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A Union of Pimps and Johns

Posted on May 18, 2017

By Julie Bindel

  Prostitutes in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (AP / David Longstreath)

During a trip to Cambodia in the summer of 2015 I came across a well-funded NGO that purported to run the largest union of “sex workers” in Southeast Asia. In Phnom Penh, I had arranged to meet a group of women who were, I was told, members of the “sex workers” union that had been founded by the Women’s Network for Unity (WNU). The WNU, which received funding by the Open Society Foundation, a multibillion-dollar fund set up by the investor George Soros, has a clear pro-prostitution agenda.

Our meeting was scheduled for 8 a.m. I brought with me a translator from another Cambodian women’s NGO. On arrival at the venue, I was surprised to find that a board member of the WNU had also decided to attend.

The women arrived, and, despite the fact that they had been out all night dealing with sex buyers and pimps, were warm, open and keen to talk about the violence and abuse they endure from sex buyers and police.

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The board member interrupted them regularly, often speaking for them. I asked “What are the benefits of being in the union?” She answered on their behalf: “If the women are beaten up by the police, they are given legal training on their rights; if they are arrested, the WNU will provide food during the time they cannot work; and if one of the women dies, they will help to buy the coffin.” She concluded that “knowing their rights empowers them.”

The women seemed anything but empowered. One told me she could get out of prostitution only if she had $200 to buy formal identification papers, because this was the only way to secure legitimate employment in, say, the service industry or a factory. The other women joined in, saying this is also what they needed and wanted. They hated prostitution, they said.

WNU representatives claim they have 6,500 Cambodian “sex workers” on their books fighting for “sex workers’ rights.” The translator said that none of the women I met with used the term “sex work” to describe what they do, or “sex worker” to describe who they are. This language was used by the WNU. One of WNU’s aims is “to challenge the rhetoric around sex work, particularly that concerned with the anti-trafficking movement and the ‘rehabilitation’ of sex workers.” All the women asked me where they could get help to escape the hell they were in. Meanwhile, WNU board members and paid staff travel the region, speaking at “sex workers’ rights” conferences, distorting the voices of exploited women.

The prostituted women in Cambodia made it clear to me how much they hated prostitution. The board member said she had been at a regional conference with other “sex workers’ rights” activists and that “tens of thousands” of “sex workers” in Cambodia signed up to this so-called union. The women I spoke to had no idea that they were “sex workers’ rights” activists.

The experiences of these women were being used by WNU to promote the idea that unionization and decriminalization—a result of prostitution being formally recognized as labor—would solve all problems, despite the fact that the worst violence described by the women was by sex buyers. This NGO considered the concept of “sex workers’ rights” to be above and beyond the importance of the lives of the women themselves. I asked the board member if WNU was planning on raising money to help the women out of prostitution. She said “No.”

A documentary on prostitution in Cambodia titled “(Sex Workers Cry) Rights Not Rescue in Cambodia” is described as a collaboration between the 6,400-member WNU Cambodia and Paula Stromberg, the filmmaker.

The coordinator of WNU is interviewed for the film, and says: “WNU is an association of sex workers—adult women, men and transgender people. We choose to work. We are not victims. We are not trafficked. No one owns us. We don’t have pimps. No brothel owners enslave us. We do not want to be rescued.”

I found this statement quite difficult to process, having spent time in Cambodia speaking to prostituted women, pimps and bar owners.

In an email exchange with me, Stromberg wrote: “I would find it presumptuous for me as a Canadian to speak on behalf of the sex workers here in Cambodia. That is often the source of their problem—that everyone wants to speak about them, but few want to listen their voices.”

But as I had discovered in Cambodia, the WNU does speak for “sex workers,” literally putting words in the women’s mouths.

By the time I visited Cambodia I was very familiar with sex work lobbyists’ oft-adopted tactics of presenting pro-pimp organizations as “sex workers’ unions.” In 2002, the front page headline of a London newspaper read, “Sex workers to join trade union.” 


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