During a Thursday night event at The Wing titled “Unpacking Sex Work Stigma & Intersectional Feminism,” a panel of sex workers and activists talked about the deadly aftermath of FOSTA/SESTA and recent pushes toward decriminalizing sex work.
Sen. Kamala Harris recently told The Root that, “We can’t criminalize consensual behavior as long as no one is being harmed.” But Harris’s stated support of decriminalization hasn’t been fully embraced by the sex working community. The organizer of the panel at The Wing, who asked to be identified by the name of the platform that she founded, @SXNOIR, explained to the audience that, “Kamala isn’t talking about decrim the way that we’re talking about decrim.”
There has been concern that Harris is not calling for full decriminalization, but for a system inspired by the Nordic Model, which criminalizes individuals who purchase sex. Gizelle Marie, the leader of the NYC Stripper Strike, shared her experience attempting to lobby at Harris’s office during International Whore’s Day. “She didn’t want to speak to us, obviously,” Marie recalled. “She had one of her assistants just writing down notes and stuff…The fact that she’s actually trying to speak up about sex work now is kind of strange.”
Fellow panelist Liara Roux, a sex worker and activist who used to live in San Francisco, added further backstory on the former district attorney. “Her campaign was like, this guy’s getting soft on crime… You need someone who’s really going to convict people and put them in jail. And I think that put our country many years behind.” The panelists also mentioned Harris’s support of FOSTA/SESTA, a 2018 law that aimed to combat sex trafficking, but led to the shutdown of websites where sex workers found work and shared resources, as well as her efforts to take down the website Backpage, which many sex workers used to post ads and find clients.
As The Daily Beast’s Emily Shugerman previously reported, “While Harris and other proponents of FOSTA/SESTA claimed Backpage was complicit in the trafficking of minors, many sex workers argued the site made adult workers safer, allowing them to stay off the streets and out of the hands of pimps. In the months after the law was passed, several major cities said they saw their street prostitution arrests more than double.”
“SESTA/FOSTA did not put anything in place to support people who are going to lose their livelihoods over all of this,” Roux explained on Thursday night. “And that is putting people into extremely dangerous situations. I’ve seen so many people who, after Backpage went down, became reliant on a single partner who was paying all their bills, and then, you know, they start getting controlling…They start asking for more and more, and they know that you can’t go back to doing what you were doing before because it’s gone. And that to me is really disgusting, to put people in that situation and not give them any sort of help.”
“FOSTA/SESTA makes it really difficult to advertise on the internet, especially if you don’t have the ability to sort of mask what you’re doing. I can be like, oh, I’m an influencer. A lot of girls and other people do not have the resources to do that.”
“Our profiles are being taken down, but deeper than that, when you give sex workers online access to screen their clients, they’re safer,” @SXNOIR added. “They’re able to have a few barriers of entry before someone is able to meet them. When you take down these sites, it does not take away demand, it just means that people are pushed further into the corner, further into risky situations, further into potential violence and harm. Disproportionately so, people of color, black women, and black trans women. This is reality.”
Ceyenne Doroshow, the founder and director of the advocacy organization GLITS (Gays and Lesbians Living In a Transgender Society) emphasized that, “In 2018 the numbers since SESTA/FOSTA came out, the numbers in trans deaths—they’re unlike ever before. The numbers have reached—and this was right up until the end of the year, the numbers of deaths and suicides within our community. They’re staggering.”
“I want to know when’s the last time Kamala Harris went to a goddamn jail to talk to a female sex worker?” Doroshow asked. “When she incarcerated her,” @SXNOIR interjected.
By the end of the night, the conversation had turned toward the event and The Wing itself. Responding to a question about how to respond to anti-sex work “feminists,” @SXNOIR began, “I think it’s interesting when people say that sex work replicates, you know, the patriarchy, because I think there’s a lot of other platforms and people that do a lot of unethical labor. And sex work to me was the most ethical labor I’ve ever done, because I knew what I was getting into, the boundaries were set and I got paid what I was supposed to get paid.”
“I’ve been exploited,” she continued. “Are you guys enjoying this event tonight? I didn’t get paid a dime, I didn’t get paid a dollar. No one asked me if I had lunch, no one asked me how I got here. Nobody asked me, can you pay your rent?… I paid for people’s transport here out of my pocket, because it’s important to me to build community.”
“You know what's empowering?” @SXNOIR added. “To pay my rent.”
“Some organizations claim that they’re ethical and that they’re uplifting women empowerment. But they’re not even paying for the labor that they’re asking people to do.” @SXNOIR later shared on Twitter that her Wing membership was comped for the month of February, writing, “The wing membership is $250 a month... if that was payment for over 80hrs of work. That’s concerning.” She added, “To be clear- only 1 of my panelist were paid for the event… I had to PUSH more than ONCE to even get an honorarium for someone who truly deserves it.”
A spokesperson for The Wing told The Daily Beast, “The Wing is proud to be a space that affirms the experience and entrepreneurship of sex workers and amplifies their voices. In this case, we compensated the host, who is a Wing member, as she specifically requested - providing three months of complimentary membership (a value of $750) to her for her work on the panel. As for the other panelists, we agreed to honorariums in advance of the event and have sought invoices and W2’s so we could pay the panelists but have received no responses to our repeated follow-ups. We are hopeful that the issue can be resolved so we can continue to be a space that hosts these vitally important and meaningful conversations.”
Liara Roux also posted on social media following the event, writing, “To be clear... I spent money out of pocket for the camera crew and equipment to make sure this incredible night could be documented. I was not given a single cent from @the_wing.”
As the Thursday night panel concluded, audience members approached the stage with cash tips for the organizers and panelists.