We work hard for the money and we demand to be seen: Sex Workers, Stigma, Harm Reduction and International Workers’ Day

Image by PACE Society

I start my search by typing “International Worker’s Day and Women” and nothing relevant comes up. I find it hard to believe, because I know women were key figures in this movement. I try again. Same thing. If anything, I am persistent, so I try one more time. This time I type “International Worker’s Day and Feminism”. One article about the intersection of feminism and the labor movement comes up. I click eagerly and start reading hoping to see sex work discussed. After all, sex work IS work. Then reality hits me like a ton of bricks: there are certain kinds of labor that have been consistently made invisible, like domestic labor and sex work (primarily done by women), which are not included in mainstream conversations about “work”, workers’ rights and the capitalist economy. As May 1st approaches, I believe any commemoration of International Worker’s Day (May Day) should and must acknowledge not only women, but also sex workers and their contributions to the labor movement.

There is an important distinction between sex workers and human trafficking: sex workers choose to exchange services with other adults, while folks that experience trafficking are coerced into providing such services. Perpetuating the invisibility of sex work is dangerous because it feeds stigma and dehumanization. It also makes sex workers vulnerable to persecution and violence both from state and local authorities as well as NIMBY (Not in MY Back Yard) groups active in the communities where they live and work.

The passage of laws like SESTA and FOSTA, legislation crafted with the intention of protecting people who’ve been trafficked, has had a chilling and stigmatizing effect on sex workers, driving them further underground. In 2018 The Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) amended Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a federal provision which protects online publishers from being held liable for third-party user posts on their sites. The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) was passed a month before SESTA, making posting or hosting online prostitution ads a federal crime. (How a New Senate Bill will Screw Over Sex Workers, Rolling Stone, 2018.) Both bills are supposed to protect the lives and rights of people who have experienced trafficking, but advocates claim the effect will be to the contrary. By limiting access to internet forums, people who are currently trafficked and folks engaging in consensual sex work will be further isolated and even more exposed to abuse, losing access to supportive survival.

Studies show that criminalizing, stigmatizing and rendering invisible folks who engage in sex work makes it more difficult to access vital health services as well as safely negotiate with clients. They also experience extreme levels of violence and harassment, leaving them afraid of reporting the abuse for fear of arrest and retribution (Understanding Sex Work in an Open Society, Open Society Foundations, 2017). Research also shows that Black and Latina cis and transgender women in low income as well as “in the process of becoming gentrified neighborhoods” experience more sex worker profiling and arrests that their white counterparts (Red Umbrella Project, 2014).

It is hard enough to survive as a woman of color in this country, even more so if one identifies as a sex worker before FOSTA or SESTA were signed into law. Forcing sex workers to the streets will mean more policing, more criminalization and more stigma. As harm reductionists advocating for sex worker economic and human rights, we can’t ignore the intersection of sexism, racism, and poverty and how women of color engaged in sex work are especially harmed by misinformed policies, practices, and perspectives.

To survive this capitalist/colonialist/racist patriarchy and some of its ills — stigma, housing and job insecurity — many people turn to sex work as a viable income option. If “the system” is not equipped to provide solutions to racism, poverty, lack of access to a living wage, rocketing housing costs, non-existent healthcare, and gentrification then, at the very least, it should not create more barriers that deny opportunities to people who do sex work.

Protecting and uplifting sex workers economic rights should concern us all. Sex workers are our neighbors, our friends and family, teachers, and colleagues. They can be you or me. Now more than ever, as a feminist and a practicing harm reductionist, I find myself thinking of ways to support sex workers. Below you will find a list of seven concrete and simple things we all can do to show love and respect for our fellow sex workers:

1. Print statements that clearly articulate our belief that sex workers should be treated with respect and dignity. Place them visibly in our offices, our communities and homes.

2. Avoid using or allowing others to use stigmatizing and denigrating language about sex workers. Use people first language.

3. Create spaces for dialogue (at home, in your community, at your workplace) about the dangers faced by sex workers in this hostile economic and social climate (particularly trans sex workers of color).

4. Donate to support the work done by organizations dedicated to improving and defending the wellbeing and dignity of sex workers. Some examples are: HIPS, St. James Infirmary, SWOP Behind Bars, Redlight Legal, USPROS and The Sex Workers Project

5. If you are in a position of hiring, hire sex workers to work for your organization or program. When considering employing someone, don’t let their sex work history (past or present) deter you from doing so.

6. As a service provider, offer holistic services that address the whole person and not only what they do for work.

7. As my colleague and friend Kacey shared with me, if you have ever considered hiring the services of a sex worker (whether that means full-service sex work or booking a session with that dom/me you follow on Instagram, tipping more at the strip club, paying for that independently produced porn), now more than ever is the time to do it. Hire them and pay them for their labor fairly.

An emblematic song of the workers’ rights movement is Solidarity Forever. Written in 1915 by Ralph Chaplin and made famous in the voice of Pete Seeger, it speaks to the power of the union as an organizing structure to protect the rights of workers, families and communities. I believe it also speaks to the power of union as a verb, of being together, resisting, fighting and reclaiming our humanity and dignity. This May Day and all other days of the year, sex workers deserve our solidarity, our respect, and our love.