Rights, Not Rescue: A Response to AF3IRM in Defense of DSA Resolution #53

Red Canary Song
Aug 2, 2019 · 25 min read

This statement was composed the night before the Democratic Socialists of America’s 2019 National Convention, in response to a statement from the feminist organization AF3IRM.

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We are:

Red Canary, a grassroots collective of immigrant and Asian sex workers, survivors of trafficking, and labor organizers from adjacent movements
(Kate Z, Esther K, and Julie X)

The NYC DSA Socialist Feminist Working Group
(Noah Zazanis, DecrimNY Campaign Coordinator)

We are writing to ask the DSA voting in Atlanta to put sex workers’ voices and concerns at the forefront of the conversation about decriminalization of the sex trade.

The lives of sex workers should not be merely an intellectual and theoretical debate. As sex workers, and people who have walked alongside sex workers struggling to survive under capitalism, we believe it’s important to center the voices of the most marginalized people in sex trades, when discussing policies and resolutions about their/our lives. We are not fighting just for abstract ideas about women’s bodies; we’re fighting for real people’s material needs and safety from violence, including police violence — and these are people with opinions about their own livelihoods, who deserve respect, dignity and equality, but have long been excluded from the policy table.

As such, we ask that sex workers not to be framed as victims or criminals, but as complex human beings, making difficult decisions under the constraints of poverty, and many other intersecting forms of marginalization. Characterizing all people who choose to work in the sex trades as victims takes away their agency. It infantilizes and silences their voices, making it easier to spread misinformation about them under the guise of “care,” while simultaneously, making it more difficult for them to organize for better labor conditions.

Adult sex workers engaged in consensual exchange of sexual services are being pitted against select survivors and youth, whose testimonies are used by anti-prostitution advocates to deny any validity or humanity to the wide range of stories from other people in the sex industry. While we understand that sex work can often be violent and risky, and that the stories and voices of survivors and youth are extremely important, the violence we all experience stems from the criminalization of not just the trade, but of LGBTQ folks, non-citizens, poor people, people of color, and other marginalized communities.

DecrimNY Canvassing Team
DecrimNY Canvassing Team
DecrimNY canvassing team, featuring members of NYC SocFem

Existing criminal laws against prostitution do harm to survivors of trafficking, by enabling racially-discriminatory policing to arrest and convict the people who need the most support. Youth caught in anti-trafficking sting operations are harmed by arrest records, and put back into abusive homes, without sufficient access to resources that they need. The Chinese massage parlor workers caught in a “rescue raid” in Florida this past year were arrested and unlawfully detained in “safe housing” to endure months of interrogation; while wealthy profiteers like Jeffrey Epstein who exploit hundreds of youth, escape punishment for decades.

After decades of work within the community, organizations within the U.S. anti-trafficking Freedom Network (ex. Womankind), which provides services to thousands of people convicted on prostitution charges, join a global alliance of anti-trafficking organizations that have determined that criminalization is harmful and traumatic for survivors; and that doing real anti-trafficking work must go hand-in-hand with full decriminalization.

From Thai and Cambodian garment workers who turn to the sex industry because of the exploitative conditions of garment factories, to the nail salon workers and restaurant workers in Flushing, Queens, who turn to massage parlor work because of the low-paid and bodily extractive labor of nail salons and restaurants — most people who choose to work in the sex industry are doing so in order to escape more punitive, low-paid work, that may have stricter schedules prohibitive to people with disabilities, mothers, students, and many people who are primary caretakers for their families. Yet these “rescue raids” which target the most vulnerable of sex workers often force them back into garment factories and other low-paid work as a way to “rehabilitate” workers into serving global capital.

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Cambodian garment workers and sex workers unite in solidarity actions to protest the forced “rehabilitation” of sex workers in sweat shop labor camps. Please watch this video made by the grassroots sex worker advocacy group, Women’s Network for Unity in Cambodia.
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Cambodian sex workers protest against American anti-trafficking laws that have led to violent police raids and unlawful, abusive detention of sex workers in labor camps formerly used by Khmer Rouge. (Human Rights Watch reports) Sex workers in Thailand also created community-led research and wrote this statement against American anti-trafficking “rescue” imperialism, which has led to deaths by police violence and increased exploitation in sex trades pushed further underground.

