One of UTSOPI's main missions is to combat the stigma faced by sex workers. Sex workers remain one of the most stigmatized populations in society. We collaborate with journalists, filmmakers and writers to make realistic, non-sensationalist stories prevail. We organize events where sex workers present their reality to the outside world.

What is stigma?

We speak of stigma when a person or group of people is ostracized, is seen as inferior, is socially excluded or discredited based on prejudice. Sex workers are one of the most stigmatized populations in our society because of a societal judgment on what we do.

The image of sex workers as portrayed in the media is often permeated with existing stereotypes. Those stereotypes are at the same time perpetuated by the media, literature, cinema, etc. In both news stories and fiction, an image of the sex worker as a victim who needs to be rescued, as extremely rich, beautiful and successful, as dangerous, or as someone who is dishonest, treacherous or mean, is perpetuated.

The consequences of stigma

The consequences of stigma cannot be underestimated: it endangers the psychological and physical health of sex workers. Think of the stress associated with leading a double life, with all the energy it takes to keep secret the fact that you are a sex worker, the social isolation, loneliness and constant state of alertness.

Stigma also causes sex workers to often hesitate to seek help from the police in cases of violence or theft. Many sex workers think twice before going to a doctor or hospital, not only after violence or rape but also simply when ill. Many sex workers never take the step to see a psychologist. For many, the fear of admitting that they are sex workers and the fear of judgment from others prevent them from asking for help. And unfortunately rightly so: the reaction of the police, doctor or psychologist is often very negative.

Lenka Strauss10
© Paintings of UTSOPI members by Lenka Strauss

How does UTSOPI combat stigma?

Decriminalization and law changes

Destigmatization goes hand in hand with decriminalization. As long as sex work is relegated to the criminal sphere by legislation, prejudice will remain. Belgium has reached a milestone in this with the decriminalization of sex work in 2022.

But changing the law will only have a limited effect as long as stereotypes or shame remain. We need to focus on changing the image society has of sex workers. The dominant, sensationalist stories must change. There has to be a profound cultural change.

Collaborations with media and researchers

That is why we are working primarily with journalists, filmmakers and writers to make realistic, non-sensationalist stories prevail. We are currently developing a guide for journalists with tips on how to deal with sex work in a non-stigmatizing way. Besides that, UTSOPI works together with and organises it's own research of the developments after the decriminalisation.

In-house training

At support, protection or care services, prejudice often gets in the way of efficient and quick help to sex workers. Therefore, UTSOPI provides training in our offices for the local police, community guards and the welfare bureau. We plan to open our doors soon to medical services and professionals.

Events and public action

At the same time, we want to show to the outside how enormous the diversity is within the world of sex work. A diversity of backgrounds, origins, ages, reasons for doing sex work and ways of doing it. We do this by organizing events, exhibitions, for example by co-organizing festivals such as SNAP! - Sex Workers Narratives Arts & Politics, in which exclusively sex workers take the stage to talk about sex work.

Also public action, such as manifestations or celebrating important days for our movement, ensures that the outside world gets to know us as humans. Not as victims, fallen women, or deviant individuals.

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