Chi Mgbako talked about her book “To Live Freely in This World: Sex Worker Activism in Africa” with Professor of Law James Cavallaro in Public Affairs Center (PAC) on Thursday, Nov. 14. In the discussion, Mgbako, a Clinical Professor of Law and Founding Director of the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic at Fordham Law School, illuminated current debates within the sex workers’ rights movement both in Africa and internationally.
Mgbako first started studying sex work as a human rights issue when she realized the extent to which sex workers’ voices are underrepresented. While studying human rights at Harvard University, she said that sex work was the only topic in her seminar that failed to include an article written by a member of the community as part of the required readings. Mgbako wanted to provide these voices with a platform for representation in human rights discourse, and her book is largely a realization of this goal.
“I wanted to tell a story of the sex workers movement in Africa because it is the newest wave of the global sex workers movement,” Mgbako said. “It has been ongoing since the 1960s and ’70s, but somehow nobody has written a book about it.”
Mgbako met with sex workers in Africa to understand and document abuses from first-hand sources. Citing interviews and first-person narratives as her evidence, she argues instead that the harm is not in sex work itself, but in the harshness of the carceral state and the criminalization of sex work itself.
“There is a tremendous amount of human rights abuses against sex workers, but they come in the form of police violence, lack of access to justice, lack of access to health care, and lack of labor rights protections,” Mgbako said.
Since sex work is widely considered criminal, she explained, sex workers themselves are often marginalized, stigmatized, and discriminated against.
“Because they are a criminalized community, in a way it justifies the stigma that people feel towards sex workers,” Mgbako said.
Stigma compromises the physical, economic, and legal security of sex workers. Mgbako said that when sex workers go to health centers for check-ups, to get tested for STIs, or to acquire condoms, they are often rejected by healthcare workers. Sex workers also lack labor protection rights, as they work in an underground and criminalized economy. Faced with these abuses, they often have few avenues for direct action or justice.
“In terms of lack of access to justice, when they are victims of violence, they are not believed,” Mgbako said. “That’s why we see really high rates of unsolved murders of sex workers.”
In her research, Mgbako found that anti-prostitution activists, who argue that sex work is inherently harmful to sex workers, claim that the movement is dominated by white, Western, well-to-do sex workers, as a way of trying to delegitimize the sex workers’ rights movement. These activists argue that the leaders of the movement are “non-representative” of the sex industry as a whole, but Mgbako pushes against this view. Although in the early years of the movement sex workers from the Global North dominated the sex workers’ rights movement, she argues that this is no longer the case.
“I wanted to push back against what I thought was a cynical, race-class critique that was actually silencing the voices of sex workers of color from the Global South,” Mgbako said. “As a human rights advocate, my work is really just in line with their demands.”
In reality, the issue of representation lies in the debate over ending prostitution or decriminalizing sex work, as the most dominant voices pushing for the end to prostitution often have either never worked or no longer work in the sex industry.
“There is an academic debate in feminist circles, and then there is what is actually happening on the streets, at truck stops and in massage parlors,” Mgbako said. “It is a very different conversation.”
Feminist activists who are removed from real-life conditions often argue that sex workers engage in this line of work because they have no other choice. Mgbako’s accounts of sex workers’ experiences negate this narrative. According to her findings, for many sex workers, sex work is an economically rational choice.
“The narratives I was hearing from sex workers were not that much different from the narratives I was hearing from other workers,” she said. “It can become really problematic when we separate sex workers from other workers and other people who are trying to navigate these limited economic opportunities.”
This attempt to represent and encapsulate the experiences of sex work, by representing their experiences as forced, can actually deprive them of their agency and cause savior complexes to dominate discourse.
“When people have limited economic or social opportunities, this does not mean that they cannot speak about the truth and reality of their own lives and that they don’t understand what is oppressing them and what the solutions should be,” Mgbako said. “When we deny agency, we deny their voices, and we begin to speak on their behalf—this is what happens with sex work all the time.”
While the sex workers’ movement is plagued by outspoken activists who limit underrepresented voices and skew their narratives, Mgbako acknowledges that sex workers themselves mobilize on a profoundly diverse and intersectional platform. Due to the deeply marginalized status of sex workers, there is an overwhelming and radical claim to universality.
Mgbako also outlined potential courses for action. While the economic world order needs radical restructuring, it’s more pressing that sex workers’ basic rights be protected.
“We have to work to expand economic opportunities for people but while we do that, we have to make sure that the opportunities that people do have available, that they can engage in those opportunities safely,” she said.
She concluded by emphasizing the necessity to recognize sex workers’ agency and to prioritize their experiences in the sex worker’s rights movement.
“Standing in solidarity, centering these voices, and recognizing their agencies is very important,” she said. “It has to be about looking at the evidence, looking at actually what is going on on the ground. That’s what should designate law and policy and how we approach these issues.”
Steph Dukich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.