In Flushing, Queens, the majority of Chinese immigrant massage workers turn to this work simply because it pays better than nail salon work and restaurant work. Many migrants have large debts to pay for entering the country. Other low-wage work pays too little in a city where living costs are so high, making it difficult to escape compounding debt. Massage work is frequently seen as the most sensible way for some immigrants to free themselves from debt bondage. While this is a difficult decision, by and large, most people are not doing this work against their will, any more than other types of immigrant work. It’s the job of allies to ensure we support their agency, as well as help people out of this work who do not want to be there. According to Project Free Director, Mary Caparas, at Womankind, police raids are harmful to both migrant sex workers and trafficking victims. Due to stigma, the public spreads harmful misinformation about this industry, using the excuse of anti-trafficking to allow for violent arrest, deportation, and even deaths of migrant sex workers like Yang Song, who was killed in a police raid in November of 2017.

Across the country, very few police raids on migrant businesses result in any actual convictions of trafficking. Like the heavily publicized case of Robert Kraft and the Asian Orchids of Day Spa in Florida, zero convictions of human trafficking were found, even after a lengthy 8-month multi-agency investigation. In this process, the right to habeas corpus of many migrant workers were violated, and their life savings stolen away from them by law enforcement. How was this helpful for fighting the exploitation of these migrant women?

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Red Canary Song — vigil for migrant sex worker Yang Song, who died in November 2017 during a police raid.

The majority of clients of Chinese massage parlors in Flushing are Latino workers, just as the majority of men arrested on solicitation charges and sent to Johns Schools in the United States are not white men but people of color. Most of these workers are separated by borders from their own families, to earn a profit for their employers. Borders serve as a way to cut the reproductive cost of labor from employers, and pass these costs onto the worker — as the grandparents of migrant children take on the costs of raising the daughters and sons of migrant workers.

Alongside many forms of bodily work that primarily employ men: such as military conscription, farming, or the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad — or the massive sites of luxury building in Dubai and other global cities, where deadly trafficking is currently taking place— what often accompanies this form of bodily labor from men are other forms of bodily labor, from women, who have always worked, sometimes forcibly, to provide sexual services beside military bases, by the bachelor houses of Chinese railroad workers, and in the red light districts surrounding rich, urbanizing cities, being built up by migrants. Borders, and the wars waged to protect them, serve as a way of maintaining global aristocracies, maintaining low labor costs, and segregating the sexuality of immigrants. As in the case of the Chinese Exclusion Acts following the building of the railroads, they have also been a way of preventing the reproduction and full integration of an unwanted race in the country.

In these spaces of coerced labor, where all migrant bodies are exploited by the systems of global Capital, the migrant massage parlor so often serves as a place of comfort, healing, and survival — for both the immigrant men and women struggling to maintain wholeness within a capitalist state that coercively cuts them apart with borders and arbitated currencies.

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Indian construction workers forced to work in Dubai — according to the ILO, the most deadly and common forms of human trafficking is not in the sex trades but actually in construction and farming, which are both also punitive forms of (gendered) bodily labor. Domestic workers also face labor exploitation and sexual abuse from employers. To tackle force, fraud, or coercion, we have to empower migrant workers to organize and legislate against these forms of exploitation, across industries. Criminalizing the purchase of farmed produce or raiding the private homes would not help trafficked farmers or domestic workers. Why would these broad and violent tactics help people trafficked in sex trades?

Sex workers are often dismissed by anti-prostitution activists as “liberal feminists”. However, the sex worker movement is built on a strong critique against capitalism, and identify more strongly with socialist feminism. Most people in sex trades are working to survive the capitalist system that we are working towards overturning. For some, sex work provides a space to escape more oppressive workplaces under the current neoliberal economic system, such as shipping centers and electronics factories. Women throughout history have also relied on sex work to survive outside the system of patriarchal marriage, when domestic violence, widowhood, or lesbianism left them no other options. Sex work is work, because so many people depend on it as such; they do it regularly to gain income necessary to house and feed themselves and their families.

