When we think about human rights issues, civil rights come to mind. The progressive among us may think about the rights of those in the LGBTQ+ community. Rarely do we consider sex workers and the rights they need and are often denied.
But a new pop up exhibit hopes to change that.
Sex Workers Pop Up, in Greenwich Village, is, according to its website, “an exhibition that features artwork and performances about sex work from around the world.” The point of the exhibit is to ask visitors to “listen to the voices of sex workers, and reflect on how society defines work.”
The exhibition highlighted Black trans women and their experiences working on the street, an art installation that featured tools of the trade, a photography series showing how sex workers in New York had been displaced because of gentrification and a fascinating video piece with sex workers from South Africa sharing their experiences in a short film called Sweat.
During our visit to the pop up, we spoke to Kholi Buthelezi, one of the women on the pop-up shop’s advisory committee and national coordinator for Sisonke, a global movement for sex workers by sex workers.
I spoke to Buthelezi about the rights sex workers are looking to procure and more.
“The purpose of this exhibition is to invite the people, encourage people to come and hear what are the issues sex workers are facing, what is it that sex workers would want or prefer in terms of support, in terms of advocating for laws to change and the call for decriminalization. I think people tend to misunderstand and misrepresent sex workers because the call for decriminalization is not about sexual intercourse, it’s about changing laws. So then sex workers, all they need is protection so they can express themselves freely and be able also to fight underage exploitation. Because currently, people are doing as they please. People are talking about trafficking and they conflate it with sex work. For sex work to be decriminalized, that will then change and it will be clear. If sex workers are part of the problem, then let them be part of the solution. “
Buthelezi said sex work has been criminalized in South Africa since 1957. But only the sex worker was punished. It wasn’t until 2007 that the buyer or client was held accountable as well. But even today, corrupt police practices prevent clients from being prosecuted.
“For me, I see this in the way that police wouldn’t want to arrest the clients. Because they’re making money from clients. If they caught sex workers with the clients, then they are negotiating. According to South African law, a sex worker should be arrested if she’s caught in the act. So it’s very rare because people are not having sex in public spaces. You pick up a sex worker and maybe you go to a hotel or to a guest house. Because sexual intercourse is a private thing. So they would pick up the sex worker in a police van and then they would threaten the client to say we will tell your wife or your girlfriend. Then they fear and they go and draw money at the ATM to bribe. There is not much persecution for the buyer because people are making it a source of income.”
What are some of the stereotypes people have about sex workers?
My Lord! I can list them until tomorrow. Sex workers are HIV spreaders. They call sex workers names. Sex workers are stupid. They have no feelings. There’s a lot of stereotypes.
What are the demands sex workers in South Africa are asking for?
“Sex workers are asking for protection. They’re asking to have access to the same rights as everyone, which is basic rights. They’re not asking for special treatment. They’re asking for basic rights. Which are rights same as yours, same as mine. Same as everyone. Also, the call for decriminalization because that brings that protection element, the labor element. Because sex work is not recognized as work. Decriminalization is about changing laws.”
In what ways are sex workers marginalized?
I think sex workers are marginalized in everything. If you’re a sex worker, you can’t even access facilities properly. Sex workers do have access to government clinics. But for trans women, it’s very difficult. For trans women, the stigma to them is multiple because they are trans and doing sex work. Sometimes they become homeless because their families don’t accept them as who they are.
And the other thing I think I’d like to highlight is sex workers are human beings just like anyone else. Let’s recognize them as human beings and respect them and protect them.
Experience art and performances by and about sex workers from around the world at 9 West 8th Street from March 10-16, 10 AM-8 PM in NYC.