Paulo Longo, Prostitutes’ Activist: 1964-2004

Whores rarely get to speak for themselves. Usually, they’re being shouted down either by moralists who condemn them or reformers who want to save them. Their lives are usually defined in public by more “respectable” types, who cast them either as amoral seducers or tragic, oppressed “soiled doves.” When sex workers speak up for themselves, refusing to be defined as characters from central casting to play supporting roles in other people’s dramas and insist on their own humanity, it’s important to listen and to value them, because to even get that one little concession, that whores are human, is a radical act.

And here, I have to confess to my own ignorance. I didn’t know about Paulo Longo or his work before his death, but in doing some catch-up after I received his obituary in my e-mail, it’s obvious that his life meant a lot to millions of people, and that his death is something to be mourned.

Paulo Longo, 40, worked to promote the human rights of sex workers

Paulo Henrique Longo, co-founder of the Network of Sex Work Projects, died of a heart attack at his home in Rio de Janeiro on Friday, October 8, 2004. He had suffered from diabetes and its complications for twenty years.

He was an influential leader in the fight for human rights for gay people and sex workers in Brazil and around the world. Mr. Longo was instrumental in the emerging gay rights movement in Brazil. He wrote a regular column addressing gay rights for the Brazilian press. Mr. Longo was an ex-prostitute who co-founded the Network of Sex Work Projects. The Network began as an informal association that has since grown in influence. At the time of his death, Mr. Longo was the coordinator of the Network. Mr. Longo was known for his eloquence and his talent for oratory, as well as tact and diplomacy that did not cloud sensitive issues related to prostitution. He was co-author with his wife, Cheryl Overs, of Making Sex Work Safe, a handbook for offering services to sex workers.

Mr. Longo advocated for the rights of sex workers in many international forums, including AIDS Conferences and UN meetings on public health and human rights. In an interview at the most recent AIDS Conference this past July, Mr. Longo emphasized the importance of the participation of sex workers in determining policies addressing sex work:

“We are most of us sex workers ourselves, or we have personal experiences with the sex industry. The slogan of the NSWP is ‘Sex workers are part of the solution.’ We strongly believe that we who have been affected by the issues can contribute more than people from the outside. Of course we recognize the contributions of others, from technicians, health care professionals, social workers, but believe that we hold the solutions within ourselves.”

Mr. Longo discussed the rise of his strong convictions in a 2003 interview.

“In 1988,” he recalls, “I was training at a public hospital and I was asked by a local NGO to help a researcher do a study of rent boys in Rio.” A year later, when Longo saw the so-called results in a British medical journal, he reacted with horror: “They were saying that 43 percent of Brazilian male sex workers were infected with HIV — but I knew that this study only tested 33 people, eight of whom were seropositive.” The boys, whether infected or not, were never told about their results. Longo was discovering a pattern of unethical research: “Getting the blood of boys and women on the streets, everywhere in the world. Never giving them the results. That’s when I started to get more politically involved.”

Mr. Longo continued his efforts to improve research ethics throughout his career. He supported Cambodian sex workers’ protests of unethical practices in a recent study in Cambodia. Mr. Longo brought his ethical standards to his own research over the past three years as the principal investigator on a study of community development among sex workers in Rio de Janeiro. Sex workers were intricately involved in designing the methodology of this study and conducting the research.

Mr. Longo is survived by his wife, Cheryl Overs, of Brighton, UK, a brother, and his mother, in Rio de Janeiro.

Contact: Melissa Ditmore, Network of Sex Work Projects, rights@nswp.org, or Prostitutes of New York, +1 212 713 5678

In the interests of promoting the voices of sex workers who are still here to speak for themselves, here are a few links:

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