No one should be forced to do this work against their will. Any kind of non-consensual sex work is NOT work, but slavery. We need to distinguish between the two, while also fighting against the real legacy of chattel slavery in the United States, which is mass incarceration. Sex workers are the best partners for fighting trafficking; and supporting sex work decriminalization is also part of the broader movement towards prison abolition.

Opponents to sex worker organizing often slander the movement as a “pimp lobby.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. The underfunded grassroots sex worker organizations across the United States are built up entirely by workers. The sex work decim movements in D.C. and NYC are primarily led by black and brown, immigrant and trans workers, who are the ones most frequently criminalized by anti-prostitution laws. The same cannot be said about the people who oppose us, and advocate to abolish the sex industry. There are no customers or managers in our organizing spaces, and we are not in the least bit interested in promoting the rights of “pimps” or “johns”. In fact, we are asking for full decrim in order to be able to engage in labor organizing, to transfer power away from management into the hands of workers.

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This is our modern day prostitutes’ resistance movement. We are organizing against exploitation and violence, to transfer power to workers. Dear sisters at AF3IRM, why, oh why, won’t you include our voices?

The sex worker movement is “anti-pimping” and anti-corporate, which is why we’re not advocating for legalization, but for decriminalization. Legalization, in the German or Dutch context, is a regulatory framework that continues to put power into the hands of capitalist industries through expensive licenses and public listings, which exclude poor workers and migrant sex workers who can not gain a license. The goal of decrim is to allow for self-determination, and for the industry to be worker-run and led. Following the New Zealand Model of full decriminalization, we believe that any non-sex-worker involved in the industry should be required to have an “operator’s license”. Ideally, in addition to the criminal background check that the New Zealand Model mandates, this licensing would also be substantively useful in certifying that managers are complying with labor regulations, and providing licensed fiduciary or administrative services to sex workers, who hold the power of employing and firing them, rather than the other way around. Instead of criminalizing “pimps”, we want sex workers to work independently, or in collectives with other sex workers, or be the bosses of their “pimps”, having access to licensed professionals, such as accountants, bodyguards, and drivers, just like any other industry.

We are opposed to current laws against “pimping”, which are overly broad, and often used to target landlords, drivers, phone girls, partners who share rent or living expenses, and especially other sex workers working side-by-side. These laws effectively isolate sex workers and contribute to making the industry more dangerous. Instead of criminalization, sex workers want to transform this industry from the inside, by pushing out exploitative management, asserting new norms of what is acceptable or unacceptable treatment in workplaces, and creating more respectful working environments that can serve as the norm within the sex industry. The current campaign against criminalization is just the first of many future fights for sex workers’ rights as workers, but it is necessary to lay the groundwork for our continued labor struggles to come. We are committed to working towards the transformation of the oppressive dynamics within the sex industry itself, and not normalizing the violence within the sex industry by insisting that all sex work is inherently violent.

Equating all sex work to “sexual exploitation” is harmful to people in sex trades, because it makes it so that we are unable to organize against specific forms of exploitation that we experience in our day-to-day jobs. As survivors of rape and sexual assault, we know how to distinguish between actual rape and a consensual paid date with a client. It is dangerous for us when outsiders to the industry try to erase the distinction between the two through metaphorical rhetoric. We are not your metaphor — we are people. We strongly believe that an employment law approach, combined with robust collective bargaining rights, would be more effective than using the broad stroke of criminal law to fight against specific forms of exploitation that we experience in the sex industry. Sex workers need the same employment protections and benefits as other workers, including healthcare, unemployment benefits, healthy and safe working environments, reasonable working hours and vacations.

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Meeting monthly: our Asian American / Pacific Islander Coalition for the Rights of Migrant Informal Workers, to include sex workers, street vendors, day laborers, domestic workers, and restaurant delivery workers. With the support of Queens Assemblymember Ron Kim, including progressive AAPI organizers from DSA.

