Five Thoughts On Organizing Decriminalized Sex Workers In America

Decriminalization of sex work is, in places like Washington, DC, likely to be a reality within the next twelve months. Therefore it is likely best to begin contemplating ways that those involved in the industry can and should be able to successfully and sustainably organize themselves as potent advocates for their now very visible professional freedoms and human rights. Because this is evolving a taboo topic and notion into one of the more fascinating facets of America’s potentially progressive future, it is important to examine what needs to become apparent as when a bill becomes a law means a whole lot more than executing something printed on a sheet of paper in reality.

I am not a sex worker myself, but I do proudly identify myself as an ally to the Sex Workers Rights movement. These questions do not come with solutions to the issues apparent. Rather, these are concepts and ideas that are aimed at potentially pushing forward greater and more in-depth conversations on an interpersonal, local, national, and global scale regarding the future of the industry of sex work in America.

Does There Need To Be A Mainstream “Moment” Around Which To Publicly Organize And Gain More Allies?

2019 celebrates 50 years since the Stonewall Riots, one of the most incendiary mainstream moments in the history of civil rights movements in America. Spontaneous violent rioting that followed decades of New York City police officers violently enforcing anti-gay legislation the banned gay patrons in bars from social interaction. Since June 28, 1969, strides made in LGBTQ+ activism include sustainable gay activist organizations, positive cultural representation, and the legalization of gay marriage nationwide in 2015.

As a movement, sex work decriminalization lacks a Stonewall-similar pop cultural firebrand moment that alerts public awareness as well as creates the space for widespread sympathy to be given to the cause. By being cast in the light of being a violent denial of people’s intrinsic American right to freedom of assembly, Stonewall humanized gay liberation as a matter deserving widespread empathetic understanding. It can be argued that it is within that notion that activist organizations, positive cultural representation, and marriage — all things intrinsically related to freedom to peaceably assemble — came to occur without significant issue.

Does there need to be a Marsha P. Johnson — the drag queen turned gay liberation activist oftentimes credited with starting the commotion that started the Stonewall riots — for the sex work decriminalization movement? Is there a need for someone to stoke the kindling and start the firestorm? Potentially not. It’s entirely possible that the sex work decriminalization movement will be one more attached to jurisprudence and lawmaking, instead of wild protests in the streets. When it comes to people’s rights regarding who they are, why they are, and what they are, that’s as personal as their skin and DNA. When it comes to when they do what they do, why and how they do it, that is a little less intrinsic, and more deeply wound into psychology over physiology, thus making the matter a little bit easier to hide from boiling to the surface. Instead of existing in this manner, it’s when people who know deep within their hearts and minds about the necessity for things to exist on the surface in the laws of municipalities, this is likely how decriminalization will occur.

Thus, as far as organizing is concerned, it is more the idea that the law is on the books and the industry is protected that requires the organizing to exist than the need to perpetually highlight and remember a significant case of malicious public action.

Which Comes First: The Rights Of The Individual Or The Rights of The Collective? An Argument For The Individual Over The Collective.

If decriminalization is the end of the line for sex work, then there is real necessity to identify whether this is an issue that is individual owner/operator driven versus one that is driven by a unified social collective advocating for rights that are common for all. In a fully legalized space, there is a historical precedent for the rights of collective unions of people superseding individual civil rights. However, in the grey area that decriminalization presents, it may actually be easier to realize that personal liberty being achievable is goal enough.

If an individual is rendering non-infracting sexual services that exist without on-paper legal precedent, there is actually far less desire likely for this person to ever need to seek counsel or community to protect their liberties. It’s actually a perfect situation. Who, what, when, where, why and how you do what you do, is ultimately legally and physically safe, plus emotionally and psychologically fulfilling. This likely matters most as an individual owner/operator than your work being deemed socially and morally acceptable.

If as an individual you choose to seek counsel to navigate your personal and professional journey, that’s definitely a respectable choice. But the “need” to collectivize in any union of any sort is far less significant in a situation wherein decriminalization exists in a regulated legal grey area.

