Laura LeMoon (center) with actor and writer Lorelei Lee (left), and civil rights advocate Preston Mitchum (right) at the first sex worker lobby day in Washington, D.C., on June 2, 2018, International Whores Day

OPINION | Recognizing the Activists Who Made Sex Work a Labor Rights Issue

In Celebration of International Whores Day

by Laura LeMoon

International Whores Day on June 2, also known as International Sex Workers’ Rights Day, celebrates a sex worker revolution. In Lyon, France, in 1975, over 100 sex workers seized control of a church and protested poor working conditions, police harassment, and overall stigmatizing treatment. It was a day of revolution on behalf of labor rights, and it was the first mass global movement in recorded history to posit sex work not as a moral issue but as a labor rights issue. Seeing sex work as a labor issue has led to the global movement toward decriminalization, and the successful decriminalization of sex work in New Zealand — the only country that currently enjoys full decriminalization of prostitution.

This day commemorates what happened in France, and we can all find ways to celebrate, no matter our relation to sex work itself, because the work is far from over. 

With the advent of the Mann Act, also known as the White Slave-Traffic Act, in 1910, the issue of prostitution in America became one of ethics, which is how the majority still view it today. The Mann Act was really the birth of the conflation between sex work and sex trafficking in America, which proliferates today through such recent legislation as FOSTA-SESTA and the EARN IT Act. The Mann Act was also heavily based on racist beliefs buttressing the classic narrative of the innocent white woman preyed upon by Men of Color, particularly Chinese men, who were singled out at the time due to wide anti-Chinese sentiment around increased Chinese immigration in the mid-19th century. 

A lot of the anti-prostitution legislation we have today in America is based on the Mann Act. International Whores Day began to be commemorated around the time the United States was seeing a burgeoning sex workers’ rights movement inspired by the work of the civil rights movement, Stonewall, and women’s liberation. Just as it was in the French movement, sex workers in America became organized to fight against the idea of sex work as an issue of morality, rather than as a labor rights issue. In 1979, a prostitute activist by the name of Scarlot Harlot coined the term “sex work” as the antipole for the former, more antiquated term. 

Around this time, trailblazer activists and sex workers Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were two QTBIPOC women who paved the way for trans rights, gay rights, and sex workers’ rights to be possible even before anyone else. This work is not a thing of the past, though. The progress for all of these communities is still manifesting today through the work of QTBIPOC, activists like Janet Mock, Tourmaline, Raquel Willis, Miss Major, Ceyenne Doroshow, and so many others. 

An ever increasing number of nonprofits in King County are doing amazing and important work to be inclusive of sex workers. UTOPIA in Kent is a nonprofit organization serving queer and trans Pacific Islander communities as well as QTBIPOC communities. An intrinsic part of its services is the Sex Worker Empowerment Initiative (SWEI). The initiative includes street outreach and harm reduction, case management, community education, support groups, a gift registry, and a toolkit of harm-reduction tips just for sex workers. As reported by Ronnie Estoque in the Emerald, UTOPIA also opened the new Mapu Maia Clinic for queer and trans Pacific Islanders and QTBIPOC communities, including sex workers. What makes this organization so unique is that it is explicit about its support of sex workers. It’s easy to look at an issue as complex as sex workers’ rights and feel that the expansiveness of those issues are too monumental for an individual person to do anything about. Through the local work of UTOPIA and many others, the legacy of Marsha and Sylvia and the spirit of French sex workers in 1975 is still very much alive on this year’s International Whores Day.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

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.

📸 Featured Image: Laura LeMoon (center) with actor and writer Lorelei Lee (left) and civil rights advocate Preston Mitchum (right) at the first sex worker lobby day in Washington, D.C., on June 2, 2018, International Whores Day. (Photo by Laura LeMoon)

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