The sex-worker-exclusionary, anti-prostitution advocates at AF3IRM wrote about defending a “right to exit”, which we think is a misleading framework. We all agree that people in the sex trade who are being forced against their will, should have the right to exit. In fact, we advocate for the right of sex workers to refuse any client for any reason during their shifts, as part of the basic employment rights of a sex worker. We also believe that sex workers should have equal access to financial services, and sound financial planning advice, instead of being taken advantage of by intermediaries or staying dangerously unbanked — so that they could plan wisely for smooth transition into other careers, or invest for retirement.

There are bakeries and small businesses dotting the landscape of Queens that were started by immigrant women who only had their bodies as capital. Similarly, in Thailand, there are farms and houses bought by young rural women who travelled to cities to earn money that would support their family for years to come. Instead of thanking sex workers for the ways that they have contributed to their communities, bolstering the economies of whole developing nations — we instead subject these hidden heroes of our society to violent shame.

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Instead of being forced back into low-wage jobs, many people in sex trades want to work more safely and save. Many immigrant survivors of sex trades have paid for their own education, started their own businesses, planned their own “exit” — and quietly put this trade behind them. Instead of post-arrest, court-mandated counseling contingent on immediately leaving the sex industry, they want access to substantive resources: housing, healthcare, education & comparable job training/placement, and non-judgmental support in planning how and when to leave the sex trade.

We agree with AF3IRM that people in sex trades should be protected from violence and sexual exploitation. Where we disagree is how we think the consent and agency of a sex worker can be protected. The Nordic Model (or “Equality Model”, for which AF3IRM advocates) proposes relying on the carceral state, prisons and police to enforce “partial criminalization” on customers and third parties. As socialists and prison abolitionists, we think it is an oversimplification and an underestimation of the police to assume that the criminalization of pimps and johns will not introduce police violence, surveillance, and interference into sex workers’ lives in harmful ways. Even the idealistic version of this criminalization — just fining pimps and johns, redirecting that sex workers services, and using educational programs to rehabilitate pimps and johns — ignores the obvious fact that fines are produced and sustained by the police and continues to be an entryway for cop intervention in sex workers’ lives.

This past June, Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old Afro-Latina transgender woman died in solitary confinement, after being arrested in April, unable to afford $500 pre-trial bail. She had first been brought in on prostitution-related charges and low-level drug charges. She had a warrant for re-arrest after missing a single court date and being unable to complete mandated social services at the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts, which are promoted as a more benevolent approach to help survivors of trafficking, providing a path towards vacating their criminal records. However, relying on police arrest, courts, and prisons to provide mandated “counseling” has proven to be lethally coercive for some of the most marginalized people in sex trades, especially trans and migrant women in sex trades, like Layleen Polanco and Yang Song.

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Cecilia Gentili, a trans Latina leader in the Steering Committee of DecrimNY, spoke at this rally for Layleen Polanco, a trans Afro-Latina woman who traded sex. She died in solitary confinement, unable to pay $500 of pre-trial bail, after missing a single court date and failing to complete mandated “counseling” services by the Human Trafficking Intervention Court. Black, indigenous, and Latinx trans women in sex trades face the highest levels of police profiling and state violence.

In Ireland, Norway, Sweden, and France, sex workers in countries that have implemented the “Nordic Model,” say that they continue to be surveilled, criminalized, and deported under the “partial criminalization” framework. Migrant sex workers are especially impacted. Especially in Ireland, sex workers say that few resources have been offered for housing, job transition, or counseling to help sex workers deal with the loss of income. In Sweden, three government reports show that under the Nordic Model, the sex industry did not so much decrease as become less visible, moved online, and pushed underground to more isolated places. Meanwhile, the increased social stigma against sex work has legitimized discrimination against sex workers seeking social services. Swedish sex worker activist, Jasmine Petite, was denied custody of her child, which was instead given to her abusive partner, who killed her during a visitation. Under this seemingly benevolent “Swedish Model”, which authorizes deadly discrimination against sex workers, the Swedish state put a working mother and her child directly into the murderous hand of her abuser.