An Argument Regarding Social Collectivism As A Need For A Decriminalized Sex Work Industry

By the end of the summer, sex work decriminalization bills or sex work industry regulation studies will have been introduced in New York, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Washington, DC. Democratic 2020 Presidential hopefuls like Colorado’s John Hickenlooper and California’s Kamala Harris have noted that they are for decrim, too. Include the state of Nevada where sex work has legal provisions already on the books, and that represents roughly both 20% of the physical square footage of the country as a whole and 20% of its 100 most populous cities. Clearly, this is a movement that ultimately affects so many and has a very quick trickle down to impact the lives of so many more.

However, reflexively, long-standing conservative views regarding sex work as an industry remain. Recently, Ane Mathieson, a program specialist at Sanctuary for Families, noted to the New York Times that, “[p]rostitution is inherently violent. Sex buying promotes sex trafficking, promotes pimping and organized crime, and sexual exploitation of children.” Moreover, Ms. Matheison states, “supporters of decriminalization gloss over a raft of gruesome details about the profession, including rape, physical abuse by clients and pimps, commonplace drug use and an often ravaging physical toll of multiple sex partners, sometimes in the span of a few hours.” In final, Dorchen Leidholdt, the head of the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families in New York, adds, “…the happy hooker and victimless crimes [is] a fantasy perpetuated and accepted by the media.”

Arguments like those aforementioned are extremely harmful to those potentially in receipt of greater professional freedoms in a nation currently on the precipice of a massive leap int the great unknown of national sex work decriminalization. The best solution? Social collectivism. Sex workers aiding sex workers who are faced with potentially working through or arguing down vitriolic hatred is important. Intra-professional allyship, whether via professional organization, network, or in a more ad hoc format are completely necessary. Though yes, initial support of near a quarter of the country and key political figures is profound, that does nothing to stop the aggrieved person on the street, or a sudden deluge of adversarial social media posts targeted at you. Positivism, tempered by a persistent awareness of reality is likely best.

If It’s Decriminalized, And It’s An Industry, Who Controls The Standards of Labor?

Well, certainly not pimps. But definitely, a coalition of sex-work supportive politicians supported by educated and law-cognizant sex workers. College lecturer and sex worker rights advocate Carrie Hill provides the best definition of who and what sex workers could represent as a decriminalized workforce deserving of rights and standards, and the pitfalls therein. “Sex work is a legitimate labor-intensive job worthy of human rights, benefits, access to banking/health care/legal aid, and humane treatment by society. However, quite a number of sex workers aren’t going to declare their ‘whore income,’ so to speak. It will likely end up being referred to as other amounts of money done by some kind of freelancing, so that kind of number would be really difficult to accurately come by. We would, though, via decriminalization, go a long way towards reducing crime rates towards, improving quality of life for, and granting accessible employment to people who turn to sex work because, for whatever reason — medical or otherwise — are incapable of mainstream work.”

With such a wide variance in those employed, their level of employment, and comparative dearth or abundance of income, sex work is not teaching or automobile manufacturing. In more mainstream recognized industries, unionization for protecting workers’ rights is simpler because there are agreed upon industry expectations by which access to codified rights and standards of professional operation make sense. For sex work? The industry expectations for professional standards are on one level more individualized. However, regarding a level of health and safety regarding practices, work can be done to protect both client and practitioner. But, insofar as organizing for rights protection that can also involve monetary benefits, access to banking/health care/legal aid, and humane treatment by society? That will likely involve some level of full legalization.

Decrim is still a soft legal area where careful treading is necessary. If sex work were legal, it would then also be taxable. Taxable income comes from legal and thus, well-regulated industries. In that realm, unionization would make sense because it would allow for workers to exercise their right to assembly to advocate for fair and balanced mediation of their locally and nationally regulated profession. In a still decriminalized state of existence, it’s still largely a “wild west” of sorts for standards, which is a definitely a cause for concern regarding the sustainability and potential for harm in a progressed movement in a progressive society.

How Long Between Decriminalization and The Establishment Of Sex Work’s Sustainable Decriminalized Industrialization? Moreover, What Does “Sustainable Decriminalized Industrialization” Look Like?

