Over the last week and before the print edition appeared, Emily Bazelon’s cover story “Should Prostitution be a Crime?” for the New York Times Magazine, sex workers and their allies were sharing and discussing it widely through Facebook, Twitter, and their blogs. I was thrilled to see people I know, activists I’ve admired and worked with, being given a national platform to have their say. This was and is a phenomenal media moment for the sex workers’ rights movement.
Yet, except for a throwaway nod to Margo St. James and COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and a minimal reference to the online sex worker weekly Tits and Sass, the article hardly mentions the many sex worker-led U.S. organizations, local and national, that seek to decriminalize prostitution and make the lives and work of sex workers safer. Though the portraits of sex worker activists are more diverse, the article does not acknowledge the racial, gender, and sexual diversity of the movement. Instead, and perhaps predictably—this is “white savior” Nicholas Kristof’s platform after all—the article is framed as decriminalization advocates against abolitionists. More disturbingly, abolitionists are given organizational strength. Equality NOW, GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), and the other promotors of harmful and hateful policies are spotlighted, almost as though the Times wants to ensure pearl-clutching concerned readers know where to send their money. Parenthetically, it seemed the Times’ anti-prostitution editorial staff designated the “NYT Picks” in the comments section because almost every one of them was against decriminalization.
Bazelon’s deinstitutionalization of the sex workers’ rights movement into a “fractious bunch” is a serious oversight. The many organizations currently active use many different strategies and take sometimes conflicting approaches to achieve a modicum of physical safety, civil rights, and labor protections for people working in the sex industry. Those vigorous tensions, as I documented in Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk, would have given readers a much better understanding of the movement and its goals.
Almost everyone in the movement agrees abolishing laws that prohibit adults from earning money in exchange for consensual sex would be good, and they often cite the decriminalization of marijuana as the most recent example. But porn performers, strippers, and other workers in the corporate legalized sectors of the sex industry are more affected by social stigma and whorephobia than criminal laws. This difference leads to diverse strategies: some seek to destigmatize “whores” through cultural projects, others believe the First Amendment or the Supreme Court’s decisions on sexual privacy are constitutional grounds for abolishing laws against prostitution. Many groups are providing non-judgmental harm reduction services to people wherever they are, services that provide vital health and safety interventions against HIV infections, drug overdoses and other dangers. Those differences make the movement vibrant, and it pushes activists to adopt intersectional analyses that address the multiple personal, financial, and social circumstances under which people decide to engage in sex work.
Listed below are a dozen sex workers’ organizations—created by and for sex workers—and what they do. Finding the websites for these groups isn’t difficult, but you’ll see more results by turning off “safe search” blocking. Even though these are registered with the IRS as non-profit organizations or advocacy groups, and the websites are “safe for work,” blocking algorithms tend to load anti-prostitution and anti-pornography websites while suppressing links to sex workers’ rights groups.
The Red Umbrella Project (RedUP) brings the voices of people in the sex trades through storytelling, using their stories for policy advocacy and community organizing. A new documentary, The Red Umbrella Diaries, in which former and current sex workers read and stage autobiographical pieces about their lives, has been making the film festival rounds. Several stories were first published in RedUP’s Prose and Lore anthologies.
The Sex Workers Project, which is part of the Urban Justice Center in New York City, provided legal assistance and social services advocacy for anyone in the sex industry whether by choice, circumstance, or coercion. SWP attorneys pioneered a human rights approach to serving victims of trafficking in the courts, and their policy reports on sex work and human trafficking are grounded on clients’ real life experiences.
The St. James Infirmary in San Francisco opened in 1999 to provide non-judgmental holistic health care to current and former sex workers of all genders and sexual orientations as well as their family members. Their 290-page Occupational Safety and Health Handbook for people in the sex trades is an invaluable resource.