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Swedish sex workers speak out against the Nordic Model. Swedish worker activist, Jasmine Petite, was killed in 2003, after being denied child custody as a sex worker under a highly discriminatory state, which put her directly into the murderous hands of her abusive partner. Credit: Swedish Sex Worker Collective https://www.fuckforbundet.com

Other sex workers in Sweden have reported being forced to work in more dangerous conditions, faced eviction and discrimination in housing, felt unable to work or live with others, including their partners, experienced increased isolation, and fear of carrying condoms, with Swedish social service providers going so far as to oppose the provision of condoms as “prostitution-promotion” — which creates obvious public health risks. When clients were criminalized in Sweden, they also became more reluctant to report violence, coercion, or exploitation that they may witness against sex workers, for fear of criminalization. Currently in the United States, a big portion of calls to various trafficking hotlines are made by clients suspecting abuse.

By contrast, in New Zealand, after the Prostitution Reform Act passed in 2003, fully decriminalizing sex work, the sex industry and sex trafficking did not increase in size. An independent review in 2007 showed that 90% of sex workers said they have better access to health and safety on the job, and 57% said that society’s attitudes changed for the better. In addition, 64% said they are more able to refuse clients — the remainder of which, it is not clear from the data, whether they had ever felt unable to refuse clients previous to the law passing. Many of the more exploitative brothels that existed before the law was passed were forced to close down because sex workers simply stopped working there, since they were able to safely work independently and in collectives with other workers. Careful laws were also put in place to protect against employer discrimination based on prior sex work status, to give unemployment benefits to sex workers and services for job transition, and to save records of sex work registrations in a confidential database inaccessible to other government departments, including police. Overall, the results of full decriminalization led to more dignity and respect for sex workers, who are treated like equal human beings, rather than victims or criminals, able to participate fully in the democratic processes governing their lives.

However, even the New Zealand Model did not guarantee visas or working rights to migrants. This is where we want to push for improvement in our migrant-led advocacy in New York, alongside trans Latina sex workers at Make the Road, and other members of our DecrimNY coalition, including: Vocal-NY, Legal Aid Society, Housing Works, DSA Queer Caucus, DSA Socialist Feminist Working Group, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Lambda Legal, National Lawyers Guild, CREA, Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, among others — all fighting for the full decriminalization of sex work.

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“Let us survive!”

As sex workers, we believe that the specific forms of violence and exploitation in the sex industry would be better addressed with the fine-grained tools of labor laws, rather than the broad stroke of criminal law, which is disproportionately enforced by police against communities of color and the most marginalized workers in the sex industry. The criminal legal system relies on state violence.

Just like AF3IRM, we also believe that the sex industry should not be led by cisgender white male capitalists. Nor do we believe that the “rescue industry” of charities that profit from our rehabilitation should be led by upper-middle class women who have no lived experience in the sex industry. While early sex worker organizers in the 70’s to early 90’s were compelled to take on a “sex-positive” rhetoric of enjoying their work (called “happy hookers” by anti-prostitution advocates), the current sex work decrim movement, primarily led by black and brown women of color, immigrants, indigenous women, trans women, and people with disabilities, say they do not need to defend their jobs as “happy” or “empowering”, when workers in other jobs are not required to do the same to be seen as a valid job.

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Image credit to our fierce movement-family at DecrimNow in Washington D.C. — led by black feminist organizers through an intersectional understanding of gender-based violence that includes police violence & state violence. https://www.decrimnow.org

The U.S. state agenda of anti-trafficking rose rapidly to prominence from a place of relative obscurity in the post-9/11 Bush era alongside the rhetoric of anti-terrorism. Just like in Thailand, where the American anti-trafficking movement suppressed decades of labor rights struggles that were won by Thai sex workers who had been steadily improving working conditions; similarly, in the U.S. sex worker rights movement, which had been the dominant form of advocacy for people in sex trades since the ’60s, has now been entirely suppressed in the popular imagination by the anti-trafficking movement’s monotone stories of horror and violence.

The current anti-trafficking movement is direct descended from a vocal 2nd Wave feminist group of anti-pornography and anti-prostitution advocates like Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, who were ideologically opposed to sex with all men as patriarchal violence, because “penetration, by its nature, is violent.” Many of these 2nd Wave feminists, like Dorchen Leidholdt have directly proceeded into building up the current anti-prostitution human trafficking movement, which arose during the post-9/11 Bush administration, in a strange carceral alliance with religious conservatives and military/policing interests. Leidholdt purposefully conflates trafficking with sex work, insisting that “what we call sex trafficking is nothing more or less than globalized prostitution”, and insists to the face of black and migrant sex workers that “sex work is not work,” while spreading many false statistics in her talks about prostitution. She said on numerous occasions that the sex worker movement is a pimp-led conspiracy funded by George Soros. She also takes a founding or leading role in almost all of the anti-prostitution organizations in New York City and worldwide: CATW, Equality Now, and Sanctuary for Families.