The argument that decriminalization instead of full legalization of sex work is a much more humane answer to granting fewer restrictions to the rights of America’s sex workers has been made numerous times. If decriminalization is the way, and some sort of labor standards are to follow, then what comes next? How long do we have until sex work becomes like any other classic American labor industry? Moreover, it’s in identifying the where and how from an economic and logistical standpoint that speaks directly to how decrim sustains itself.

While on assignment in the city in 2016, a trip to Detroit’s Eight Mile Road showed me what relaxed regulation of cannabis looks like in America. There, some 11 miles away from downtown, are miles of dispensaries along — yes, albeit infamous — Detroit’s northern edge, is where part of the answer surrounding how sex work sustains itself, to me, exists. People were able to purchase what they needed, when they wanted it, how they wanted it, and in regulated amounts. The tax revenue growth for Michigan from decriminalized use and sale of marijuana in 2018 will be nearly $20 million. If current legislation passes the Michigan State Legislature to fully legalize regulated adult marijuana use, revenues grow a potential 550% to $130 million. Imagining what that could look like in regards to an initial decriminalized sex work industry to a possibly fully legalized sex work industry is astounding.

However, to presume that transposing how Detroit and Michigan handle weed to how America could handle sex work as a decriminalized industry is entirely safe or without significant harm is short-sighted. In a 2006 piece, The Guardian noted that Detroit’s Eight Mile Road was “where the city of Detroit ends and the suburbs begin. It carves off the rich from the poor, the black from the white, the haves from the have-nots. It symbolizes the death of urban America and the white flight to the suburbs. It signifies the plight of the impoverished, left behind in dying cities that cannot look after them. It is both a physical barrier and a psychological one.”

On one level, placing oft scandalized behavior in low-income communities likely increases the stigma surrounding it. On another (and yes, potentially quite sadder) level though, communities ravaged by white flight and minority economic insolvency are much easier to reimagined wholesale as progressive business zones and therefore easier to be monitored for safety. It’s a Catch-22, for certain. Could having government-targeted economic zones as a way to also heighten security and focus aid to the sex work industry be ideal? Certainly. Insofar as stigma, there’s the idea that people being able to engage in healthy, decriminalized, and consensual sexual behaviors are people who tend to lead functionally happier and more productive lives. Though the benefits of a sexually satiated population are not immediate, an investment in public health likely yields social dividends in future generations.

With financial largess, social good, public policing, and safe, yet spectacular legislating all on the line nationwide, unionization, even if loose, is key. In Michigan, the Michigan Cannabis Business Association has been recently established, handling education, lobbying, and standards maintenance. In an industry where people oftentimes do not fully advertise services or report yearly earnings, unionization will be difficult. Because of this, existing networks like the 20-year-old Sex Workers Outreach Project and the International Union of Sex Workers will be important. In order to ensure that decriminalization of sex work is representative of good government practice, government officials regulating the industry will need well-defined organizations — also think of organizations like GLAAD providing key support to President Barack Obama as he radically altered America’s antagonistic relationship to homosexual communities — to advise them on aligning their principles as well as possible with the sex work industry’s needs and desires.

We have reached a point in American history where we are, as a country, aggressively challenging what the nation’s core social principles will be henceforth. If you were not born in America and lived through its history of segregation, classism, sexism, and more, would seem like cause for violent social upheaval. Of the many issues on the table, sex work’s decriminalization is not just a call for hoes and strippers to terrorize the streets with flagrant nudity and an incessant stream of bawdy and lewd behavior. Rather, it is a call to accept the current social and economic woes in which our country is in the throes of resolving, and to introduce progressive solutions. Given the lack of social unrest related to decriminalization of other “vices,” as well as the financial boon that successfully relaxing an aggressively American cultural claim that these vices are uber-destructive ills has been, decriminalization of sex work is likely. However, it’s moving forward into a bold new reality in a risk-aware, yet safe and sane manner, that is unquestionably important.

Creator. Curator. Innovator. Iconoclast.

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