Trafficking, Rights and Rescue: Sex Worker Perspectives at Arts Festival

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Anti-trafficking efforts, carried out by police and even military, loom over sexworkers as a recurrent theme in the work of artists and cultural organizers at the 7th Biennial Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival.

Anti-trafficking efforts, carried out by police and even military, loom over sexworkers as a recurrent theme in the work of artists and cultural organizers at the 7th Biennial Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival. (

"Sexwork is not trafficking!” chant sexworker rights activists at the Cambodian embassy in a video by PJ Starr ( In their videos, performance and visual arts, sexworker artists from around the world comment on the current response to trafficking, claiming that it has sparked a wave of criminalization which drives sexworkers underground, resulting in a rise in violence and police abuse.

“In the current climate, the diverse stories of individual sexworkers get lost,” says Carol Leigh, co-director of the SW Film and Arts Festival. "Sexworker activists discuss a far more common form of abuse within their communities, the harm done by criminalization and stigmatization, as well as the harm done in the name of rescue and through anti-trafficking laws and policies."

"Sex Workers WANT to Stop Trafficking" by Serpent Libertine and Sex Workers Outreach Project ( presents the difference between commercial sex and trafficking. They explain why it's important to include sexworkers and their clients in the fight against trafficking. "Sexworkers are part of the solution, but criminalization and harassment by law enforcement often prevents them from addressing and stopping abuse."

"Modern Day Asian Sex Slavery: The Musical" ( Mariko Passion's one-woman play, is, "a response to the media portrayal of all Asian sex workers as victims of pimps and traffickers. Passion juxtaposes those stereotypes against the real enemy, exposing the victimization of racism, marginalization and ignorance around the real lives of sex workers of Asian descent in the U.S and in Asia."

In her workshop "Real Feminists and Human Rights Activists Don't Buy Ashton: How Irrational Panic over ‘Modern Day Slavery’ Harms Women," Emi Koyama ( examines “facts” presented by U.S.-based anti-trafficking groups, and how they have distorted our conversations about human trafficking and sex trade, harming women, sex workers, immigrants, people of color, and others--and how sex workers and allies can respond to them. The title refers to "Real Men Don't Buy Girls!" Ashton Kutcher's internet campaign against trafficking AND adult commercial sex.

"Somaly Uh-Uh: Bad Rehab," by Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, ( set to the tune of pop singer Lady Gaga’s "Bad Romance," tells "a harrowing stop motion story of street raids, imprisonment and brutality designed to 'reeducate' Cambodian sex workers, outrages all sponsored by the Cambodian government and anti-trafficking fraudster Somaly Mam," writes Festival Curator, Laure McElroy.

A number of videos in the Festival also address these issues:

The Caribbean Treatment Action Group and the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition represents a new trend and emphasis in human rights as a basis for access to health services. This video "The Right To Be, " focuses on migrant sex workers and discrimination with the backdrop of public health goals concerning HIV. This harm reduction based approach is in sharp contrast to sexwork abolitionism, which is the basis for mainstream approaches to trafficking. In "The Right To Be" Princess Brown, President of the SexWorkers Association of Jamaica explains the consistent abuse of sex workers by police, making it clear that using the police to rescue sex workers is a recipe for failure, corruption and abuse.

In "SexWorkers World Cup" from Germany, Christina Schäfer, Tanja Chawla and Doro Wiese explain, "Just before the World Cup 2006, Germany was overrun by the rumor that 40,000 women were going to be trafficked into Germany for forced prostitution. This film tries to grasp how the discourse came about, and what the realities were for sex workers during the games."

The RighT Guide by Aim For Human Rights ( is a video introduction to The RighT guide, a tool for NGOs and community based groups to assess the human rights impact of anti-trafficking laws, policies and measures. The RighT guide was made in response to "increasing concerns of anti-trafficking, sex workers rights and migrant workers rights activists and organizations that many anti-trafficking measures not only fail to protect the rights of trafficked persons, but actually do harm by undermining or negatively affecting the human rights of the people affected by those policies."

Note: Sex work is two words, combined in this article for distribution purposes.


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Erica Fabulous, Carol Leigh
San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival
(415) 751-1659
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