We – members of Empower Foundation – a sex workers’ rights organisation in Thailand – and two scholar-activists from International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam (ISS) in the Netherlands, reflected on our experience of collaboration in light of our search for social transformation.
About us and what brought us together
Empower Foundation is a leading organisation in the defense of sex workers’ rights, and is located in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It has almost 40 years experience of working with creative and transformative methodologies – doing community-based research which then feeds into policy proposals, that are brought to the attention of governmental and international organisations, such as International Labour Organisation (ILO). It models best labor practices in their own ‘Can Do Bar’. Empower is the space for sex workers to exchange experiences, organise and create ways, often using art and culture, to inform and influence society on many issues, including the harms caused by anti-trafficking policy and practices.
What brought us together initially was the interest in bringing insights from labor studies – Karin’s area of research – on the one hand, and gender and sexuality studies – Silke’s field of expertise – on the other, in conversation with each other, in order to explore how that could contribute to proposals for structurally improving labor conditions of sex workers. Our first paper was on analysing ILO discussions around decent work, and how sex work and sex workers have been systematically excluded from conversations around the decent work agenda. It was in this context that in 2014 Silke and Karin contacted members of Empower Foundation that Silke had met the year before at an event co-organised with Mama Cash at ISS.
Trying to make a difference in the way we collaborate
While Silke and Karin had an initial idea about the paper, there was explicit room for adapting the focus, approach, and language. Neither of the three partners had experience in this kind of joint project, so we had an open conversation about the ways in which we wanted to collaborate from the beginning, thereby establishing some common guiding principles – that we would explore how to go about it along the way, keeping in mind that the contribution of the expertise and perspectives of Empower was crucial to the paper, both in terms of the kind of knowledge that we wanted to produce, as well as in terms of the social impact that we were seeking, namely, to improve sex workers’ labor conditions. We also agreed that Empower’s involvement could be more or less, depending on their availability, while our shared preference would be to have the collective as co-author.
This conversation was particularly important given the previous negative experience of working with academics. Liz Hilton from Empower Foundation summarised: “We’ve had one or two earlier experiences with people who wanted to collaborate and that was really terrible. The whole premise of collaboration was theft, of stealing our work.” Liz mentioned the importance of being aware of the differences in our language – “…not just the difference between Thai and English, but also the difference between sex worker language and academic language. We don’t see this as an obstacle, but it will be an adventure!”. The problem with academic jargon, as Empower also explained in a preparatory note for a meeting of sex workers organisations at ISS that took place at a later stage, is not that sex workers are not able to understand it, but that it does not reflect their experiences or realities properly, and it often operates with implicit assumptions that are problematic.
One common assumption in both academia and policy for instance is the conflation between sex work and trafficking that occurs when using the term “sexual exploitation”, to refer to what in any other economic sector would be called either “forced labor” or “labor exploitation”. Moreover, even within academic language, there were many different ways of talking about sex work with important political implications. Empower has published a dictionary that provides many examples of such – often problematic – assumptions and disconnects that occur. So, one of the first things that Silke and Karin asked was: how does (or doesn´t) the language that we use speak to members of Empower Foundation? In which ways do they think we should change it?
We also talked about timelines, and the need to adapt those to the realities of the different parties involved. For Empower, this compared positively with earlier collaborations with academics: “Other people that we were collaborating with didn’t want to give us the time to properly translate, think, come back to it, put forward what we can do, will do, and what we think. They were very rushed. Everybody has deadlines, we know that, but their rush was quite rude. They were continuously trying to fit us into what they already decided.”
We co-authored the paper that came out two years later. Empower Foundation made a tremendous contribution to the paper by critically analysing the language used, and by bringing in the findings of the community-based research that Empower was conducting independently – both through previous research on the adverse impact of anti-trafficking measures, published under the title “Hit and Run”, and the study on “Moving Toward Decent Sex Work”. This contributed towards a very nuanced and very tangible understanding of what decent work and labor exploitation means for sex workers in Thailand, by looking at these not as a binary, but as a continuum and as multidimensional.
Finally, and most importantly, in this process we developed a relationship of trust, friendship, and deep appreciation that became the basis for our further collaboration.
Now, has this collaboration lessened the precarity and contributed to more decent working conditions experienced by sex workers, as our chapter’s title suggests? Probably not. Yet, in a context in which sex workers’ knowledge about their lives and work is continuously devalued and ignored, we like to believe that a respectful collaboration that challenges these hierarchies of knowledge, and augments sex workers’ own voices can make a small, yet, meaningful contribution to a changed discourse on sex work – and ultimately to more respect and rights for them.
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About the authors:
Empower Foundation is a Thai sex worker organization promoting opportunities and rights for sex workers for more than 30 years
Silke Heumann is a Sociologist and Assistant Professor (Senior Lecturer) in the Major Social Justice Perspectives (SJP). Her areas of expertise and interest are Gender and Sexuality Studies, Social Movements, Latin American Politics, Discourse Analysis and Social Theory.
Karin Astrid Siegmann is Associate Professor in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).
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