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Я – секс работник

All of March Express Woman shared stories from some of the sex workers who have formed the Caribbean Sex Worker Coalition (CSWC). The accounts of two female, two transgender, and two male sex workers (one gay, the other

heterosexual) gave insight into the realities of Caribbean socio-economics, sexuality and gender relations that led them to sell sex. They've also opened the dialogue on the health and human rights issues affecting sex workers including minors in sex work, safe sex negotiation, violence, sexual diversity, and harassment and apathy by the police. Today we speak with Kamala Kempadoo. The social science professor at York University is of Guyanese descent and has made a study of the global sex workers' movement.

It's happening. Our sex workers are finding a voice.

As extreme as this mobilisation process may seem to some, it isn't a new revolution. There are sex worker rights groups from India to Indonesia, Nicaragua to New Zealand. In "Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance and Redefinition"-a collection of essays edited by Kempadoo and Jo Doezama-there are accounts of sex workers revealing corruption, challenging stereotypes and fighting to keep brothels open throughout the world. Essays with titles like "The Association of Autonomous Women Workers" and "The Exotic Dancers Alliance" underline a global trend in organisation among working girls and boys.

In Latin America and the Caribbean prostitutes have been organising for almost twenty years. In fact Suriname and the Dominican Republic, two of the countries that form the Caribbean Sex Worker Coalition, have established sex worker organisations-the Maxi Linder Association and the Movimiento de Mujeres Unidas (MODEMU).

The English Speaking Caribbean is late.

I asked Kempadoo what factors muzzled prostitutes in our parts while to our immediate north, south and west sex workers have been speaking out.

"I don't have a definitive answer on that," she starts. "It lies in part in the way in which the law is framed. The Dutch colonial law banned brothels but did not criminalise the prostitute herself. Generally the Dutch culture surrounding prostitution has been tolerant and that carried over in colonialism to the Dutch Caribbean."

Legislation and culture are the dominant forces. The role of religion is unclear but in Latin America culture trumped Catholicism.

The "sex worker" is new to a region that has spoken in terms of prostitutes and whores for centuries. Kempadoo points out that the industry is so mired in stereotypes and judgment that the organisation of the community itself is essential if their needs are to be addressed.

"There is a hesitance on the part of sex workers to encounter people who have moral positions about prostitution. If you just dig a little you'd find that with many of the NGOs and women's organisations there is a negative attitude toward prostitution which translates into negative interactions or a kind of help-and-rescue approach. That," Kempadoo says, "is a quick barrier to any kind of outreach".

But meaningful outreach is possible even in legal and social frameworks like ours. The world's largest sex worker organisation is from Calcutta, India. Kempadoo revealed that despite similar statutes they have been strong on HIV, child care, education and furthering the discourse on de-stigmatisation. The group even has a self regulatory board that ensures minors don't get involved in the trade.

The introduction to a Sex Workers' Manifesto agreed to at the First National Conference of Sex Workers in India eleven years ago has resonance in the Caribbean.

A new spectre seems to be haunting the society. Or maybe those phantom creatures who have been pushed into the shades for ages are taking on human form - and that is why there is so much fear. The sex workers' movement for the last few years has made us confront many fundamental questions about social structures, life, sexuality, moral rights and wrongs. We think an intrinsic component of our movement is to go on searching for the answers to these questions and raise newer ones.

Kempadoo stresses that the discourse on Caribbean sex work is part of an essential regional reflection. We've managed to avoid much of it thus far. For example she debunks the myth that prostitution in the region is driven by foreigners. It's mostly local men buying sex from women, other men and transgenders. But our collective understanding of who these clients are and what fuels their desire is murky.

"That is the big question," Kempadoo says. "Who are the clients? When we begin to look at who the clients are and what the demand is we get a bigger picture that tells us the industry is not tourism driven. In some places tourism plays an important role but by far it's locals buying sex. The sex tourism notion is a handy one to deflect attention from that fact and it's partly because people don't want to turn attention inside. A lot of what we see on the street in Guyana and Trinidad is exclusively for local clienteles. Tourists aren't going to the streets to buy sex."

Kempadoo even found this preponderance of home-based support to be true of Campo Alegre, a state-sanctioned brothel in Curacao. Locals far outnumbered visitors in client records.

Gay sex is the second big mystery. The accounts of sex workers reveal a seething demand for sex with men and transgenders. It's a desire that contradicts everything we hear from men in dancehalls and rum shops and living rooms about homosexuality. In week two of the series we met Mary and Jane, two transsexuals. The two shared accounts of johns who actively participate in the illusion that they were born female.

Jane had an insightful take: "It's a mind over matter thing. They know it is a man but they don't want to hear it. If you don't tell them you're a man they will go home and lie down with their wives and feel conscience-free that they slept with a woman."

Kempadoo finds revelations like these particularly interesting.

"A lot more men are crossing over these boundaries than we expect," she comments. "Some of them are not even acknowledging their desire but they are still seeking sex with other men. It raises questions about what is going on with Caribbean masculinity. The discourse on sex work will help us understand how masculinity is shaped and how men are understanding their sexuality."

But how far can outreach extend in the hostile climate created by the statute books and cultivated by law enforcement and public opinion? Kempadoo says decriminalisation is key.

"The criminalisation of sex work allows police violence and brutality to take place. It prevents people from identifying themselves as sex workers to other kinds of agencies that could be supportive to them. It works at the straight legal level," Kempadoo explains "but also at a psychological level".

Source: Trinidad & Tobago Express, Trinidad and Tobago