I used to think that people who did sex work had found themselves in a situation where they had no choice but to do sex work, and that the job of feminists was to help sex workers find alternative sources of income.

In 2010, at the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria, I attended a session on sex work. There I asked a question that today I feel embarrassed to own up to: “Why would anyone choose to do sex work?”

You can imagine how the temperature of the room – full of sex worker rights activists – plummeted. I can’t even remember what response I got from the panel, but I do recall the conversation I had later with Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, then the executive director of the African Women’s Development Fund, which I worked for at the time.

Most of us grow up in patriarchal societies and are fed particular narratives around what is right and wrong from birth. As a young girl at a Catholic boarding school I was taught that only bad girls had sex. Some girls were described as ‘mattresses’ because, allegedly, all the boys in the neighbourhood had slept with them. It was only when stories started to spread about who I had slept with that I realised that rumours were just that. It took many more years before I began to question why society tries to control women’s bodies, choices and sexualities.

On the way back to our hotel after the conference, Adeleye-Fayemi explained to me that people are entitled to make choices about their life, that they may make different decisions depending on their current life circumstances, and that for many people sex work is a logical choice.

That car ride started a journey for me. I began to think about sex work as legitimate work, and eventually started to work with others to create spaces where activists, including sex workers and other historically oppressed groups, are able to share the realities of their own lives with other people.

Two years ago, I saw there was a need for a festival focused on sex, sexualities and pleasure, and brought together a group of feminist, queer and trans activists to co-organise such an event in Accra, Ghana. #AdventuresLive was a success, so we decided to make the festival an annual one.

The following year, in November 2020, our second festival took place, with the theme ‘Odyssey of Desire’. One of our sessions, Addressing Violence Against Ghanaian Sex Workers, featured Bridget Dixon and Mariama Yusuf, who work with Women of Dignity Alliance. They spoke about the violence that sex workers in Ghana face, from police officers in particular, who arrest and rape them, before robbing them of their earnings.

Dixon and Yusuf were clear that these acts of violence are perpetrated against sex workers because their work is criminalised. They call for its decriminalisation – a demand long made by sex worker activists. According to the Count Me In! consortium: “To a large extent, the violence in the lives of sex workers is created by the conditions of criminalisation. Sex work is not inherently violent but discrimination and stigma against sex workers generates violence and limits sex workers access to justice.”

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How I became an advocate for sex workers’ rights by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah

Jan 4, 2021