Women’s Rights and the Carceral State


Fordham scholars Chi Mgbako and Jeanne Flavin, strong critics of carceral state approaches toward sex work and women’s reproduction, discussed their scholarship and advocacy related to the subject, their storytelling methods, and the intersectional nature of human rights movements during the Maloney Library’s most recent Behind the Book event on April 11.

Mgbako, a clinical law professor and director of the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic, discussed her 2016 book, To Live Freely in This World: Sex Worker Activism in Africa. Meanwhile, Flavin, a sociology professor, shared insights from her 2009 book, Our Bodies, Our Crimes: The Policing of Women’s Reproduction in America. Sapana Anand, a 1L Stein Scholar, moderated the event, titled “Against Criminalization: Gender, Activism, and the Pursuit of Justice.”

While the two scholars’ books examine different regions and issues, the common thread between them is their “critique of the carceral state,” Mgbako observed. To Live Freely in This World presents a first-of-its-kind examination of the sex workers’ rights movement in Africa, exploring its history, challenges, and successes, as told by sex workers themselves. While many obsess over what it means to sell sexual services, this is not the question that concerns sex workers most, Mgbako remarked.

“What I hope people would leave my book with is the link between criminalization of sex work and human rights abuses, and what it means for sex workers,” Mgbako said, citing police mistreatment, health workers discriminating against sex workers, and a lack of access to labor protections as prime examples. “This is what sex workers are concerned about. It’s not this idea that an exchange of sexual services for payment is inherently violence. The laws and policies that we have created that have deeply marginalized this community are the violence.”

The history of feminist debates around sex work often silences sex workers, Mgbako noted. She authored her book not to speak for sex workers but rather to stand in solidarity with the people leading the sex workers’ rights movement. Notably, she included several first-person narratives to achieve this aim.

With her field work in Africa, Mgbako also sought to challenge the notion of sex worker activists as white privileged women from the Global North. Her on-the-ground reporting painted a different picture—one of a variety of people from the Global South including members of the LGBT, migrant, and HIV-positive communities. In addition, Mgbako corrected the false narrative that sex workers entered their profession due to a lack of agency. Instead, sex workers often make their own “economically rational decisions” when confronted with the “severely limited economic opportunities” that global capitalism offers them.

“If we think people don’t have agency, it becomes easier to make choices for them,” Mgbako cautioned, noting policies need to flow from the experiences of those most directly impacted.

Flavin also advocated “nothing about us without us” legislative measures. Our Bodies, Our Crimes, recipient of the 2010 Distinguished Book Award from the American Sociological Association, documented how the law and criminal justice system police women’s rights to conceive, to be pregnant, and to raise children, to the great detriment of women’s health and human rights.

“Often we’ve focused too narrowly on defending or attacking the single right to abortion or the single right to contraception rather than defending the rights and dignity of people with the capacity to get pregnant,” Flavin said. “We need to defend the people, not just a single right.”

“We need to start complicating these conversations and realize what’s at stake is much larger than the right to an abortion or contraception,” Flavin added.

The Behind the Book series, sponsored by Fordham Law School’s Maloney Library, serves as a bridge between the Fordham University academic community and Fordham Law School, fosters dialogue between people with different ideas, and provides background on the writing and publishing process.

Story and photos by Ray Legendre.


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