The Best Practices Policy Project (BPPP) researches policies affecting sex workers and people adversely affected by anti-prostitution policies, such as its 2015 report “Nothing About Us, Without Us: HIV/AIDS-related Community and Policy Organizing by US Sex Workers,” documenting the stigmas transgender women face when attempting to access medical care and the criminalization of their lives. (Full disclosure: I participated in this research.) BPPP with Desiree Alliance and other sex worker groups have challenged the Obama Administration’s National HIV Strategy for its silence on the critical role of sex workers in preventing HIV. In 2010 and 2015, BPPP led the campaign to report the human rights abuses of sex workers in the U.S. to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
HookOnline.org, a nonprofit organization offering advice on and advocacy for men working in the sex industry, has extensive online resources, hosts “live chats” as well as in “Rent U” classes on current issues. Though HookOnline was not implicated in the widely denounced Homeland Security raids of Rentboy.com in August 2015, the escort site provided much of the funding for its work.
The Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP USA) is undergoing a revival since the loss of its founder Robyn Few. With a national board as well as dozens of local chapters throughout the U.S., SWOP seeks to end violence against sex workers, develop new movement leaders, and provides assistance to those who have been persecuted by law enforcement. For people in need of crisis counseling, general support, referrals or information about safety and legal rights, SWOP USA operates a 24/7 hotline: (877)-776-2004. Every year since 2003, SWOP has coordinated International Day Against Violence against Sex Workers on December 17.
ESLERP (Sex Workers and Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project) has mounted quixotic class action lawsuit in the federal courts, claiming that the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas, as well as in Obergefell, requires the abolition of prostitution laws.
In Alaska, Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP), founded by Tara Burns, has successfully fought back against a 2012 state law that classified all consensual sex work as sex trafficking. CUSP’s report, documenting the lived experiences of Alaskan sex workers and policy recommendations that have changed law enforcement approaches to focus on crimes committed against sex workers including rape, intimate partner violence, extortion, and robbery. They are also lobbying for legislation that allow sex workers who are victims or witnesses of crimes to report them without fear of arrest.
Power Inside in Baltimore, founded in 2001, doesn’t look like a “sex worker” group because for many marginalized women and girls, working in the street economy is a survival strategy. Focusing on gender-based violence and incarceration by the “Jane Crow” criminal justice system, Power Inside assists with housing, reunification with their children, access to social services and leadership development.
Self-determination and self-sufficiency for drug users and sex workers in Washington, DC, is the goal at HIPS, founded in 1993. Showers, laundry, community lunches, and computer lab, as well as harm reduction supplies, housing assistance, and medical attention are available at their new onsite location; in addition, their mobile van services low-income neighborhoods almost every night of the week. HIPS hotline number (800) 676-4477 offers counseling and advice to anyone, anywhere.
SWOP Behind Bars, a new SWOP project, encourages people to donate books women’s prisons, building a nationwide network of sex worker-supported letter writing, and a newsletter to women in prison. More than one million women are incarcerated in the U.S. and the conditions—including prison libraries—are even worse than those in men’s prisons. Educational opportunities and post-release programs are practically non-existent, a form of sex discrimination that Margo St. James first fought in the 1970s.
Red Light Legal, a brand new non-profit organization founded by an attorney who put herself through law school by doing sex work, currently offers webinars to educate sex workers on legal matters. In the future, they will provide direct legal services and representation as well as engage in policy advocacy.
The Adult Performers Advocacy Committee was formed in 2014 by people working in the porn industry to oppose passage of California’s Measure B on the grounds that government regulations for workers’ health and working conditions should be decided by the appropriate state agency, not by voters in a ballot referendum.
Grassroots organizing to empower sex workers has been going on for a very long time. Women With A Vision in New Orleans has been doing just that for more than twenty-five years, the one group aside from Amnesty International, Bazelon cites. As activist and blogger Renegade Evolution wrote almost a decade ago, “We ARE organizing, you’re just not paying attention.”
About the Author
Activist Melinda Chateauvert has been involved in many grassroots campaigns to change policies and attitudes about sex and sexuality, gender and antiviolence, and race and rights. As a university professor she has taught courses on social justice organizing, the civil rights movement, and gender and sexuality. She is a fellow at the Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter at @.