Not long ago, most porn stars, escorts, strippers and cam-girls wouldn’t feel comfortable entering the political scuffle. But thanks to a confluence of factors — including Stormy Daniels, arguably the world’s most famous sex worker, making herself a symbol of the anti-Trump resistance — the sex-work community has become America’s newest niche political bloc.
Though the movement has been happening for decades, even centuries, explains community organizer Lola Balcon, it’s taken hold in recent years in part as a result of long-term de-stigmatization efforts from human rights groups including Amnesty International, which recommended the decriminalization of sex work in 2016. But it wasn’t until the passage of the so-called Online Trafficking bill SESTA-FOSTA last spring that many workers began to organize locally, forming grassroots coalitions not just to oppose the bill but also to support sex work decriminalization efforts more broadly.
“We have a lot at stake right now. The political climate is unpredictable and volatile,” says Christa Daring, the executive director of Sex Workers Outreach Project USA, a nonprofit aimed at supporting sex workers and campaigning for the decriminalization of sex work. “SESTA-FOSTA didn’t make prostitution any more illegal than it was before, but it made a lot of people’s lives a lot harder and it really threw into stark contrast the amount of criminalization that people were facing.”
Balcon was introduced to now-New York State Senator-elect Julia Salazar in June through the Democratic Socialists of America, the left-leaning group that endorsed her. She’d been working with the then-New York Congressional candidate Suraj Patel at the time to help inform his opposition to SESTA-FOSTA, and she was eager to coordinate with Salazar on a platform that was far more wide-sweeping, even radical: Decriminalization. The demands in Salazar’s policy paper included an end to raids on massage parlors, a repeal of sex workers’ exemption from rape shield laws and a repeal of loitering statutes that excessively target LGBTQ sex workers and sex workers of color.
“Julia’s perspective strikes me as very matter of fact. She comes at it from a criminal justice reform and trans rights and immigrant rights perspective that makes so much sense with the rest of her platform that she doesn’t talk about [sex work] like it’s a big deal,” says Balcon. “I think that’s the way it should be, and that’s also part of what’s exciting.
Activists’ push for the decriminalization of sex work is not unique to New York. In San Francisco, a sex workers’ collective is challenging the constitutionality of California’s prostitution and solicitation law. In Washington, D.C., sex workers and allies have been canvassing to reintroduce a City Council bill aimed at decriminalizing sex work. The bill, introduced by Councilmember David Grosso last year, was drafted with input from sex worker advocates and calls for the creation of a task force composed of sex workers’ rights organizations to make recommendations.
“Now you have coalitions rising of people who care about criminal justice and racial justice and immigration issues all working together,” says Balcon. “It’s gonna be a long fight ahead.”
However, some are hopeful that the movement is starting to reach the mainstream. “I’ve never seen sex workers begin organizing in the way they did following SESTA-FOSTA,” says activist Siouxsie Q. “Enough was enough.”