Stigma Isn’t Sexy
Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) & San Antonio DSA
Sex work is not new. In fact, it’s been around since the start of recorded history. So why is promoting sex worker safety a relatively new political concern? The U.S. is one of the only fully industrialized countries that criminalizes and actively stigmatizes sex work(ers). As a working member of this industry, I have some thoughts.
Law enforcement and government officials have picked a war on sex work (SW) because their blood boils at the thought of our complete autonomy in using sex appeal as a profession and enjoying the full value of our labor. In April of 2018, these officials passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA/FOSTA) to take away that autonomy, misrepresenting the oppressive criminalization of sex work as a solution to sex trafficking. While many SWs knew neither political party was on our side, we were counting on the left to save us from this legislation. SESTA/FOSTA passed by a landslide, with only two opposing votes cast in the name of “internet privacy.”
Since then, many SWs have had to return to pimps and street work, which is exactly what advocates of SESTA/FOSTA claimed it would prevent. At least 67 SWs have lost their lives since its passing, and many more remain missing. Countless people, but mainly sex workers, have screamed, are screaming, and will continue to scream about what would save our lives. Most people, including many who claim to advocate for our well-being, ignore us or silence us, often both. At a time when “believe women” has become a rallying cry, this disregard for the voices of SWs is all the more egregious and personally distressing.
It’s no question that any labor movement claiming to be “large-scale” must include sex workers, but who would it be for and what would it look like? There are numerous exotic dancer unions around the U.S. and laws protecting employees at brothels in Nevada, but how do you unionize when your profession will get you incarcerated or killed? One potential model is Organización de Trabajadoras Sexuales (OTRAS), a union organized by Conxa Borrell, a sex worker in Spain in August of 2018. While sex work is decriminalized in Spain, there is substantial grey area that puts many SWs at risk for fines and imprisonment. After forming OTRAS, Borrell quietly got it approved by Spain’s Labor Ministry, which requires no political oversight.
Abolitionists who believe sex work doesn’t fit into their country’s socialist ideals have attacked OTRAS, but SWs in Spain are largely immigrants, trans women,and lower income people, so it’s safe to say their views on sex work are rooted in racism and classism. The Prime Minister, who is trying to introduce legislation banning prostitution, is heavily influenced these abolitionists, who threaten the progress made by OTRAS. Unionizing sex work in Spain gives SWs a fighting chance to demand basic workplace rights, healthcare, social security, and pensions. While it is an imperfect model, it’s much more effective than the one we currently have in the U.S. Unionizing will be difficult and it will be dangerous, but sharing information publicly and promoting education about sex work is one of the first steps.
As an organizer who is also an active sex worker, I have encountered positivity, but also just as much negativity. I started Sex Workers of San Antonio in June of 2018 to foster education and visibility in my community. We publicly debuted at Pride Parade 2018, and were surprisingly met with an overwhelming amount of love. Although I later stepped back actively organizing for a few months due to personal health issues, I remained confident in my theory that education is the key to our survival, and talked about sex workers’ rights whenever and wherever I could.
In January of 2019, I was asked to speak at the San Antonio Women’s March. Knowing that many people in the Women’s March movement adamantly opposed sex work, I debated taking the opportunity withmyself for a few days. Ashley Judd, a representative of the March, even called what I do “paid rape.” Such Sex Work Exclusionary Feminists (SWERFs) have long used this language to try and silence us and make us feel inferior, and associating with such people weighed on me.
Ultimately, I decided that being silent was simply not an option. This represented an unmissable opportunity to educate my community, so I spoke. That day, I came out to my mom and to my community as a proud sex worker, and I was met with love. I spoke about SESTA/FOSTA enabling sex traffickers who prey on SWs of color, low income, and trans people. Most critically, I pleaded that SWs are begging for acceptance into groups like DSA or Women’s March, and insisted that we shouldn’t have to build our own table when there are plenty where we should already be seated.
While the feedback online and on news outlets wasn’t kind, I was as inspired as ever to get the ball rolling. I’ve just been approved to lead a Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) chapter in San Antonio, which will give sex workers access to information about medical services, self-defense, and education about legislation that may affect us and how to fight it. Because a huge part of safe sex work is our health, I’ve also been working with Planned Parenthood to give workshops on safe sex work and what that looks like for different people. While Planned Parenthood is SW friendly, they aren’t vocal enough about it just yet, but I’m hoping to change that soon. I’m a proud sex worker and I wish I could scream it louder than I already do, but myorganizing will do that for me.
I was introduced to DSA after the Women’s March, when I was asked to run for a co-chair position with San Antonio DSA. Although I insisted that I wasn’t smart enough and lacked the organizing skills that some members had, which I legitimately thought was true, several members insisted with equal certainty that I was up to the task. In January I was elected as the chapter’s co-chair, and I have been working in the role for almost two months now.
Quickly I learned that if I wanted to create true change for sex workers, I had to start by advocating for us in political organizations. San Antonio DSA had endorsed Sex Workers of San Antonio and welcomed me into a space where my voice would be heard, but I consider those basic expectations. Being an unashamed absolute whore really gets you weird reactions in DSA, and I don’t mean that in an entirely negative way. It’s no surprise that women with known sex appeal who use it for monetary gain aren’t usually taken seriously as a political organizer in a white male dominated space, but there’s a first for everything. White men in DSA have dismissed me. Members have made me feel inferior and asked me inappropriate questions. Some are unable to stop looking at my body when I speak.
I’ve experienced all of this, and more. Internalized whorephobia doesn’t just disappear when you claim to be socialist, and in fact it often allows people to mistakenly feel comfortable that they are incapable of such prejudice. Combating these patterns of behavior and mental frameworks requires that members stop and actively check themselves. Is what you have to say more important than what they have to say? Why? A large part of taking on sex work as a political issue is seeing sex workers as knowledgeable political beings.
San Antonio DSA is relatively new to organizing for SWs rights, but we have extremely high hopes for bringing sex workers into our labor rights working group. We think it would be an informative topic to talk about at one of our Socialist Night School events, directly engaging those who haven’t included SW in their socialism yet.
I’ve only been organizing for about 10 months, so I’m still learning from every meeting and every interaction with members. Having assumed that organizing was relatively simple and mostly direct action, I wasn’t aware of all the networking and classroom style training that was involved. I had no clue that this was a more than full time commitment. I’m very grateful to have a chapter that is patient with me and is actively working to educate me on the logistics and nuances of organizing.
Nobody, including people in DSA, is perfect, and I don’t hold grudges against those who have made me feel inferior at one time or another, but it’s time to let whores into your organizing and invite them to lead the conversation. Invite local sex work chapters to your meetings and see how you can support each other. Hold a letter writing party for incarcerated sex workers (check out SWOP Behind Bars), donate some tasers or mace. Make sure your solidarity includes those whose humanity hasn’t been fully recognized.
Sex workers are organizing for our rights, and if you’re ready to work with us, whether through DSA or not, we’re ready to work with you.