestic labor, the chapter stresses domestic workers’ struggles for their own rights. But when it comes to sex workers’ activism, the anthology is silent. Instead, if sex is at issue, it falls back on tired, imperially tainted fantasies of victimhood and Western intervention. The book claims sex workers are deprived of agency; but it does the depriving itself.

Across South Asia, sex worker activism has reshaped women’s movements as well as ideas of the public sphere. Propped next to HRW’s anthology in my local bookstore was a collection on South Asian Feminisms.  It had an entire section on “Feminism, Sex Work, and the Politics of Sexuality,” with analyses of sex worker movements from Bangalore to Bangladesh. Ha! You wouldn’t guess any of this from the HRW tome. And here’s the irony: the ivory-tower academics are more in touch with activism actually happening than the supposedly hard-nosed realists of human rights, who persist in denial. The former have to see things as they are; but the latter’s perceptions stay bound to an iron wheel of ideological presuppositions.

Where sex is concerned, HRW’s anthology succumbs to ideology, a compendium of suppositions. Its pages treat sex as danger. Quite correctly, the volume emphasizes sexual violence as one of the worst and most widespread rights violations targeting women. But it never stretches to acknowledge sex as also a resource and a right, as something plenty of women want, as a precious possibility that people – lesbians, prostitutes, adulteresses, “respectable” women – will fight and die for.

Poster by Boy With Arms Akimbo, 1989, US.

In reproductive rights, HRW has been pathbreaking, affirming abortion as a basic freedom before most “mainstream” groups would. But even then, there’s been reluctance to admit that women might seek contraception, or the legal power to end a pregnancy, not just for medical or economic reasons, but because they want to have more sex. And what about admitting those women are right to do so? As with sodomy and adultery, the question here drives down to bedrock: what are we talking about, when we talk about sex?  How important is it, and why do people want it? Isn’t sex something you should have full power to enjoy, reject, revel in, even sell as you desire? I once heard one of HRW’s leading figures refer in a meeting to “sexual rights, which are a subset of reproductive rights.” Rick Santorum couldn’t more succinctly phrase his beau ideal of sex as purposive.  But that’s simply not how most people fuck, live, or love – and certainly not how most sexual rights defenders see it. Human Rights Watch needs to accept and fight for sexual autonomy as part of personhood to be prized, a benefit and a universal entitlement and an end in itself.

Sex can be an arena of wounding vulnerability – frequently for women and trans people, often for gay men, sometimes even for straight males or others. It can also be a wellspring not just of pleasure but of independence and power, as Audre Lorde and many others knew. To stress the one aspect without paying homage to the other is to fling acid in one of its Janus faces, to deny the deep flow of freedom through one of the most elemental human experiences.

Of course, there are plenty of feminists as well as moralists, committed carers and anti-sex militants  alike — within as well as outside the human rights world — who would doubt or disagree. Lagon’s positions, and the eradicationist approach, have supporters: powerful ones. And ample room remains for debate.

But there’s a basic ethic of human rights work: one should present the facts in full, not cherrypick them to fit one’s preferences. When Human Rights Watch’s book endorses Lagon’s views with no indication that they occasion massive controversy within the field of human rights itself; when it suggests that “traffickers” and “victims” (and “saviors”) are the only roles that prostitution affords, while deliberately ignoring the voices and advocacy of sex workers themselves who have laid claim to their rights as sex workers – all this isn’t just a gross failure to give the facts.  It’s a failure of ethics.

Part 3 continues below.

** The statement appeared on Lagon’s blog at the Polaris Project in 2009, but seems to have been taken down since, after it aroused a small storm of indignation.

Human Rights Watch on women’s sexuality: Nice women don’t have one (3)

This is part 3 of a three-part post. Parts 1 and 2 are above.

Campaign poster for Proposition K, a 2008 initiative to decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco, US

Professionally, we prefer victims:  or, the rescue trap

Does human rights – the Western human rights movement  — respect human autonomy?

I don’t just mean “sexual autonomy” now. I mean autonomy that encompasses and goes beyond that, the power of everyone to speak for themselves, represent themselves, be the selves or unselves they desire.

What a silly question. Of course! That’s the whole point, isn’t it?

And yet.

