To say that this year has been trying for sex workers would be an understatement. As a sex worker myself, I have seen many of my peers struggle to financially support themselves and stay safe given the danger and discrimination the sex work community faces on both an individual and systemic level. Today is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers — a day of remembrance, originally started in 2003 to acknowledge the hate crimes committed against sex workers, honor those who have passed away, and to stand in solidarity with the community. In light of the recent individual and systemic threats to sex workers’ rights, sex workers are speaking up on how allies can better support our community.
This solidarity has never been more urgent. In March 2018, Congress passed two bills called FOSTA/SESTA —the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act — with the intent of fighting online sex trafficking. However, experts say thatconsensual sex work and human trafficking are not the same thing, though the two are often conflated at the expense of sex workers’ safety. Since FOSTA/SESTA was passed, many major sites that sex workers had used to screen clients and find work — including Backpage.com, Craigslist Personals, and some Reddit communities — have been either seized by the federal government in an attempt to curb online trafficking, or have been taken down. Earlier this year, social media platforms Tumblr and Facebook also instituted bans against sexually explicit content.
Online platforms have been an important avenue for sex workers to ensure their safety and a steady, independent income. Virtual sex work has always been an important resource for sex workers with disabilities, and for full service sex workers to screen potential clients. “We’re trying to collect information on how many of us sex workers are being pushed to the streets, or to profit-driven pimps to find work” as a result of these shutdowns, Colette, a 36-year-old dominatrix, told HuffPost this past May. “We’re trying to figure out how many of us are literally dying because of this law that’s supposedly trying to keep us safe.”
Sex workers face disproportionate amount of violence, and the intense stigma surrounding sex work further endangers the lives of people in the industry. A 2015 report from the Red Umbrella Project (RedUP), the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), and the Best Practices Policy Project (BPPP) revealed that 64 percent of trans sex workers reported allegedly being mistreated by law enforcement, and 1 in 10 alleged they were sexually assaulted by police.
As the sex work community continues to face ongoing discrimination, listening to sex workers and supporting us is crucial. Here are six ways to support sex workers on the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, according to people in the industry.
“Supporting sex workers now is important because we feel like legislation doesn’t care about us,” Kelsey Louise, a stripper and entertainer, tells Bustle. “Reach out to us and tell us you care — just a few words of encouragement can go a long way. Be public with your support: Post it on your social media accounts.”
Sex workers can have boundaries too. They’re like… regular people. Wild, I know. Take a moment to process it.
“Let us set our own boundaries, and be the ones to out ourselves. This applies for us both in and outside of work,” Bella Arsenic, a dancer and adult model, tells Bustle. “If I’m not in the mood to talk about work, so be it. If I want to show the whole party how I can put my leg over my head, so be it. If my boundaries or prices are different one day than they were another, so be it.”
Arsenic adds that people should be more mindful of how they engage with sex workers, and should ask for consent before asking invasive questions about their work. “If you’re genuinely curious about sex work, it’s understandable that you want to know both the good and the bad, but when I get asked things like, ‘What’s the worst thing that happened to you at work?’ constantly it gets annoying. Would you ask that to your friend in any other line of work? No,” she says.
Yesterday, a peer-reviewed journal published a review that analyzed nearly 150 studies from 1990 – 2018 about sex work from across the globe.
It confirmed that the criminalization of sex work endangers people in the sex trade.
“Sex work is dangerous because of stigma, because society does not value our lives, or see us as full human beings,” Christa B. Daring, the SWOP-USA Board President, tells Bustle. “Sex workers are experiencing intersecting oppressions that frequently marginalize us even further. Decriminalizing sex work is one step on the long and hard road of dismantling white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and the police state.”
Daring suggests that allies “work on the local level on bail reform, police accountability, and demilitarization” if you want to support sex workers in your community. Find a local grassroots activist group or organization that is fighting against police brutality against sex workers, and marginalized communities in general, (such as your local SWOP Chapter), and get involved however you can.
Sex workers are some of the most amazing, brave and creative people I know. We all need to cherish and support them. If they’re not safe, then none of us is safe.
“A lot of sex workers who used Backpage and other websites for work may be struggling financially; ask them if they need some help,” says Louise. “Offer them a discount at your businesses, or direct them to any other temp work you hear about.”
This also means paying for the porn you watch, for example. “We work hard in countless ways, and most of us live 100 percent on tips,” says Arsenic. “Please keep that in mind whenever you’re interacting with a sex worker. I know our jobs can seem ‘exciting,’ but please remember that these are our real lives.”
Donating money to organizations that are led by sex workers, and that support the sex worker community, is a great way to make a difference for a struggling sex worker, and can help uplift and empower many people in the sex work community. Daring suggests donating to The Black Sex Worker Collective, SWOP Behind Bars, or Lysistrata Mutual Care Collective and Fund.
To all sex workers everywhere, I’m proud of you. You push past stigma snd boundaries set by society. You’re entrepreneurs, business owners, and influencers. You create fantasy for people all over the world. You’re more brave then anyone gives you credit for. I love you all.
“Sex workers are people — not objects. They are human beings that deserve as much respect as anyone else. They have children and families just like anyone else. They have struggles just like everyone else. Don’t judge and have empathy for them,” Gizelle Marie, a stripper and an activist behind the 2017 NYC Stripper Strike, tells Bustle.
“Supporting sex workers matters — oftentimes, we feel ostracized by society. If you claim to be a feminist, including sex workers in your feminism is important for progression,” Louise says. “We perform an act of entertainment, and a service of love and healing. We’re an important asset to our communities and we need love in return. Our work is work: It’s some of the oldest work in the world, and it will always exist.”
No matter how you feel about the sex work industry, sex workers — like people who work any other job — deserve support and basic protections. Our ability to safely work and support ourselves financially — without the fear that our source of income will be jeopardized in an instant because of ill-informed legislation, or that we will face an increased risk of violence — is a human right. The sex work community is resilient and brave, and has already faced plenty of adversity, as noted every year on Dec. 17. If you’re not part of the sex work community, please consider using your privilege and visibility to amplify our voices, and champion our rights.