by Laura LeMoon
In 1973, SCOTUS heard the case of Roe v. Wade, which essentially brought into question the legality of an abortion ban in the state of Texas at the time. Back then, abortion was really only accessible in 13 states and only under certain circumstances; the remaining states outlawed abortion except to save the life of a pregnant woman. Right-wing lawmakers have been chipping away at sex workers’ privacy for years now, and while sex workers’ rights activists have been sounding the alarm to the general public for a while, I believe there is something we can all still do to support sex workers now that Roe has been overturned. The first thing is to get educated — especially if you’re not a sex worker — about how sex workers will be uniquely impacted.
The harbinger for my community came with SESTA in April of 2018, and the federal government has been actively corroding the digital rights to freedom of speech for sex workers for years now via SESTA, the EARN IT Act, and more. We have been ringing the bell on all of these forms of legislation that have been aimed at threatening the privacy of sex workers and now definitely will apply to everyone. With the right to privacy essentially over with the death of Roe, we should all be wary of the intersections between the rights that are being eliminated for sex workers and those that have been obliterated for everyone. But the impacts will be especially harsh for marginalized groups like sex workers, BIPOC communities, people with uteruses, and low-income people.
For sex workers, the unique combination of SESTA, the Backpage seizure, and an overturn of Roe v. Wade all within a four-year period will almost certainly mean a much narrower ability to steward our own reproductive health, compared to people who are not sex workers, as our jobs inherently put us at greater risk. An additional way in which sex workers will be impacted by this case is through the already prevalent issue of condoms being seized from street-based sex workers by police and used as evidence. Condoms are not always used as evidence in prostitution arrests, but in many major cities (including in Seattle) there has been documentation that this does regularly take place, or more commonly, that condoms on a person are used to justify police harassment. This then inevitably leads to street-based sex workers not wanting to carry them, which in a post-Roe America will result in higher incidences of unwanted pregnancies, HIV, and STIs.
According to the San Francisco Police Department, since the passage of SESTA, sex trafficking has been up 177%. A combination of increased sex trafficking due to SESTA and other failed federal policies, condom seizure, and increased rates of sex trafficking on the streets in a post-Backpage environment could mean that the Roe v. Wade overturn will result in more sex trafficking victims suffering the trauma of carrying a pregnancy inflicted upon them by rapists or traffickers and that more street-based sex workers — already the most vulnerable — are at an even higher risk for an unintended and unwanted pregnancy, as street-based work tends to be the most dangerous.
Seeking medical care as a sex worker, and being able to be honest about your situation, is difficult enough. The double-bind stigma of being a sex worker seeking an abortion (especially from rape) can also severely impede sex workers’ abilities — and willingness — to seek help or emergency health care if a rape or other crime occurs, which is far more common since SESTA. Sex workers are a criminalized people, which creates stigma, which makes it hard to seek help.
And on the other side of the coin, you have the government making it difficult or impossible to freely choose whether to be pregnant or not.
The future of contraception itself is now in question, as many legislators publicly conflate birth control with abortion, like in the case of the Plan B pill or the IUD. This stigmitization and spreading of misinformation surrounding birth control will have an effect on every person with a uterus, but sex workers — the majority of whom are women — will be disproportionately affected to a point that will be devastating for us if we can’t access standard or emergency contraception. Though there has been a war on condom use for sex workers for a while now, it’s not difficult to imagine the GOP concocting reasons to outlaw or restrict access to condoms across the board, which could leave sex workers unable to do their jobs in a safe manner or with any bodily autonomy.
This is unfortunately a case where there is much less sex workers can do to fight back individually than collectively. As a whole, there is a lot that the sex working community needs to do to effectively advocate for itself, but specifically it is those with more privilege, including white sex workers, indoor sex workers, housed sex workers, and so forth, who need to take a stand. Street-based and survival sex workers are most adversely impacted by SESTA and the Backpage closure (and now by changes to Roe v. Wade as well), and it is up to those who can afford to speak out against these systemic, policy-based failures to do so because the most vulnerable among us often cannot. Part of this increased activism must include sex workers and feminists working together in spaces where sex workers have historically been maligned.
If you are not a sex worker but are an ally wanting to help sex workers, the best thing you can do is listen to us. We have been telling you for years now that this is coming. Go back and look at my old articles, if you don’t believe me. If you identify as a feminist, please don’t discount or disregard the reality that for many of us this is our chosen work. Don’t be a second-wave “SWERF” or “TERF” type of feminist. Many traditional second-wave feminists, such as Andrea Dworkin or Catharine MacKinnon, are anti-sex work and subscribe to the ideology that all prostitution is gender-based violence. This is instantly silencing to us, and we cannot allow the reproductive health of so many, especially the most vulnerable — like sex workers — to be a casualty to philosophical differences. Our lives are on the line, literally.
Everyone deserves bodily autonomy — on this we must agree — and more than ever, especially now with Roe v. Wade overturned, “everyone” must include sex workers.
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Laura LeMoon is a Queer sex worker and writer/author based in Tacoma, WA. She is the author of two poetry books and has served as consultant to the CDC, USDOJ, and UNODC on issues related to sex work and HIV.
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