On a sunny June afternoon in Ridgewood, New York, close to 200 sex workers and their allies gather in a windowless queer performance space called the Dreamhouse. A DIY nightclub best known for glittery ragers, the space has been transformed into a welcoming sanctuary for the escorts, pro-dommes, strippers and pornographers participating in a town hall to discuss the federal policies affecting their lives and livelihoods.
“Rights Not Rescue: A Sex Worker Town Hall” was publicized as the first-ever of its kind to be hosted by a congressional candidate. The politician in question was Suraj Patel, a first-time candidate for New York’s 12th Congressional District. Patel, whose campaign platform included a call to defund ICE and legalize marijuana, was the first primary candidate to take an official policy stance against the new federal law SESTA-FOSTA. Although he did not ultimately win the election, Patel’s campaign set a powerful precedent for the importance of sex workers as a constituency.
SESTA-FOSTA, known in Congress as The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act or H.R. 1865, received bipartisan support in an era of rare across the aisle agreement; it was approved with a vote of 388-25 in the House and 97-2 in the Senate. The law was positioned as a way to prevent traffickers to profit online, but the law has had many critics, including free speech activists and human rights organizations. Significantly, its most vocal opposition comes from the population it is ostensibly designed to protect and support: sex workers.
Since the law was passed, there has been a swell of protests, political actions and new forms of grassroots organizing among the American sex worker rights community. Dissent has saturated social media on hashtags including #LetUsSurvive, #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA and #SexWorkersVote, arguing that punishing online platforms only denies workers resources, forcing them into more dangerous situations. For now, various community groups are focusing their energies on supporting one another in an era of urgent crisis, but there’s a long-term goal for many within the movement: Decriminalization of sex work, across the board.
Since the law was passed, there has been a swell of protests, political actions and new forms of grassroots organizing.
Patel’s stance against SESTA-FOSTA was the result of a conversation with NYC-based group Survivors Against SESTA and community organizer Lola Balcon. The purpose of the town hall was to give Patel a chance to listen to sex workers’ stories, something many activists feel their representatives have failed to do. (Patel’s campaign opponent, the 13-term Democrat incumbent Representative Carolyn Maloney, was a lead co-sponsor of the SESTA-FOSTA legislative package.)
Under the refracted light of a disco ball, Patel sits on a panel that also includes Ceyenne Doroshow, the founder of Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society (GLITS), Cecilia Gentili, the managing director of policy at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and Aya Tasaki, policy and advocacy manager at Womankind. The panelists describe how the communities they work with, from Asian immigrants to HIV-positive folks, face violence and stigma as a direct result of sex work criminalization.
SESTA-FOSTA “may have been created with good intentions to protect victims of sex trafficking, but they fail to recognize that some of us do sex work willingly and for different reasons,” Gentili tells Rolling Stone. Gentili is one of many advocates who point out that the most socially disenfranchised laborers, such as trans women of color, have the most to lose when their online vetting resources are shuttered.
“As a transgender woman I am familiar with discrimination and disdain,” she continues. “During my time as a sex worker, those feelings intensified due to [sex work] stigma.” Gentili sees a direct connection between the struggles for trans rights and sex worker rights. She is calling for “the right to autonomy over our bodies and the right to make decisions over the actions we take.”
On the West Coast, sex workers and advocates Maxine Holloway and Arabelle Raphael founded Bay Pros Support in the weeks following the passage of SESTA/FOSTA. In a post on the sex work blog Tits and Sass, Holloway and Raphael outlined BPS’ multi-pronged guide to sex work safety under the new bill. Their post carefully listed suggestions from cybersecurity and encrypted messaging, to the importance of offshore servers, to fundraising tips for supporting the most marginalized. BPS’ work seeks to both alleviate and call attention to the stress that sex workers are enduring in their scramble to re-stabilize their businesses.
“As an expectant parent, I would love to be able to communicate more honestly with my medical providers about my chosen profession,” says one advocate.
Speaking to Rolling Stone about the harms of criminalization, Holloway says she is concerned not only about her vulnerability to arrest, but her lack of access to social services and care as well. “As an expectant parent, I would love to be able to communicate more honestly with my medical providers and therapists about my chosen profession without fear of legal consequences or judgments,” she says.
Perhaps the highest profile efforts to repeal SESTA-FOSTA emerged on June 28th, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit against the federal government. Woodhull Freedom Foundation et al. v. United States is the first constitutional challenge to SESTA-FOSTA, on the grounds of First and Fifth Amendment violations. The plaintiffs named are Human Rights Watch, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, the Internet Archive, a licensed massage therapist, and the founder of a website called Rate That Rescue.
Melissa Sontag Broudo, an attorney and the co-Executive Director of SOAR, a policy organization for sex workers and trafficked individuals, tells Rolling Stone that she hopes the lawsuit is a “first step in acknowledging that the only way to fully support those who are being trafficked into various forms of labor is to decriminalize labor, rather than increase criminal laws.”
Brouso points to the national efforts to decriminalize cannabis, as well as the movement against mass incarceration, as signposts for how decriminalizing sex work could function in terms of both ideology and policy.
“Our country is locked into a continual misguided fight to rescue and/or punish in a narrow and regressive criminal system that continues to fail the most marginalized,” says Broudo.
“Decriminalization could help end trafficking,” says one expert.
Sebastian, a fellow with the Sex Worker Giving Circle at Third Wave Fund, agrees that decriminalization would lead to sex workers being treated like laborers in any other industry, which includes holding exploitative practices accountable. “Decriminalization could help end trafficking because worker autonomy would be normalized. People in the sex trade wouldn’t have to rely on pimps and market optimizers as they could do their work openly,” Sebastian says.
The organizers of Lysistrata, a volunteer-run mutual care collective for marginalized sex workers, say decriminalization would “allow us to openly advertise, explicitly negotiate our boundaries with clients in advance, work without fear of arrest, organize for better working conditions, work in groups, gives us access to shared safety and screening resources.”
Although Holloway acknowledges that “decriminalization could open the door for more government regulations that would give the state further license to control the bodies and labor of sex workers,” she believes it would be worth taking action to reduce the amount of policing in sex workers’ lives.
Sex workers and their advocates across the country agree that the movement towards decriminalization must allow those with experience in the sex industry to build their own policies. Although SESTA-FOSTA represents a setback in the fight for sex worker rights, many activists spoke of finding strength in the industrious resilience of their communities.
“I see hope every day in the incredible kindness that is reflected from sex worker to sex worker, activist to activist,” says Balcon, the community activist with Survivors Against SESTA. “I see restorative, rather than punitive, justice in action.”