by Savannah Sly and Lisa Taylor
Washingtonians are deeply concerned about sex trafficking but struggle with acknowledging the existence, let alone the needs, of sex workers. Legislators are reluctant to differentiate between sexual labor and commercial sexual exploitation, because many incorrectly view all prostitution as inherently violent. Phrases such as “prostituted people’’ are frequently used to describe all providers of sexual services, suggesting a lack of agency across the board. If sex workers are acknowledged at all in discussions about sex trafficking, they are typically presumed to be exceedingly rare or to be “not representative” of people who sell sex.
The sex trafficking narrative dominating Washington State policymaking is overly simplistic, and it creates an artificial divide between sex workers and survivors. All people in the sex trade are vulnerable to violence because of criminalization and the extreme stigma associated with the work. In addition, many face overlapping issues of discrimination related to race, gender, class, nationality, and disability. Left alone by society to fend for ourselves, many of us have encountered commercial abuse or violence at some point in our lives.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
As sex workers, we are continually frustrated by the dismissal of our safety concerns, reform perspectives, and lived experiences. The irony of being categorized wholly as victims — yet not believed when we share our experiences — isn’t lost on us.
Lisa, one of the authors of this op-ed, is a disabled sex worker. This has been her experience:
“I have been in and out of the hospital for over 25 years due to my physical and mental disabilities. I suffer from schizoaffective disorder and spasmodic torticollis, a rare movement disorder. Due to my bad health, I struggled to maintain my two part-time jobs. I decided to try sex work, and I quickly experienced financial security and rejuvenated self-esteem due to my newfound and empowering self-sufficiency. But due to the criminalization and stigma attached to sex work, I constantly worry about avoiding the police. Sometimes my response to the fear of impending arrest and poverty is to just sit, weep, and try to resist, in vain, the incessant dystonic spasming of my neck. I’m tired, but I don’t need to be rescued. I need options that empower me.”
Sex workers face an uphill battle for basic rights and safety. Thus, we must celebrate even the smallest successes, such as the fact that sex work is mentioned in a new report published by the Washington State Courts Gender and Justice Commission (GJC) titled “How Gender and Race Affect Justice Now.” The topic of sex work is included in the chapter on “Commercial Sex & Exploitation” and is described as “the exchange of sexual services between consenting adults for some form of remuneration, with the terms agreed between the seller and the buyer.” As sex workers, we loved this definition! Our hearts sang when we read it.
Unfortunately, the paragraph goes on to say “‘Consent’ due to poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, or mental health does not fit within this definition.” By this logic, only people who are financially stable, securely housed, drug-free, and “ok all the time” would qualify as sex workers. This inaccurate definition of consent is troubling, to say the least.
Still, we celebrate the baby steps. The fact that sex work has been included in the lexicon of the highest law in the land is measurable progress. It’s amazing to see the inclusion of community groups and local advocates that criticize massage parlor raids, which are deeply destabilizing to immigrant communities (and which have yielded little evidence of sex trafficking). Additionally, the authors include a list of priorities that anti-trafficking and sex worker rights advocates agree on, which includes the following:
- The desire to end exploitation in the sex trade.
- Preventing minors from entering the sex trade.
- Stopping the arrest of people who sell sex.
- Expanding youth shelter and care services for people in the sex trade.
- Addressing the issue of mainstream employment discrimination.
- Enhancing support for record expungement.
Everyone can agree that exploitation in the sex trade is bad. Nobody wants to see youth involved in prostitution. The real debate lies in how to address these problems.
Sex workers across the U.S. oppose the Nordic model of policing, which is also known (ironically) as the “Equality Model.” Under this model, sex workers are decriminalized while clients remain criminalized. King County has practiced an informal version of the Nordic model by declining to convict prostitutes, even though we are still at risk of arrest. Outgoing Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes is currently in the process of vacating prostitution warrants, suggesting that sex workers shouldn’t be saddled with criminal charges in the first place.
Where anti-prostitutionists favor law enforcement interventions, sex worker advocates favor
decriminalization and expanded social services. We prefer “front-end” solutions such as housing and health care, which fortify people from becoming vulnerable to abuse in the first place. We support immigration reform that creates pathways for reporting problems without the risk of deportation. We support consent education for young people that teaches them about healthy and unhealthy relationships.