While multi-million-dollar charity organizations like Polaris pay their executives six-figure salaries to “raise awareness” through racially biased misinformation about trafficking, the biggest portion of funding from anti-trafficking legislation does not actually go towards women’s shelters like Sanctuary for Families or Womankind. Instead, in the U.S., most of the funding has gone towards policing and surveillance. Instead of creating jobs for sex workers who want to exit, the majority of funding from anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution legislation goes towards creating jobs for the police and ex-military. For example, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act in 2015, provided for:

  • Recruiting wounded and retired veterans into special “Hero Corps” to rescue child trafficking victims [Sec. 302] — Former combatants, who have been trained to kill on sight with deadly firearms, and experience a high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, will now be exposed to highly sensitive and complex situations, predominantly in neighborhoods already vulnerable to police brutality.
  • Funding wiretapping initiatives [Sec. 203] and a Cyber Crimes Center [Sec. 302] specializing in computer forensics and internet surveillance technologies to be used by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which will be authorized to collaborate with the Department of Defense to monitor the telecommunications and activities of immigrants, border residents, and foreign nationals. According to the bill, the Cyber Crimes Unit (CCU) also enhances ICE’s ability to combat “cyber economic crime, digital theft of intellectual property, [and] illicit e-commerce,” among other economic crimes on the internet.
  • Prioritizing funding for paying law enforcement salaries and creating new units of judicial prosecutors, with data sharing across departments and sectors, equipped with the authority, resources, and expert training to investigate and monitor anyone potentially deemed a victim (mostly sex workers), in partnership with health and social service organizations that are encouraged to collaborate with law enforcement, sharing information to enable the ongoing supervision of people involved in trafficking cases, regardless of criminal charge.

As media historian Gretchen Soderlund wrote, in her essay, “Running from the Rescuers”, “at the time of writing, the U.S. is fighting two concurrent wars, one a declared war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and the other an illegitimate occupation of Iraq committed under false pretenses. In such a context, combatting the traffick in women has become a common denominator political issue, uniting people across the political and religious spectrum against a seemingly indisputable act of oppression and exploitation.”

And so, with the voter-pleasing bipartisan heroism of the anti-trafficking agenda, recent militarization efforts in the U.S. have been funded off the backs of the most marginalized sex workers, who are also the ones most hurt by these anti-trafficking raids, both domestically and internationally.

In Southeast Asia, Thai and Cambodian sex workers protest the U.S. imperialism of the “rescue” charity industry that aligns with Christian evangelical organizations and the police to literally kill and detain sex workers, while white, middle-class “social entrepreneurs” are paid six-figure salaries in a sector that profits off of the trauma porn of whorephobia.

If this is not modern day colonialism, what is?

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“Save us from saviors”: Trans sex workers protesting in India against American imperialist charities.

The Department of Homeland Security funds its coffers with racist images of black “pimps”, and profits from “certified trainings” with MNC’s like hotel chains, including showing Instagram photos of “known pimps”, in which they point out the patterns of men having teeth with metal grills and African-American women with expensive hair extensions as “signs of pimps and trafficking.” The corporations which pay for their employees to sit through sessions of “anti-trafficking awareness” campaigns are then educated with such racist misinformation, and advertise in their hotel lobbies that encourage public participation in cultural discrimination, with “indicators of trafficking” such as visible tattoos, and not making eye contact, or not speaking the language well. Meanwhile, some of these corporations are neglecting the labor trafficking in their own staff, and failing to pay their own workers decent wages.

