top of page

Resisting Prostitution as a Form of Sexualized Racism

Recommendations for UN Women's Approach to Sex Work, the Sex Trade & Prostitution

By Suzanne Jay and Sarah M. Mah - October 16, 2016

Question 1.

The 2030 Agenda commits to universality, human rights and leaving nobody behind. How do you interpret these principles in relations to sex work/ trade or prostitution?


The 2030 Agenda represents a broad set of goals for sustainable development which must be viewed through a gendered lens, as UN Women rightly remarks¹. If, however, UN Women is to apply these principles of universality, human rights, and 'leaving nobody behind' to the question of women's rights round the world, prostitution and the sex trade must also be subject to such evaluation for its historical and present-day sabotage of women's equality and self-determination.


UN Women notes that women's equality requires international commitment and effort from all countries. International instruments already exist to support the evaluation of the rights of women and girls relative to violence against women, and trafficking in persons. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, adopted by the UN, provides a clear position: "States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women".²

The framework of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, otherwise known as the Palermo Protocol, identifies trafficking of women into prostitution as a form of exploitation that must be interfered with by state parties as a criminal offence.³ Prostitution cannot be treated separately from trafficking.

Human Rights


The sex industry requires the abrogation of women's human rights in order to thrive. The sex buyer demands sexualized experiences that highlight and reinforce racist and sexist stereotypes. While some states may claim that industry regulation can provide women with protection, these so-called protections are afforded to those who control and use the sex trade industry, rather than the women who are prostituted. In states that have chosen to normalize prostitution as regular commercial activity, human trafficking has soared, women do not register for so-called government benefits and the organized crime syndicates that control prostitution venues avoid all employer obligations.⁴ ⁵ Women's access to human rights protections is impossible in an industry that caters to male demand for sexual access to women who are, for example "sexy Japanese schoolgirl" or "submissive China doll". This sexualized racism is embedded in male culture and affects Asian women in all spheres of life, regardless of whether or not we are individually engaged in prostitution, thereby undermining our access to human rights by undermining recognition of our humanity.

Policy about the sex trade and prostitution must deal with the exploitation and impact on women as a class in order to empower feminist advocacy. Neo-liberal emphasis on individual choice is decontextualized from social and economic factors, and blocks analysis of power structures. Responses to the question of prostitution from a neo-liberal philosophical position undermine the ability of feminist organizations to fight for substantive advancement of women's rights. Policy that supports women's human rights as group rights facilitates the possibility of structural change that supports the development of race, sex and economic rights.

Leaving Nobody Behind


The practice of prostitution prevents the achievement of Asian women's human rights in our countries of origin and in the countries that receive us as immigrants, temporary workers, refugees, trafficked persons, tourists, students, sponsored wives, etc. Asian Women applies the analysis of intersectionality⁶ that makes visible the overlapping oppressions imposed on us. Entrenched orientalism that positions Asians as a foil, for Westerners/ Europeans to define themselves,⁷ adds another layer of oppression by the Global North over the Global South.

Asian Women urges UN Women to reject the framing of prostitution as "work" or "trade", because such a paradigm locks Asian Women into the frame of corollary concepts such as "migrant sex worker". These conceptions harden the race-based divisions between women. They all but eliminate Asian Women's ability to access human and labour rights, and excuses states from acknowledging or responding effectively to Asian Women's exploitation and our states from acknowledging or responding effectively to Asian Women's exploitation and our vulnerability to prostitution recruiters, human traffickers, and male violence.

Question 2.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out to achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls. The SDGs also include several targets pertinent to women's empowerment, such as

  1. Reproductive rights

  2. Women's ownership of land and assets

  3. Building peaceful and inclusive societies

  4. Ending the trafficking of women

  5. Eliminating violence against women

How do you suggest that policies on sex work/ trade/ prostitution can promote such targets and objectives?

The UN has recognized gender equality as one of the 17 goals of sustainable development, and on that is inseparable from each of the other Goals. Of particular note is the following preamble to the Goal's targets:

"Providing women and girls with equal access to education, health care, decent work, and representation in political and economic decision-making processes will fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanity at large."

This passage disqualifies prostitution as a compatible component of this Goal in three key ways.

  1. Violence against women and racism. Race, gender and the phenomenon of orientalism intersect in particular ways for Asian women. Prostitution entrenches racist and sexist stereotypes, and allows organized crime to focus on Asian women for recruitment into prostitution with little recognition or effective state interference in our exploitation. Sex traffickers cater to male demand for paid sexual access to women, and are invested in growing social acceptance of rape culture that encourages male entitlement to engage in this form of male violence against women. In these ways, prostitution negates women's rights to bodily integrity and to self-determination.