As we stare down the barrel of an eviction crisis, it seems that keeping people housed would do more to curb exploitation than expensive sting operations. Like catching dolphins in a tuna net, stings targeting abusers typically end up ensnaring adult sex workers and their benign clients. This is evident in high-profile cases such as the The Review Board shutdown, which fragmented the local sex work economy and yielded no sex trafficking convictions. Stings such as these are known as “End Demand” tactics and are fundamental to the Nordic model. End Demand seeks to discourage clients from seeking commercial sex and leaves those in the sex trade in ever more peril due to economic hardship and increased stigma.
End Demand tactics include arresting clients en mass, expanding civil asset forfeiture and sentencing, and shutting down websites where sex workers advertise. End Demand is essentially class warfare that fosters economic stress and instability amongst people who sell sex. Decreasing clients in the sex trade economy diminishes cash flow, driving up competition and desperation amongst service providers. With fewer clients in the pool, End Demand creates a buyers’ market: Workers have less control over prices or terms of service, which can lead to abuse. People coerced to work must struggle harder to meet quotas — and under more dangerous circumstances. Additionally, when there are fewer clients to be had, the odds of running into an actual predator increase.
When federal censorship bills SESTA and FOSTA passed, sex workers were thrown into immediate financial crisis. Under these bills (which passed the same month that Backpage.com was shutdown), liability for sex trafficking was transferred to website owners, resulting in the voluntary shuttering of dozens of advertising websites. Without websites to advertise on, sex workers had to migrate to dating and modeling websites or turn to in-person hustling on the streets or in bars (sometimes for the first time in their lives). Strip clubs were flooded with displaced sex workers and clients, creating an imbalance that led to the formation of labor advocacy group Strippers Are Workers. Sex workers have been in a constant state of adaptation under the chaos of SESTA and FOSTA.
In the digital era, most sex workers depend on advertising websites and social media to earn money. A 2018 survey of 262 sex workers conducted after the shutdown of Backpage found that 77% of participants depended on sex work as their sole source of income. Nearly half of those surveyed were unable to pay their bills within a week of Backpage shutting down. The report reveals that the majority of those surveyed were sole breadwinners for one or more dependents.
The advent of online advertising has been a boon to sex worker independence and safety. The importance of online sex worker spaces is underscored by the fact of the global pandemic. The accessibility of online tools means sex workers can build their own sites, post their own ads, and take time to screen clients safely from a distance. Advertising independently means that sex workers get to keep all of their earnings instead of splitting their money with an agency or manager. Advertising independently lessens our dependence on abusive third parties who would demand all of our earnings. Advertising websites are also useful tools for law enforcement to identify and locate missing people. Investigators worked actively with Backpage.com to discourage child exploitation and recover victims. When advertising sites are shut down, we lose important tools for combating sex trafficking.
Until people in the sex trade are decriminalized, law enforcement will continue to be viewed as a source of danger, not assistance. It’s deeply hypocritical that prostitution-involved youth in Washington State can still be arrested, even though they qualify as victims of sex trafficking. Currently exploited youth in Washington State are slated to be decriminalized in 2024 but only after the creation of two “receiving centers” where law enforcement can drop off detained youth. Given the recent uprising against racialized police violence, it’s remarkable that we’re relying on cops to detain and deliver our most vulnerable youth, who are frequently People of Color or queer.
Help does not begin with handcuffs.
Sex workers welcome dialog on how to decrease harms in our industry. We invite society to work with us in improving safety outcomes for everyone in our industry. We have always been here, and we always will be.
Savannah Sly is a Seattle-based musician, sex worker, and advocate for erotic labor rights. To learn more about Savannah’s work, visit SavannahSly.com.
Lisa Taylor is an advocate for sex worker rights and the rights of the disabled. She is a trafficking survivor and a former sex worker.
📸 Featured Image: Seattle sex workers and their allies protesting the passage of congressional censorship bills SESTA and FOSTA in 2018, down in Westlake Center. (Photo: Deviant Ollam)
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