Sex work is stigmatized globally. It’s either rejected as not being a form of labor and actual work or misattributed as labor and human trafficking. Denying the existence of consensual adult sex work erases sex workers’ autonomy, opening them up to harm, violence, and over-policing while ignoring the systemic barriers and unsafe labor practices that sex workers face (Amnesty International).
The ARD had the opportunity to interview Raani (she/them/him) and Sultana (she/her), organizers behind Nightshade, a collective by sex workers for sex workers, and the joint project of Project Safe and Philadelphia Red Umbrella Alliance. We discussed the harms of criminalizing sex work and why legalization is not the solution.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
• Contribute to Philadelphia Red Umbrella Alliance, Project Safe, Black Sex Workers Collective, Bay Area Workers Support, and Rad Mission Neighbors.
• Learn about safe supply and sex work, and share how we can end the stigma around the sex and drug trades.
What has been the most challenging part of your advocacy work and discussing sex work?
Sex work is extremely stigmatized in this country and often conflated with human and labor trafficking. We consider our work as a form of labor organizing, and unlike other labor sectors, we have to spend an incredible amount of time and energy advocating for the recognition of sex work as a form of labor. Imagine instead if we could direct that energy to improving working conditions for all sex workers!
Some industry sectors, such as escorting, are also criminalized, as are particular activities within legal work spaces such as strip clubs. It is illegal to engage in any sex act in strip clubs, even though this happens routinely. This creates hierarchies within the sex industry, and barriers to organizing since some forms of work are legal while others are illegal.
Another challenge is that the workers we are organizing with have deep unmet needs like housing, access to healthcare, and being exposed to a toxic drug supply that puts people at risk of fatal overdose, injection wounds, and other illnesses. The workers we are organizing with cannot create stability in their lives unless they have access to a free unadulterated drug supply provided through programs known as “safe supply,” which has the potential to stabilize their substance use, thereby decreasing reliance on sex work for income and increasing options for working in less chaotic and safer ways. It would also create a base level of stability for people to organize and meet other needs.
Legalization is typically presented as a solution to end the criminalization of sex work. But many sex workers and advocates support decriminalization instead. Why is decriminalization the preferable alternative?
Sex work is a large umbrella that includes a lot of work such as porn, stripping, erotic massage, phone sex, and more. Technically, many of these avenues are legal. Yet sex workers continue to face police and institutional violence and communal stigma due to their work. Legality does not protect them.
Legality also produces other barriers. Acquiring a license to work “legally” means that many poor and other marginalized people will continue to have barriers and remain vulnerable to police and institutional violence. Registering yourself as a sex worker makes workers vulnerable to doxxing, potentially creating a domino effect of stigma and violence.
Decriminalization is an attempt at reducing police stereotyping of people and harassing them based on stereotyped behaviors. Legalization does not end this kind of police harassment; it bolsters it. Instead of the police arresting for sex work, they would now be arresting for lack of licenses and other paperwork. This keeps the same carceral barriers in sex workers’ lives which, in turn, may have ripple effects on their housing or custody of children because of having police records.
Lastly, legalization also has the potential to foster predators and does not address power differences between managers and workers. When sex work can only be done under strict licensing guidelines, it allows predators with access to resources to set up the only spaces where sex workers can work legally. Sex workers are then reliant on managers aware of carceral barriers and social stigma and may hold them over workers as forms of coercion.
What has been the biggest hurdle in getting people to understand that decriminalization, not legalization, is the most suitable and safer option?
Decriminalization stokes several collective fears. Opponents of decriminalization assume that this path would encourage more people to participate in the sex industry and that the incidence of labor trafficking within the sex industry would also increase. We know from the decriminalization in New Zealand that neither of these situations came to pass. Also, the numbers in the sex industry remained stable, and the above-ground nature of sex work makes it easier to identify and support victims of labor trafficking to exit exploitative and violent situations. Decriminalization makes it easier for workers to collectivize and advocate for better and safer working conditions.
During the police brutality protests in 2020, there was this wave of examining other industries and systems that were also corrupt and unjust, sex work being one of them. Why do you think this happened? What has been the aftermath or response?
Sex workers have been examining how the regulatory frameworks governing sex work are harmful to workers and perpetuate violence and stigma since these frameworks came into place. Sex workers and their allies in the U.S. have been organizing against frameworks such as the “Nordic Model” and other criminalizing frameworks for decades. Many actors attempting to expose corruption and unjust practices in the sex industry, such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, have a long-term agenda of deepening stigma against the industry and, therefore, the workers in it, ending “demand for sexual services” and abolishing the industry altogether. They are not invested in workers’ rights or supporting workers in organizing and creating better work conditions based on their own needs and priorities. They are not interested in recognizing sex work as a legitimate form of labor that can meet the income-generating needs of a diverse group of people trying to survive the violence of neoliberalism while maintaining some autonomy over their bodies and labor.
Unfortunately, as TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) talking points have become more widespread, so have SWERF (Sex Work Exclusionary Radical Feminist) talking points since 2020. Though they supposedly use “decolonial” paradigms, these frameworks must be understood as reactionary to the wave of organizing that has been happening by impacted people themselves. SWERFs rely on state and police power to abolish an industry that is already heavily targeted by state and police. Their frameworks of “reform” are not legitimate. In fact, the idea that SWERFs push, that sex work creates a “demand” for people to be raped, is steeped in white supremacist notions of rape culture. These ideas must be abolished to promote better conditions for all survivors of sexual violence, regardless of them being sex workers.
How does decriminalizing sex work fit into the conversations on police abolition? And the labor movement?
Decriminalizing the sex and drug trades abolishes the need for vice units. This is a concrete step towards defunding the police, one department at a time. Additionally, people must be able to engage in these activities without the fear of police harassment. Many of our community members engage in the informal economies for various reasons. They have a right to work without fear of the police, ICE, or any other harassment imposed by the State and their agencies.
Beyond decriminalization, what is one thing you’d love to see come out of this movement?
We would like to see worker collectives established in cities all over the U.S that can support each other in advocating for workplace safety and other initiatives that support worker health and wellbeing across the lifespan. We would like to see the acceptance of sex work as a legitimate form of labor and the elimination of stigma for people who sell and purchase sexual services.
Sex workers are often low-hanging fruit for communal stigma and institutional criminalization. These paradigms are then leveraged to further erode the humanity and dignity of others adjacent to sex workers. Hence, we must understand that sex work is part of thriving ecosystems, that sex workers often create solutions that allow us to imagine worlds outside of institutional barriers, and that including them in community-building processes benefits everyone.
• Sex work is a crucial front for labor rights.
• Legalizing sex work is not a viable solution as it creates additional barriers and harm to workers.
• Decriminalization helps sex workers to have more autonomy and promotes safer labor conditions.