  2. Peaceful and inclusive societies. The sex trade enhances the power of men, and deepens the subordination of women.⁸ Prostitution interferes with women's ability to participate in civil society on a fully equal or meaningful way, because the sexualized racism imposed on Asian women pushes us to the ,margins of society and renders our inequality both natural and invisible. Without recognition of this oppression, no remedy will be seen as necessary.

  3. Decent work. The Goal recognize the need for women's access to decent work. Such work should uphold women's bodily integrity. Prostitution is a practice of men's exploitation of women's bodies. The racist mythology⁹ about the natural proclivity of Asian women to participate in prostitution is most recently being leveraged to reframe us as: migrant sex workers". Given that tens of millions of Asian women leave their homes and home states to seek work, this recasting of prostitution as migrant work has profound consequences for women in all states where there is an Asian population.

As the vast majority of those who demand sexual access to women are men, and the vast majority of those accessed are women, policies must recognize, condemn, and provide tools to dismantle men's power, as a group, to subjugate women.

As well, UN Women has the opportunity to expose the imposition of prostitutions on impoverished and racialized women , as a downloading of state responsibilities for the provision of eldercare, childcare, housing, education, healthcare, infrastructure development and debt servicing, onto the backs of women.

Question 3.

The sex trade is gendered. How best we protect women in the trade from harm, violence, stigma and discrimination?​

Men are the source of harm, violence, stigma, and discrimination towards women and girls in, and vulnerable to prostitution and the sex industry. Prostitution is a form of male violence that both incorporates and reinforces rape, sexual harassment, wife assault, and incest. Immediate protections that UN Women should promote would:

  • Stop criminalizing women for prostitution and poverty related offenses, including prostitution.

  • Target for arrest and criminal prosecution the men who recruit, advertise the sale of sexual access to women, operate brothels, buy sexual access and who otherwise comprise the demand side of the sex trade and prostitution.

  • Reject "harm reduction" strategies that normalize and further entrench women's exploitation, and address the systemic inequalities that bestow power to the demand side of prostitution.

Asian Women urges UN Women to adopt an abolitionist policy, currently best expressed by the Nordic model in Sweden. This approach recognizes prostitution as a form of male violence against women that impedes women's equality and addresses prostitution with criminal law, robust social welfare investments and public education. The Nordic model can be improved by extending the same level of supports and protections to non-citizen women as to those with citizenship. However states supports and protections to non-citizen women as to those with citizenship. However, states supports must also be substantially improved in almost all cases for example, Asian Women calls on the Canadian government to provide a non-conditional guaranteed livable income to all residing in country.

The policy position that UN Women chooses with respect to the sex trade and prostitution will either position UN Women as complicit with the maintenance of a racist and sexist world order, or by supporting the abolition of prostitution, UN Women will take step towards placing itself, an international women's rights body, firmly on the side of women's equality and liberation.

Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution is a grassroots feminist group. We analyze prostitution as form of male violence that promotes and entrenches sexism and racism while exploiting the impoverishment of women as a class. We see the abolition of prostitution as necessary to allow the achievement of women's equality and liberation.


¹ UN-WOMEN, 2014 World Survey on the Role of Women in Development: Gender Equality and Sustainable Development, UN. DOL: (2014)

² UN General Assembly, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 18 December 1979, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1249, p. 13, available at: [accessed 16 October 2016]

³ UN General Assembly, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, 15 November 2000, available at: http:// [accessed 16 October 2016]

⁴ Nisha Lilia Diu, "Welcome To Paradise: Inside The World Of Legalized Prostitution". The Telegraph 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.

⁵ The Police Foundation,. Organized Crime and the Adult Sex Market. The Guardian. (2016, Sept. 27)

⁶ Kimberle Crenshaw, "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 6. (July 1991), 1241, doi:10.2307/1229039


⁷ Edward Said, E. (1987). Orientalism (1994th ed.). New York: Vintage Books.

⁸ Sherene Razack, Race, Space, and Prostitution: The Making of the Bourgeois Subject. Canadian Journal of Women & the Law, 10(2), 338 (1998).

⁹ Sunny Woan, White Sexual Imperialism: A Theory of Asian Feminist Jurisprudence, 14 Wash. & Lee J. Civ. Rts. & Soc. Just. 275 (2008).

bottom of page