This Monday, December 17th, is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. 2018 was a rough year for sex workers. FOSTA/SESTA has led to widespread closing of advertising and community forum websites for sex workers, pushing the most vulnerable workers into poverty and higher risk working conditions. Richmond IWW stands in solidarity with sex workers on this day, and call on all union chapters to do the same. As a sex worker and fellow Wobbly, I hope this primer helps educate my fellow workers on the violence sex workers face and ways to counteract it in our communities.
What is sex work? Who are sex workers?
Sex work is defined as any sexual services exchanged for goods or currency. Sex workers are any workers that participate in the sex industry, excluding agencies, managers, or “pimps.” Sex workers include full service sex workers (i.e. escorts), massage parlor workers, fetish workers, strippers, dominatrices, cam performers, porn stars, sugar babies, and various other professionals. Anyone can be a sex worker, regardless of age or gender. You probably have friends, family, or acquaintances who are sex workers and may not even know it!
What constitutes violence against sex workers?
The biggest misconception about sex work is that the majority of the violence sex workers experience is at the hands of our clients. In reality, the vast majority of our clients are good people who are often cautious and nervous about getting their needs met by a sex worker. The most detrimental violence sex workers face comes in two forms: state violence and social violence.
The most direct form of state violence is criminalization, where engaging in certain types of sex work can land us in prison, or at best, in debt from fines and legal fees. Criminalization isolates sex workers from each other, making it hard to discuss our work, and to organize publicly to fight for our rights and safety. It also makes it impossible for us to seek legal recourse if we are assaulted on the job.
The internet has made sex work a lot safer with the ability to advertise online, screen clients, and share information easily with other sex workers all over the country. The state violence is passing “anti-sex trafficking” legislation, such as FOSTA/SESTA and various other similar laws, that has lead to the closure of many sex work advertising platforms, pushing sex workers back outdoors and into riskier working conditions and forcing actual trafficked victims further underground. These laws have also led to increased financial hardship for internet-based sex workers as websites have started to self-censor their content in order to avoid liability. Many of these anti-sex trafficking laws also criminalize social or financial association with sex workers, where anyone who benefits from a sex worker’s income (such as roommates, landlords, family, and dependents) can potentially be charged as a sex trafficker. These laws contribute to sex workers’ isolation from support and community and make it very dangerous to do our job.
Social violence is often harder to pin down, because stigma against sex work is so ingrained in our culture. In mainstream culture, this often means that sex workers are treated as immoral, unclean, unstable, and undesirable, where dead hooker jokes are a-okay because sex workers are the dregs of society and our lives are seen as disposable. In leftist communities, social violence often means pro-sex work lip service, while at the same time maintaining a level of discomfort with actual sex work.
What can fellow workers do to help?
There are a variety of ways that non-sex workers can counteract the violence that sex workers face. Here are some ideas:
- Provide security. This may mean driving a sex worker to their appointment or picking them up from the club. It might mean being available to come deescalate a belligerent client. Or it might mean just being available for safety check-ins.
- Help sex workers obtain housing. Many sex workers cannot show provable income, so co-signing a lease or letting a sex worker rent with you (or from you) is invaluable.
- Offer job-related services. To do our job, sex workers need good photos, a nice website, and a presentable aesthetic. These essentials can get very expensive, but not having them often means not being able to find work. Financial desperation is very dangerous thing when it comes to sex work, because it often leads to taking bigger risks to make ends meet. Providing these services for a sex worker at a low or no cost is extremely helpful to keeping sex workers safe.
- Provide community and solidarity. Every worker wants to be able to vent about their job, including sex workers. It’s important that non-sex workers make an effort to be more comfortable with sex work being discussed casually. Make effort to destigmatize sex work to other non-sex workers. Talk about sex workers’ issues to your non-radical friends and colleagues. Make our issues important and not disposable in our communities. Additionally, often sex workers are unable to publicly advocate for themselves on social media or in person for fear of legal or social repercussions, so we always need non-sex workers to do this work for us in the public sphere.
In our society, violence against sex workers is normalized to such a degree that most people are completely unbothered by it. I hope that the information I laid out in this article can help people see us as worthy of solidarity and protection. Let’s all work together to make 2019 the year that sex workers start to matter.