The focus on sex trafficking distracts from all the labor exploitation that is happening in every other corporate sector, exonerating American consumers from the blame of fast fashion purchases, while using a fear tactic combined with a Hero narrative to empower police and install surveillance. These elements of a fascist police state are literally being built off the fear and hatred of the public for sex workers, who are canaries in the coalmine, first to experience these forms of state violence that chips away at the freedoms of all.

This is a particular shame because these resources that fund militarization should be going towards services that addresses poverty, housing and education, the root cause of why people enter the sex industry. And yet, an investigation into the ways in which these anti-prostitution charities have appropriated money from the public through misinformation, while simultaneously funding state violence against the very people they fundraise to protect.

Prostitution has existed in virtually every society and culture, prior to European colonization. Rather than blaming all sex workers metaphorically for being “colonized bodies”, in an extended essentialist allusion relating women’s bodies to the Land — it would be anti-colonial to recognize how the rhetoric around fighting prostitution has been used to actually fund the U.S. military and U.S. imperialist charity projects in Asia. This leads the actual incarceration of women of color, and forces these women back into the neoliberal corporations of garment and electronics manufacturing, coercing far more underpaid Third World labor for First World consumption.

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#SayHerName — DecrimNY wheat-pasting guerilla poster art by Micah Bazant, Ashleigh Shackelford, and M.

Laws like SESTA-FOSTA that prohibit the advertising of sex work on the internet, and on general purpose platforms like Backpages, which were intended to combat trafficking, have failed to do so, and instead contributed to making it much harder to identify trafficking victims. It has also pushed sex workers onto the street and increased violence in sex trades. Meanwhile, financial intermediaries like Paypal and Visa have discriminated against sex workers, and communication platforms like Twitter and Tumblr “shadow ban” or disable the accounts of sex workers on the platform. These ways of undermining internet freedoms and privacy rights, are currently being challenged by civil liberties organizations like Electronic Frontiers Foundation.

In the United States, black and brown communities of color, the “Third World Within,” are disproportionately harmed by police violence, and forced to do work for basically no pay in a for-profit prison system. Militarized police technologies and increased omnipresent surveillance, is being paid for by these “Hero” bills, which requires the public to buy into the imagination of a world of criminals and victims. This way of empowering the state is stealing from the most marginalized people in our society, who are framed simultaneously as victims and criminals.

Decolonization involves organizing to dismantle these systems of excessive state force, and a “re-feudalized” banking and economic system that leaves out more than 60% of the world who work in informal sectors, according to the International Labor Organization, which now includes sex workers among the world’s informal sector workers. Hypocritically, efforts at “ending” the sex industry through criminalization are feeding directly into these other systems of state violence and economic violence.

Targeting women’s bodies as the source of all patriarchal colonization is feeding into the patriarchal values of marital chastity, which is the oldest form of women’s enslavement as property. Virginity is as much a form of sexual objectification as any, and deep-seated misogynstic attitudes towards “sexual purity” are the bedrock of women’s oppression under patriarchy.

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Indian sex workers form world’s largest labor union of 65,000 workers at Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, which fought to maintain a higher standard wage, to mandate the use of condoms, and bar youth from working in the red light district. Decriminalization and labor organizing are most effective in eliminating minors in sex trade, protecting all workers from exploitation, and improving public health.

We believe that AF3IRM’s “trafficking-free zones” is a misleading framework. We currently live under a system of full criminalization, where it is already illegal to be a “pimp” or to purchase sexual services as a “john” — so theoretically, we should already be living in a “trafficking-free zone” if criminalization were an effective tool to this end. And yet, exploitation and violence still exists in the sex industry. In fact, it is the criminalization of sex work that directly puts profit into the hands of “pimps”, who do the job that police won’t do, by claiming to protect sex workers from assault or theft, when police can’t be trusted to protect us.

Criminalization is a root cause of “pimping.” It has not proven to be successful in eliminating trafficking; in fact, criminalization is what makes sex workers vulnerable to violence and theft. Under existing laws, sex workers who have been raped by clients have had their case dismissed (ex. in Philadelphia) as mere “theft.” When all sex work is treated as violence, the specific incidents of violence that sex workers experience get normalized, and the voices of sex workers who try to define for themselves what constitutes consent vs. victimization get erased. Sex workers are often unable to get justice as victims of specific crime, since we are treated either as criminals, or dismissed as perpetual victims. Thieves and serial murderers, like Gary Ridgeway who confessed to 71 murders in the ’80s and ’90s, targeting people in sex trades, knowing that the criminal status of prostitution will make them less willing to seek redress for violations committed against them.

