How to Fight for Sex Worker Justice
Welcome to Brain-Throbs & Blow Jobs, a new column that highlights the great minds and perspectives of Bay Area sex workers through interviews and photo portraits.
Come support your local sex workers this Saturday at the Sex Worker Justice Now rally in downtown Oakland. June 2 is International Sex Worker’s Day, and communities from all over the country will gathering to advocate for the health, safety, and protection of sex workers in the wake of Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA / SESTA) legislation. We are taking the need for protection and respect to the streets! We will have food trucks, a DJ, self-defense classes, a press confrence, and a march! Join us at Oscar Grant Plaza to learn more about what is going on for our sex worker communities during this heightened political time.
The Bay Area has a long and rich history of sex worker organizing and visibility. It’s here that the term sex worker was first coined in 1978 by sex worker activist Carol Leigh to title people who exchange sexual services for money. A few years prior, COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) was founded by Margo St. James in 1973 with an effort to repeal the existing prostitution laws and end the stigma associated with sex work. COYOTE made space for the infamous St. James Infirmary, a health clinic run for and by current and former sex workers, to open its doors in 1999. And it’s here where a notorious San Francisco madam and brothel owner, Sally Stanford, grew to become the mayor of Sausalito in the mid 70’s. San Francisco pushed the political envelope as Prop K made it on the 2008 ballot voting whether or not to decriminalize prostitution. The Bay Area is where people have felt at liberty to live (and fuck) outside the lines, and has a strong legacy of fighting to protect our Bay Area sex workers.
Here we are in 2018 and sex workers are dealing with the fall out of the FOSTA/SESTA legislation. These laws took away the online marketplace where workers advertise and vet their clients. Because sex work and sex trafficking are conflated, continuously, this hurts sex workers while doing literally nothing to actually prevent exploitation or “trafficking” in the sex trade. For many sex workers, this was an immediate threat to their safety and livelihood, and for many directly cut off their income. Imagine if your ability to work and support yourself disappeared overnight.
In true Bay Area fashion, there are cohorts of sex workers in the city banding together to create community care structures during this heightened political time. Recently, Bay Area Pros Support (BAPS) was formed, a group of local advocates that fight for the health, safety, and livelihoods of sex workers post-FOSTA/SESTA legislation. When asked why she joined BAPS, Adahlia Cole, a client based sex worker, said, “Because, frankly, pretty much no one gives a shit about us. Unless you are family, friends or partners with a sex worker, most people don’t care at all what happens to us. So we are organizing for ourselves because that’s the best way to get our needs met.”
“I joined BAPS because of my initial experience with sex work was survival sex work.” Says Ro a Bay Area in-person sex worker, “Every sex worker has a different reason why they entered the sex trade, and every single one of those choices is valid, and every single one of us deserves respect, safety, and resources.”
I sat down with Adahlia and Ro to talk with them about ways that allies and strangers can learn and support the radical legacy of social justice work going on in their own backyard.
MH: You two are co-chairs of the BAPS ‘Outreach Committee’, tell me about that work.
AC: The outreach committee provides peer-based resources for our communities, mostly street-based workers. These are the workers who are the most marginalized are experiencing the most criminalization, and probably the most damage as a result of FOSTA/SESTA. We will be distributing harm reduction resources like safer sex supplies, health and legal information, snacks, water, safer drug use materials like clean needles and fentanyl test strips to help keep our communities healthy, safe and alive.
Ro: We’re looking at organizations that are already doing this kind of work like St. James Infirmary and Cal Pep, and building upon their model of ‘for sex workers by sex workers’ This project is also about creating a bridge between more privileged workers who have the spoons, and are not as frequently harassed by the police, with folks that are working outdoors and experiencing more violence and arrests. This helps us build a broader community.
MH: What kind of support to sex workers need from allies right now?
Ro: First of all, don’t call yourself an ally, that’s not a title that you can give yourself, other folks will let you know when you’re an ally. The biggest thing we need is funding. We are doing a lot to help our own communities, and we need to finance safety and skill shares, create outreach programs, buy resources, and provide direct assistance to help make sure that Bay Area sex workers can still pay their rent and buy groceries in the wake of FOSTA/SESTA. So many sex worker organizations rely on donations to keep providing life-saving services. If you are able to, BayAreaProsSupport.org, RedLightLegal.org, SWOPbehindbars.org are all doing great work and are in need of donations.
AC: If you don’t have financial resources there are still ways to support. Amplify our voices, stand up for us, stop letting your friends tell jokes where the punchline is a dead hooker. If you have a sex worker in your life, you can provide emotional support – ask how their day is going. Most folks don’t know how hard it has been dealing with the stresses of FOSTA/SESTA, listening and holding space for your sex worker friends can mean a lot. You can also offer logistical help like, babysitting their kids while they go to work, driving them to the grocery store if they don’t have a car, offer to edit their ad copy, or help with their website.
You can also come to the Sex Worker Justice Now rally on Saturday, June 2! Tell all of your friends, we have a whole afternoon of community, celebration, and education. It’s important to have as many bodies there as possible to show how important, please come and show your support, that would mean a lot.
MH: Where can folks go if they want to educate themselves further about sex worker rights and what is going on with FOSTA / SESTA?
AC: Tits and Sass is a great resource, it’s all writing by and for sex workers. Survivorsagainstsesta.org has a lot of info about this new legislation. Playing the Whore, by Melissa Gira Grant will change the way you think about the sex trade. Beyond Victims & Villains, by Alix Lutnick has excellent information about what folks consider “trafficking” and what young people experience when in the sex trade.
Ro: Following sex workers on Twitter is a great way to learn about sex worker’s individual experiences in real time. Click here for an amazing twitter thread of Brain Throbbing sex worker accounts that will change your life!
AC: I can tell you where not to get information about sex workers! Don’t listen to fucking celebrities who want to tell you what is best for us.
Ro: Amy Schumer doesn’t know shit about sex work. Listen to sex workers, we know what we want and we know what we need.