'We Are Not Victims': How Sex Workers Are Mobilizing Across the Country
In the wake of FOSTA/SESTA, sex workers and allied activists are building new safety networks and lobbying support.
Photo courtest Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Earlier this month, sex workers and allies walked 14 blocks down Michigan Avenue in Chicago in what they called a “Funeral for the Death of Sex Work.” The New Orleans-style funeral procession, complete with a brass band and women sporting mourning hats, veils, and stilettos, was organized by a sex worker and activist named Harpy Anna. Her goal, she said in an interview, was to draw attention to the loss of safe working conditions after the president signed controversial legislation that effectively limits the online tools sex workers use.
The effects of FOSTA/SESTA, which intends to combat sex trafficking by holding online platforms liable for their users’ potentially illegal activity but also makes no distinction for consensual sex work, were almost immediate, spurring the closure of several popular online spaces frequented by sex workers. Advocates say without these spaces, sex workers won’t be able to vet their clients and in some cases will be forced to return to street-based work, putting their safety and livelihoods at risk.
One sex worker told Broadly that the closure of Backpage has forced them to become less discerning when it comes to clients. “I find myself responding to inquiries I might have ignored before,” said Anlina Sheng. “I feel if I say no to an unpleasant client now, I might have to say yes to a dangerous or pushy client in the near future.”
While the march served as a means to draw attention to the plight of sex workers as they lose these important resources, it also was an opportunity for local sex workers to advocate together on a more personal level. Kate D’Adamo, one of the organizers behind the #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA campaign, tells Broadly that many sex workers in the last few years have relied on connecting to their community through online channels, including checking references with someone they only know through their website. One thing the passage of SESTA/FOSTA has done, in her opinion, is bring people back to helping each other in person.
“Building community is just what folks do when they’re marginalized and you can’t necessarily rely on a lot of things that other people do or where community isn’t natural—when walking into a room where no one looks like you doesn’t automatically facilitate community-building,” she explains. Asking a fellow sex worker for information “is a lot safer when you can check your gut with that person face to face,” she says.
“It’s not only because of the loss of these online spaces, but also because of a real awareness of criminalization for a lot of folks,” she continues. “Just because Backpage went down doesn’t mean that stings have stopped. A lot of people are not as trusting as they were a year ago or even six months ago.”
In addition to supporting one another through community, sex workers have also long been activists for women’s and workers’ rights. D’Adamo, a longtime advocate for sex workers, says she’s definitely had more people reaching out to her through various networks to ask about organizing in addition to safety measures. As she prepares to meet with lawmakers on Friday for the first ever National Sex Worker Lobby Day on June 1 to talk about sex worker rights and help get the word out about demonstrations and rallies happening across the country on June 2 for International Whores Day, D’Adamo says this advocacy work has also brought people together. “A lot of community groups have been coming together to meet each other and get to know each other,” she says. “Being able to sit down and plan for a march or plan for a rally or plan on lobbying—that’s also community building.”
Akynos is the founder of Black Sex Worker Collective, another informal grassroots network working on behalf of sex workers. In a similar spirit of bringing people together, she will host an International Whores Day Burlesk Show in Brooklyn on Thursday. “Right now sex workers have lost their livelihood—are forced to make a choice between making rent and being able to eat—due to the recent FOSTA/SESTA legislation that restricts online speech and has closed down advertising sites,” Akynos explained in a statement. “Black sex workers are among the most harmed. Any money raised will be poured into the support of these sex workers.”
"We’re still leaning on each other for support, and we’re still finding ways around the system.”
The Black Sex Worker Collective officially launched shortly after SESTA/FOSTA started gathering steam, Akynos tells Broadly. While she hopes to help normalize conversations around sex work and make black and trans sex workers more visible as leaders in the sex workers’ rights movement, the collective’s purpose is to offer support services for current and former black sex workers. The organization is still really new, but Akynos says she’s already had people reach out to her for help.
“Even before SESTA/FOSTA, there were never any protections for us as humans within this industry, and we’ve always operated outside of that,” Akynos explains. “We’re not victims. There were never any laws in place to protect us. We’re still trying to make money, we’re still trying to figure out new spaces to work. We’re still leaning on each other for support, and we’re still finding ways around the system.”