7 Key American Sex Worker Activist Projects

A few weeks ago I gave a talk about with this title at an event called Interesting Amsterdam, and I thought it would be worth reproducing the bullet points and some examples here. The sex industry is big and weird and varied, and there are a lot of different issues that face people who are in the industry by circumstance, choice, or coercion. The industry is not a monolith and there are lots of things that need to be done to improve the lives of the people who work within it. In my perception, there are seven key areas in which projects to support sex workers need to be (and are being!) developed here in the U.S. There are of course lots of other projects happening both in the US and abroad (more on the latter in another post). But these are the areas I think are the most important and intriguing. And – some of these are projects I’m personally involved in, I’ll disclose which ones as we go.

  1. Public Education – Media coverage of the sex industry is salacious and shallow, and most people I’ve to about the sex industry say they’ve never met a sex worker before – or at least, not outside of the confines of some kind of transaction. The experiences of sex workers are rendered in a really narrow way – the fact that they are sex workers is not only the most important, but also only thing that is regarded as interesting about them. But sex workers are whole people. This is why it’s important for there to be public education iniatives about the sex industry – ones that aren’t coded as sexual or sexy. Sex Work 101 (disclaimer: which I created and is an initiative by my org Sex Work Awareness) is one such project. The video at the top of this post, titled “I Am a Sex Worker” is another public education project (disclaimer: that I produced) made as a collaborative effort of the participants of the first Speak Up! media training for sex workers, held in NYC this past April.
  2. Support Networks – Emotional, spiritual, and just plain old friendly support is really key for sex workers to maintain health and sanity. Organizing on any level is just not possible while sex workers (or insert the name of any other group) feel alone and alienated by other communities. Though primarily a political and labor organizing group, the national Sex Workers Outreach Project and its more than a dozen chapters around the country does a really good job of providing this kind of space. Most chapters hold semi-regular meetings – being able to see and talk to people who get it is so valuable. in New York, the organization Girls Educational and Mentoring Service (GEMS) provides support services for underage girls who have been coerced into and exploited by the sex industry. It’s survivor-led and they do some really amazing work. There is also the now sadly defunct Starlight Ministries, an outreach ministry to exotic dancers that was totally awesome and not in any way a creepy paternalistic shaming religious group.
  3. Decriminalization/Legalization – Many parts of the sex industry are legal in the United States: phone sex, nude modeling, performing in porn in some states, exotic dancing, some forms of BDSM work. Prostitution is illegal with two exceptions: in Nevada counties with less than 400,000 residents, brothel prostitution is legal; in Rhode Island indoor prostitution is decriminalized (but might not be for much longer – more on that in a future post). There was a ballot initiative in San Francisco this past fall election cycle to decriminalize prostitution – it got 40% of the vote. There is a lot of debate around whether or not a decriminalized or legalized approach to prostitution would protect people who do not want to be in the sex industry. Most people who work on this issue from a rights-based framework believe that decriminalized prostitution will give prostitutes greater ability to seek out the services they need for health and well-being without fear of arrest or exploitation in the hands of the law. The Sex Workers Outreach Project is one of the key organizations working on this issue.
  4. Health – Sex workers have specialized health needs when it comes to physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Many sex workers are stigmatized against by health care practitioners and are not treated with respect by health care providers. It can be difficult to talk to a general practioner about health issues related to sex work. This stigma is not just about STIs though – I know more than a few strippers who have knee and ankle problems and have a lot of anxieties about talking to their doctor about this issue. I would love to see a sex worker-led initiative to educate health care providers about the unique needs of sex workers and best practices for making sex workers feel comfortable talking about work-related health issues. In the U.S., there are two Calirfornia-based organizations that are devoted to doing health care work for people in the sex industry: in San Francisco there’s the St James Infirmary clinic (which, by the way, has been hard hit by the economy and has had to dial back its services, so donations to them are encouraged) and in Los Angeles the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation (AIM). AIM primarily does STI testing and care for porn performers, but it’s open to all sex workers and has somewhat recently launched a nationwide network of clinics where both adult industry and non-industry people can get a comprehensive STI panel – including tests for herpes and hepatitis, which are not tested for as a matter of course when you ask for STI testing.
  5. Legal Advocacy – The needs of sex workers who work in both legal and illegal sectors of the industry are pretty unique. Most people who are arrested on charges of prostitution, solicitation, and loitering related to prostitution plead guilty no matter what the circumstances. Standing up for one’s human rights in the face of police aggression, arrest and jail time is a really scary thing. On the legal side of teh industry, there are lots of intense labor issues, many of which come to a head in strip clubs. Generally, strippers need to pay a “house fee” to work at a club, plus tip many of the different workers at the club – over the past several years, there have been several successful lawsuits against clubs that enforce this structure, as well as several others that are in the works (which I can’t link to because the people involved aren’t ready to go public). The New York City based Sex Workers Project is a legal services and advocacy group that provides support to sex workers dealing with all kinds of legal issues. SWP also works with trafficking victims to secure their rights and navigate issues around immigration and autonomy. Plus, they’ve done three major research studies (available for free as PDFs via the link), on indoor and outdoor prostitution in NYC, plus the use of raids to fight trafficking in persons.  SWP has also recently started getting involved in policy advocacy, especially in New York state. Legislation and lobbying could be number 8 on this list, but I think the sex worker rights movement is a little bit in the baby stages of clarifying what our legislative priorities are and how to pursue them.
  6. Sex Worker Culture – Full disclosure: creation of culture and media advocacy (#7) are my pet projects, so the next bunch of links are all to projects that I’m heavily involved in. Creation of culture and expressions of experiences that people -real human beings- have within the sex industry are key to making progress on all of the other projects I’ve listed here. Visibility is important. I’ve heard the argument that  there are images of people in the sex industry all over the place, so why do we need to make even more of them? The answer is that most portrayals of sex workers by the mainstream media are exploitative, and it’s important for sex workers to represent and speak for ourselves in ways that are not connected to marketing, in ways that are honest in both beautiful and ugly ways. To this end, some projects you should look at: $pread (where I was an editor for 3 years), a magazine by and for sex workers. Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys, a new anthology edited by David Henry Sterry and RJ Martin that was just published by Soft Skull (I have a piece in the book and created the website for it). And a new project of mine that I’m super excited about: a monthly reading series in NYC, Sex Worker Literati (the first one is August 6 at Happy Ending, free).
  7. Media Advocacy – Creating sex worker culture is important, but it takes training and planning to make it happen. The organization that I co-founded, Sex Work Awareness, aims to do media training, advocacy, and capacity building for sex workers who want to interact with and create media (which isn’t and shouldn’t be all sex workers). Our big project to this end is a media training workshop called Speak Up! – we did our first day-long training in April for 9 sex workers. The day includes training on reactive and earned media, with interview role plays, tips on messaging, writing letters to the editor, and much much more. In the future we hope to travel with the workshop but that depends on funds and time. We will definitely be doing another training in NYC next spring – next time it will be a full weekend. Have a look at a blog post by a participant, What Speak Up! Did for Me, and download the 45 page CC licensed training manual PDF here.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the activist projects or project types that are happening within the United States right now. I’d love to see links to other orgs and descriptions of their work in the comments!

