Getting Set to Defend and Advance Sex Workers’ Rights in 2017 and Beyond

December 9, 2016

Lindsay Roth, MSSW is a long time community organizer working with people who use drugs and sex workers. Lindsay is now with the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, a Washington-D.C-based NGO that works to affirm sexual freedom as a fundamental human right. She also organizes with the Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA, a collective of sex workers and allies committed to ending stigma and violence towards those in the sex trade.

Everyone’s worried about the dangers that lie ahead. Is there any good news from 2016?

Well, yes. California voters said “No” to Proposition 60 (Prop 60) this past Election Day, a controversial law that, if passed, would regulate the use of condoms in the porn industry. As stakeholders in the fight against HIV, we should celebrate this victory. We recognize the effort behind this proposed law is but one instance in a systemic disenfranchisement of people in the sex trade, both globally and nationally. And all too often, initiatives like this one are backed by NGOs who claim to serve them but actually do more than good.

In the case of Prop 60, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), under the leadership of Michael Weinstein, poured millions of dollars into lobbying for the proposed law, which would have undermined health, safety and self-determination of porn performers. And Weinstein has funded other anti-sex initiatives. In 2012, AHF funded the campaign for Measure B, which called for mandated condom use and eye protection (e.g., goggles—yes, goggles) to protect from bodily fluids on set. California’s Prop 60 would have gone further, encouraging costly and invasive lawsuits against anyone financially tied to a porn production if the condom rule was violated. Weinstein’s work is driven by sex-negative values, and a blatant disregard of science, and other NGOs claiming to serve the interests of sex workers are just as suspect.

Instead of legislating, mandating and criminalizing people over condom use, sex workers need strong worker rights. They need respect and they need access to healthcare. Real HIV prevention depends on sex workers being able to access a range of options from PrEP and condoms to testing and treatment. With that access sex workers can fully protect their health and their human rights.

Stigma against sex work is at the heart of anti-sex worker legislation like Prop 60, Measure B and other problematic legislation that not only makes sex work more dangerous, but drives funding and attention from one of the key drivers of the global HIV crisis: economic inequality. Instead, laws like Prop 60 keep coming.

Prop 60 is a variation on an old theme. It basically expanded on Measure B for all porn production in California, which was voted down by Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board after protests by adult film performers. Prop 60 went beyond mandatory condoms and eye protection and has a number of statutes that put individuals at risk. The sex worker-led site, Free Speech Coalition, articulates the dangers of Prop 60 in detail.

In short, Prop 60 mandated that condoms are visible in every scene of pornographic films made in California—even homemade movies. It would have given all California citizens the ability to sue anyone who has a “financial interest” in the film if the condom rule is violated. Pro-Prop 60 campaigners said this would have held producers accountable for dangerous working conditions for performers, however activists worried this vague language would make performers, especially independent performers who often are also producers, vulnerable to expensive and invasive lawsuits. Prop 60 would have incentivized lawsuits by allowing civilians to profit from them, and made public the legal names and personal information of porn actors in the process of conducting those suits. Additionally, state employees from the Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would be paid to watch porn films and ensure condoms are being used. Beyond continuing an anti-sex, anti-worker campaign, this bill, authored under Weinstein’s direction, included a clause requiring the state of California to hire Weinstein to take over enforcement efforts if he determined state efforts were insufficient.

Regulation of the pornography industry is one issue—what are some others?

Michael Weinstein and AHF are but one example of seemingly infinite attacks on the work, lives and safety of sex workers under the guise of helping them. I confronted this often as the Director of Project SAFE in Philadelphia, a peer-led harm reduction organization that provided direct services to women working in underground economies. We worked with the Coalition of Labor Union Women to fight PA HB262, a bill that would mandate a registry of exotic dancers including their eye color, tattoos, home address and personal history of victimization. The work of Project SAFE and many other sex worker-led organizations remains underfunded, as the struggle for the basic human rights, health and safety of people in the sex trade is so often dominated by a “Rescue Industry” that neither understands nor respects our lives and labor.

The “rescue industry” generates hysteria, pulls money from sex worker advocacy and increases HIV risk

Local Republican leadership worked with the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a Christian organization that fights for “traditional” marriage, to create HB262. They claimed it was an effort to “fight human trafficking” as well as reduce HIV and other health risks for exotic dancers. There is no evidence that registries can accomplish any of these goals. But they do put sex workers at greater risk of experiencing violence and exploitation by exposing personal information of a stigmatized workforce. The publication of sex workers’ personal information has led to stalking and “outing,” such as in Seattle, where exotic dancers brought legal action to stop a local court from releasing information to serial offender, Robert Hill. Porn performers in California worried the same would happen to them.