While proponents of “partial criminalization” propose criminalizing “johns and pimps” as a solution to the harms of criminalization, sex workers in countries that have implemented this framework still face barriers to reporting violence as a result of penalties targeting “pimps”. For instance, laws against operating brothels frequently make it illegal to rent to or otherwise house sex workers, thus ensuring that being outed for selling sex means risking eviction. This puts sex workers at greater risk of blackmail and other coercion, and prevents them from seeking forms of support which require self-disclosure.

As members of the Socialist Feminist Working Group of DSA, we are well aware of the role of bosses in capitalism, and do not propose decriminalizing managers as an attempt to grant managers “workers’ rights”. Instead, we do so because we understand that criminalizing managers for employing sex workers ultimately results in criminalizing sex workers themselves, in the same way criminalizing managers who employ undocumented migrants ends up criminalizing undocumented people. Police have never defended working class interests and they won’t start now; workers win rights by organizing for them, and that self-organization is most possible when sex work is decriminalized.

Historically, the Prohibition of the buying of alcohol put money directly into the hands of gangs and helped to create organized crime rings in North America. This was repealed in 1933 and deemed a failure. Similarly, the criminalization of the buying of sexual services also puts people in sex trades into the hands of organized crime. It’s time to repeal hateful laws that dehumanize and endanger people in sex trades, and support sex workers to organize for better labor conditions, fight more effectively against trafficking, and establish new norms of acceptable practice that is more respectful towards women, queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people, and the ever-increasing number of heterosexual men working in sex trades.

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Red Canary Song — Community teach-in with know-your-rights trainings, in front of the Flushing Library

As the sex industry is becoming ever more niche, with more specific categories of workers who specialize in ever more specific fetishes and services, there is a growing diversity of people in sex trades, as well as a growing number of women who purchase sexual services from men and other women, a natural consequence of women’s increasing economic power and busier executive schedules.

The struggle for decriminalization, in NY State and elsewhere, includes people of all genders who are or have been involved in the sex trade out of choice, circumstance, and/or coercion. As most trafficking targets people who are already selling or trading sex, it’s vital that sex workers’ voices are not excluded from discussions of how best to serve trafficking victims and survivors. There is no dichotomy between the needs of sex workers and survivors, and criminalization does nothing to equip victims with the resources they need to escape abusive situations.

In the words of Carol Leigh, the mother of the American sex worker movement: “It only takes two minutes to radicalize a sex worker.” There are so many sex workers across the United States that are vocally fighting for housing, healthcare, education, better job options, and an economy that works for everyone. They have played leading roles in struggles for racial justice, LGBTQ+ liberation, and the rights of all workers. Many are people of color with strong relationships in other grassroots movements, who would love to bring their energy and fighting spirit to the DSA — if it is willing to fight alongside them.

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We want bread— and we want roses too!

“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution”
- Emma Goldman

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REFERENCES

An incomplete list of human rights and public health organizations that have come out in support of the full decriminalization of sex work, and against the “End Demand” or “Nordic” Model of prohibiting prostitution through partial criminalization:

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UPDATE: On August 2nd, 2019, the Democratic Socialists of America’s national convention passed their consent agenda, which included the body’s most widely supported resolutions as determined by a pre-convention straw poll.

Among these resolutions was Resolution #53 "Support for the Decriminalization of Sex Work", which declared DSA’s solidarity with the struggle for decriminalization, committed to adding questions about sex work to candidate questionnaires, encouraged local chapters to engage in organizing and political education in coalition with sex worker-led advocacy groups, and resolved to engage with current candidates (like Bernie Sanders) to encourage their support of decriminalization.

Many thanks to ana and other sex workers within the DSA, who pushed for this bill in the face of harassment and discrimination within the organization, winning countless allies to this cause.

Thank you, allies, for supporting us. We are being marginalized left and right. Please don’t be a bystander. We need your voice and support.

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