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13 comments for “7 Key American Sex Worker Activist Projects

  1. Ren
    July 29, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    Dacia- awesome post with all kinds of great information in it- thanks!

  2. RD
    July 29, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    In NYC there’s a network of organizations that provide services to sex workers (defined loosely I guess, support and media are services) that SWOP-NYC, SWANK (Sex Workers Action New York), $pread Magazine, and the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center are all part of called the PROS network. Some of the other organizations involved are Citiwide Harm Reduction in the South Bronx, Lower East Side Harm Reduction, Washington Heights Corner Project, FROST’D, Safe Space NYC, Streetworks, and Positive Health Project. The PROS network believes in and works from a harm reduction and social justice framework.

  3. RD
    July 29, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    I would add that I think it is a real stretch to call anything that is ever court-mandated a support organization, and, although I’m not trying to turn this thread into yet another argument about GEMS, from everything I’ve heard there are other reasons to disagree with its inclusion here at all.

  4. RD
    July 29, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    (would add to my comment that is still in moderation!)

  5. Patti Binder
    July 29, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    a clarification about GEMS. Not all girls who go to GEMS are court mandated. When girls receive a mandate through the Criminal Court system, its presented as an opportunity to receive services and support, recognizing that they are a victim of trafficking.

  6. July 29, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    Thanks so much for this post and the video. It’s nice to feel supported!

  7. July 30, 2009 at 8:55 am

    Thanks for the post! I work for The Advocates for Human Rights, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis, MN. In 2008 we published the report Sex Trafficking Needs Assessment for the State of Minnesota (http://www.mnadvocates.org/sites/608a3887-dd53-4796-8904-997a0131ca54/uploads/REPORT_FINAL.10.13.08_2.pdf). Our StopVAW website (stopvaw.org) provides resources on fighting violence against women.

  8. sirte
    August 2, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    another really important important group that i don’t see mentioned here is Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS), a harm reduction project in DC.

  9. August 2, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    This is a general comment about the sex work industry. I was a sex worker for about 3 years, by choice, and have done considerable thinking about the issue. I actually have myself on tape at 18 professing that I could never be the sort to have sex for money. I’d forgotten that tape existed, and came across it when I was about a year in sex work. I blew my own mind as I heard what I had said.

    But, the real point of this comment is to, perhaps, try to coin a bit of terminology when it comes to sex work – the phrase is “Sex for Tangibles”.

    Sex in exchange for intangibles (such as love) is generally accepted. Sex for tangibles – whether it is a “Sugar-Daddy” situation, or more blatant (maybe not the best word) prostitution, the underlying principle is the same, that Sex for Tangibles is considered bad. But why is it considered “bad” is of course the real question, certianly we have our suspects, religion, patriarchy, so on and so forth…

    Keep up the excellent work! :)

  10. August 2, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    just wanted to let you know i linked you… great post and super informative…


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