Other people ask the questions better than me. Teju Cole, for instance, countered the save-Africa panic churned up by the Kony 2012 viral video by naming and shaming the “White Savior Industrial Complex” and its attentions to the continent. He doesn’t single out the human rights industry, but it’s implicit in the way he describes social movements doing it for themselves:

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. … [A] nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. …

… How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact.

Let me draw into this discussion an example from an African country I know very well. Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Nigerians took to their country’s streets to protest the government’s decision to remove a subsidy on petrol. … But what made these protests so heartening is that they were about more than the subsidy removal. Nigeria has one of the most corrupt governments in the world and protesters clearly demanded that something be done about this. …

This is not the sort of story that is easy to summarize in an article, much less make a viral video about. … There is certainly no “bridge character,” [Nicholas] Kristof’s euphemism for white saviors in Third World narratives who make the story more palatable to American viewers. And yet, the story of Nigeria’s protest movement is one of the most important from sub-Saharan Africa so far this year. Men and women, of all classes and ages, stood up for what they felt was right; they marched peacefully; they defended each other, and gave each other food and drink; Christians stood guard while Muslims prayed and vice-versa; and they spoke without fear to their leaders about the kind of country they wanted to see. All of it happened with no cool American 20-something heroes in sight.

Women in fuel protest, Lagos, Nigeria, January 2012 (Photo: AP/Sunday Alamba)

It’s interesting how often Nick Kristof serves as symbolic figure for folks who want to critique the white savior complex. But he sets himself up for it. His telegenic stunt activism – live-tweeting his raid on a brothel to “rescue” women, congratulating himself on his flirtations with peril, all with a cool eye on divine Reputation and its Valkyrie paparazzi – lays out a seductive pattern for the type. (He comes up for approving mention in The Unfinished Revolution too.)  Laura Agustin, as always, is incisive:

Welcome to the Rescue Industry, where characters like Kristof get a free pass to act out fun imperialist interventions masked as humanitarianism. No longer claiming openly to carry the White Man’s Burden, rescuers nonetheless embrace the spectacle of themselves rushing in to save miserable victims, whether from famine, flood or the wrong kind of sex. … The Rescue Industry that has grown up in the past decade around US policy on human trafficking shows how imperialism can work in softer, more palatable ways than military intervention. …

Like many unreflective father figures, Kristof sees himself as fully benevolent. Claiming to give voice to the voiceless, he does not actually let them speak.

Instead, as we say nowadays, it’s all about Kristof: his experience, terror, angst, confusion, desire. Did anyone rescued in his recent brothel raid want to be saved like that, with the consequences that came afterwards, whatever they were? That is what we do not know and will not find out from Kristof.

Placard from sex workers' human rights march, March 2012, Cape Town, South Africa

The temptations of this kind of self-aggrandizing self-delusion are all the stronger in international human rights work, which carries both the armor of moral impeccability and the obligation of representation. Its job is carrying stories across borders; it takes on representing people in absentia, a strange, dangerous task.  Who’d be surprised if, in the process, its practitioners begin to acquire a creeping indifference to the wills and voices of those they represent?

Human Rights Watch is not overcome by those impulses, but it’s certainly not immune either. It used to say, in its self-descriptions, that it provided a “voice for the voiceless.” This phrase, so malignly common among those who work and talk across borders, neglected the fact that the movements and activists and even victims it supported usually had plenty of decibels at their disposal, and could scream with the best of them; it was just that the West preferred not to listen. But if you say that about yourself enough, you start acting that way, around the edges.

The effects showed when, for years, rights activists who were recipients of HRW’s prestigious annual award – articulate spokesmen at home — arrived in the US, only to be handed the speech the organization had written for them. They showed in a film screened at one of the Human Rights Watch gala annual dinners, full to the gills with gazillionaires: a very nice production about the organization’s work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The problem was that, as the minutes wore on, you realized not a single person from the DRC was speaking. You saw them them in footage, interviewed by an HRW researcher, who diligently took notes; but the soundtrack and the voiceovers drowned them out. The organization did’t think them relevant: They cannot represent themselvesthey must be represented. Instead, HRW talked to itself about its own efforts in the DRC. It felt like a cross between Heart of Darkness and Krapp’s Last Tape.

Oh, Krapp

Some shows up in The Unfinished Revolution, as well. Although it calls itself “Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights,” two thirds of the book’s chapters are by present or former HRW staff. And with two articles on Afghanistan, you’d think an actual Afghan could have been found to write perhaps one. It’s hard not to read in this an unconscious confidence that the organization knows best about the world and its countries, better than the countries’ citizens do. As the old Oxford doggerel went:

First come I. My name is Jowett.
There’s no knowledge but I know it.
I am master of this college;
What I don’t know isn’t knowledge.

