Dawn Passar, Representing the Network of Sexwork Projects in Beijing 1995
excerpted from Business Women's Calendar, October 1995, Oakland, California

Dawn Passar is a woman of many skills and talents. Activist, artist, social worker, stripper, film maker, wife, mother, and grandmother, Passar recently added "sex worker's rights ambassador" to her list of accomplishments. Dawn recently returned from her journey to Beijing and Huairou as a representative from COYOTE, the Exotic Dancer's Alliance and the Network of Sexwork Projects. An immigrant from Thailand, Dawn has a great deal of first hand experience in the issues to which she dedicates herself.

"I learned a lot at the Beijing Conference," said Dawn. "About organizing, that's for sure. Also I think it made me open my eyes about trafficking laws in prostitution, and about the very different approaches to the issues of prostitution and migration. First of all, I realized how little information there is from the sex workers' perspective, and that almost everyone involved in policy was an advocate or researcher."

As a representative from the Network of Sexwork Projects, Dawn brought a first hand perspective about the sex business, and the issue of trafficking which is currently a topic of international interest.

Trafficking connotes "the illicit transport" and is often used as a euphemism for transporting women for the purposes of prostitution. Although there has historically been much outcry against the worst conditions for women who travel and work in the sex trades, Dawn believes that the situation is not that simple. The situations are very different from one country or region to another.

Although the realities of forced prostitution and kidnapping describe one aspect of prostitution, Dawn and other sex worker advocates from around the world claim that a great many take it upon themselves to travel and engage in sex work as a means to support themselves and their families. These women are exploited by persons who arrange their travel, and later use their vulnerability as sex workers against them.

"It is most important that we make sure they have health and legal information, which is the way to help them. When you are in a country and you don't speak the language, you don't know the law. You only know what people tell you, and that could be misinformation."

Dawn brought to Beijing her concern that the solutions to address the worst aspects of 'trafficking' usually work against the women themselves, and ignore the reality that many women travel to work in the sex trades because the money they make in other countries may be much more than they could make at home.

"Many people in Beijing spoke about concern about women in prostitution, but their answer was to pass more laws against prostitution. We tried to explain that they had to let the women working in the sex businesses speak for themselves. We tried to let people know the more law against prostitutes and prostitution, the more the authorities will be given the right to abuse them."

"The words prostitution and trafficking separate women from all women, but actually, we are all together. The words are overused, and the fact that we are all women gets cloudy. The same laws should apply to all of us, women who are immigrants in the garment industry, in the restaurant business or who work as dancers in as prostitutes."

"What we need is to get rid of some of the laws we have, so that women in who do the work are legal, and they are able to call the police and file charges against people who abuse them or exploit them."

Dawn pointed to a recent case in Japan which is an illustration of consequences of the criminalization and marginalization of prostitutes."A Thai woman working in Japan was arrested, thrown in jail with men, and beat up by INS who accused her of not cooperating."

"Usually cases don't even get written up," says Passar. "In any country, the newspapers almost never cover stories about this type of abuse. The only time abuse of prostitutes get attention is when the pimp is bad to them."

"In Beijing I also heard one story about an immigrant prostitute who killed her pimp. She did it in self defense. If the laws were changed it wouldn't have gotten that far. If she were legal, then if something happened to her she could go to the police."

Dawn's Own Story

Dawn's story reminds us of the strength and resourcefulness of many women who travel across borders to shape their own destiny. Her advocacy for sex worker's rights is only one part of the creativity with which she has approached life in general.

Dawn immigrated this San Francisco in 1982. She had came her with an American man who she married in Thailand. She had two children and was married eight years, "but the marriage didn't work out."

After her divorce she, "went back to the old profession, back to dancing. You don't have to speak English. You use body language. You just dance."

A couple of years later, she married her current husband, a physician.

"I decided to continue dancing because I didn't want to rely on my husbands income. After my last marriage did not work out, I decided that I wanted to be independent."

Dawn attended the College of Arts and Crafts in Berkeley and graduated with an M.A. in Fine Arts, receiving a Ford Foundation Fellowship 1989. She continued dancing throughout her academic career.

Ultimately Dawn's pride and independence lead her in another direction. In 1993 she filed a suit with a number of other women against management of the Market Street Cinema for sex discrimination and sexual harassment, which was decided in her favor.

"Immediately after filing this suit, I was laid off and blacklisted from most of the clubs in the city which are owned by the same owners."

In 1993, Dawn, along with fellow dancer, Johanna Breyer, founded, the Exotic Dancer's Alliance, which provides information to dancers about their rights in the clubs including issues of employee/independent contractor status which are central to the issues for dancers at the clubs.

As a result of her activist work, Dawn began meeting other sex worker's rights activists in San Francisco, and through this network, she was introduced to the San Francisco based Asian AIDS Project, were she is currently employed as an outreach worker.

After several years of activist work, Passar has emerged in the forefront of the small community of sex worker activists in San Francisco. When COYOTE met to decide who would be sent to represent San Francisco sex workers, Dawn was chosen unanimously.

"She's brilliant and she has a great personality- warm, gracious and down to earth. She's a great photographer and she understands the issues first-hand. What more could we ask?"

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