How do these US issues relate to global developments?

Legislation like this laws described above is typical of a global trend. “Anti-trafficking” organizations pressure governments to pass laws that make sex work more dangerous, often in the name protecting people in the sex trade, including victims of human trafficking. The “rescue industry” includes professionals, policy makers, religious leaders and advocates who seek to abolish the sex industry by regulating or criminalizing it out of existence. Most notoriously, the Somaly Mam Foundation, like AHF, used lies to generate hysteria and significant income for its founder, Somaly Mam. Watch-dog groups and journalists have investigated Somaly Mam for an array of abuses including misidentifying sex workers as victims of trafficking, and receiving big sums from donors while doing very little to empower sex workers to lead free and independent lives.

Indeed, saving sex workers, voluntary or trafficked, has become a cause célèbre. But the “rescue industry” often creates more chaos, suffering and stigma for sex workers. The recent proliferation of anti-sex worker organizations has displaced successful sex worker-led programming and interrupted efforts in HIV treatment and prevention, among other important initiatives. For instance, the Young Women’s Empowerment Project in Chicago, a direct service and anti-violence organization for youth of color with ties to the sex trade, lost critical funding to the misleading “end demand” campaigns. “End-demand” campaigns lobby to increase criminal charges for people accused of patronizing sex workers (catchphrases include “no demand, no supply”. Advocates for sex worker rights oppose this type of legislation.

Researchers at DePaul University in Chicago found that end-demand legislation empowered law enforcement to disproportionately profile and arrest Black and Latino men. They also found transgender women accounted for an alarming 10 percent of all arrests during this campaign, suggesting sex sellers were misidentified as sex buyers. Transgender women had their photos, government names and home addresses published in local newspapers as a part of a “John” shaming campaign. This tactic is humiliating and disruptive to anyone’s life, especially transgender women, who are disproportionately the target of violent crimes.

Certain funding policies from the US President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) provide yet another example of anti-sex work policies driving funding away from sex workers’ self-advocacy. Despite being found unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court, the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath, established in 2003, forces global recipients of PEPFAR funding to actively oppose prostitution. Efforts to criminalize sex work contradict recommendations from the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the Lancet, Amnesty International and many others, which call for the decriminalization of sex work as fundamental to the human rights of sex workers and instrumental to decreasing the transmission of HIV.

How can HIV Prevention and Sex Worker advocates work as allies?

Sex workers are stakeholders in the fight to end HIV

There is little data about sex workers and HIV in the United States. Transactional sex continues to be excluded from the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, a point that has been protested by activists, as this lack of visibility implies that sex workers are not considered stakeholders in national efforts to end HIV.

In low- and middle-income countries we have more data: sex workers are at elevated risk. HIV prevalence is estimated to be 12 percent of all sex workers – with variations among countries and regions. In several Sub-Sahara African countries, prevalence is as high as 37 percent. Where rates of HIV among sex workers is especially high, only 60 percent have received an HIV test in the past 12 months. In addition, sex workers report difficulties accessing condoms and lubricant, and report other unmet health needs in over 165 countries as a result of criminal laws and/or stigma against them and their work.

Alongside these figures, let us remember that sex work, like all work, is motivated by economic need. The struggle to make sex work safer should not be about mandatory condoms, registries or client-shaming; rather it should address the unequal distribution of wealth in the United States and globally in which so many individuals, especially women, have limited choices for survival.

Stop the stigma—let’s fix the real problems

Wealth inequality, punitive laws and access to health care are but a few of the issues that influence HIV-exposure and other risks that sex workers face. Efforts to end HIV would be far more effective if sex workers were empowered to keep themselves safe, instead of being criminalized, harassed and further isolated from prevention methods or other health care services.

It seems that just about anyone will be entrusted with the safety of sex workers—except sex workers themselves.

We must stay vigilant about the rights of all people in the sex trade. How are sex workers included or excluded in your work? Learn how to be an ally to sex workers here. Consider including sex worker-led organizations in your holiday giving. Only through solidarity can we neutralize the harm of people like Michael Weinstein—and continue to stand up to those who attack the work and the lives of people in the sex trade.