For far too long information in the international human rights movement has flowed from periphery to center, from Congo and Cairo and Buenos Aires and Bangladesh to London, Geneva, New York. Only there, once edited and published in the capitals, did it mature into Knowledge. And there it stayed, little bartered back and no returning current. Sometimes it festered, and the gangrene of arrogance set in.

shut up, he explained

I’m certainly not calling this universal, in Human Rights Watch or anywhere else. Nor is it some sinister, deliberate plot to deprive others of their voices and agency. It’s rather a danger built into the practice of representation, the art and politics – Faustian with a touch of Edgar Bergen – of speaking for somebody else. The exercise of lending vividness to the lives of others tends to shale into the assumption that one knows what they want, and what’s best for them. You get more used to their desperation than their autonomy. You start seeing victims even when they’re not there.

There is a less tendentious dimension to this problem as well – one not just about the problems of practicing politics in a still-imperial world, but about democratic politics itself, and its discontents. A line of thinkers, including Isaiah Berlin, Joseph Raz, and John Gray, has emphasized that a coherent liberalism, unlike most philosophies, can imply no single vision of the Good Life to which members of a community should aspire. The old moral philosopher’s vision of existence cut to one dress pattern is motheaten now. Modern democratic society must embrace the maximum diversity of life projects without tilting its overt or intangible preference toward any.

Human rights, which expressly aims only to set out basic ground rules for the functioning of political societies, in some ways models this modern claim to neutrality in values. Yet maintaining the pose of studied impartiality is particularly hard both for communities and for individuals accustomed to subjecting not just acts, but lives, to moral scrutiny. And political life, as well as the practice of rights protection itself, keeps slipping back over into an idea that freedom implies a positive commitment, is about you living the life I like for you, one fulfilled not just in itself but by certain external standards. Some versions say: Now you are free to live the Good Life, which means wearing gray pajamas, saluting the Leader, and bathing in cold bilgewater every morning at 5. But it hardly has to be that extreme. More commonly they tell us: Now you are free to live the Good Life, which is the life of political struggle and engagement. Or the life of appreciating Beauty and Art. Or the uxorious life of family with someone whose genitals differ from your own.  Or the life which certainly does not include selling your sexual services online.

What kind of self-correction can we build into human rights movements — especially with the moral exemption from critique they often claim — to keep them understanding victimhood as an exceptional breach rather than a definitional condition of people’s lives; to keep them respecting autonomy in all parts of all people’s lives, including that most charged and symbol-laden sphere, sex?

Me, I have no answer. In fact, the best self-correction I know is asking questions.

However. This has been as long as a human rights report; and since reports end with recommendations, I’d feel amiss if I didn’t offer a couple, at least to Human Rights Watch. Here goes:

  • Human Rights Watch needs to work much, much harder on integrating thematic issues across all its work, so that no wasted opportunity like the untruthful, unfinished Unfinished Revolution occurs again. And donors have a role to play in this. You need to support the LGBT Rights Program, and other thematic divisions, because their work is vital. But supporters who care about sexual rights should press HRW to make it part of all its relevant reporting. Before you sign the check, ask HRW’s leadership to tell you in concrete terms what they are doing to change both the mindset and the structure of the organization, to implement and cement that integration. If you’re going to show you think the work is important, so should they.
  • I’ve got no idea whether, after years of being dissed, sex worker movements are really interested anymore in nicely asking the mainstream organizations to recognize their rights to bodily autonomy and livelihood. A sex worker picking up The Unfinished Revolution couldn’t be blamed for saying, Why bother? But in principle, one should press the organization to do the right thing. And I recommend bypassing the lawyers and their obfuscations, and going to Ken Roth and the leadership directly. If anybody still cares to make an effort, the World AIDS Conference is coming up, and Washington is just a short train ride from New York. This might be a good time to demand a meeting.

Sexual rights are too important to get screwed again.

Lesbian Avengers flyer, US

N.B. This piece draws on the draft of the volume I’m finishing, tentatively titled Out of Here: Sex and Rights in the World. If you like it, look to buy the book when it’s published. If you don’t like it, buy the book anyway and deface the margins.