Sex workers across the USA countered government oppression with activism to mark International Whores' Day
The seedy streets of Hollywood, California, played host to a lively procession of more than 300 skimpily dressed sex workers and their allies on Saturday, June 2, as the “Let Us Survive March” raised a ruckus to commemorate International Whores’ Day.
Also known as International Sex Workers’ Day, the event is a global call to arms for hookers, strippers, dominatrixes, porn performers, cam girls, T-girls, rent boys, and purveyors of the so-called girlfriend experience, among others in the sex trade.
Some marchers held aloft red umbrellas, the international symbol for the sex-workers’-rights movement. Others toted placards that read “Sex Work Is Real Work,” “Better Blow Jobs Than No Jobs,” “Fuck You, Pay Me,” and the ubiquitous “Let Us Survive.” The crowd of mostly women — some clad in little more than fishnet stockings with black tape across their nipples — chanted irreverent slogans: “1-2-3-4, I am proud to be a whore, 5, 6, 7, 8, I get paid to masturbate”; and “No bad whores, just bad laws.”
The Los Angeles demonstration was one of several nationwide planned to commemorate the anniversary of a 1975 sex workers’ uprising in Lyon, France, where 100 prostitutes took sanctuary in a church to protest dangerous working conditions and police abuse, in a French version of the Stonewall riots but with an all-female cast. This year’s U.S. observances carried the added weight of the current crisis in the sex trade that has resulted from federal legislation passed in March that effectively made it a felony to advertise prostitution online.
The new law — a Frankenstein measure that combines the worst of two Draconian bills (the Senate’s Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act [SESTA] and the House’s Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act [FOSTA] — has had a devastating effect on sex workers across the country and internationally, conflating consensual commercial sex among consenting adults (otherwise known as prostitution) with the heinous and much rarer crime of sex trafficking (which federal statute defines as involving minors in the sex trade or adults brought into prostitution through force, fraud, or coercion).
Even before President Trump signed FOSTA/SESTA into law on April 11, its progress through Congress the month prior engendered a tsunami of censorship and self-censorship online. Cragslist and other sites killed their “personals” sections, stranding sex workers with few forums to advertise their services or exchange information about clients who were exploitive or violent.
Mere days before Trump affixed his signature to the new law, the FBI seized of the online listings giant Backpage.com, which had maintained its personals section till the bitter end, despite having nixed its adult listings in January 2017 in response to Congressional pressure.
These developments have ushered in a new age of sex prohibition, one that endangers the ability of sex workers to make a living, feed themselves, work indoors, and screen customers. Sex-worker advocates complain that as a consequence, women are being forced to work on the street and made vulnerable to the wiles of pimps and predators.
Which explains why International Whores’ Day drew large crowds in New York, Chicago, the Bay Area, and elsewhere, in addition to Los Angeles.
Pike Long, deputy director of the St. James Infirmary, a San Francisco clinic that provides healthcare and social services to current and former sex workers, estimates that as many as 500 people attended the Oakland event, which she helped organize, along with the protest’s main sponsor, Bay Area Pros Support.
Long told Front Page Confidential that attendance was “way more than I’ve ever seen out at a sex-worker rally.” People were “fired up,” largely about FOSTA/SESTA, she said. “Most of the speeches were centered around the impact that [this law] has had on our lives.”
That was evident during a pre-march rally at Boardner’s bar in Hollywood. Sex worker, writer, podcaster, performer, and activist Siouxsie Q, one of the Hollywood demonstration’s chief organizers, told the crowd that the despair over FOSTA/SESTA inspired her and others to network and become more involved in the sex-workers’-rights movement.
“It felt so overwhelming, right?” she said of the fallout from the legislation. “So paralyzing. But you know what we did? We hopped on the phone, we got onto conference calls. We called our friends. We made family, because that’s what we do.”
That need to find community, have each other’s backs, band together, and work to overturn FOSTA/SESTA were common themes of the day.
Gizelle Marie, a dancer who led a “stripper strike” against the abusive practices of New York strip clubs, remarked that the law poses “imminent danger” to sex workers. The affected sites allowed her “fellow workers of sex” to survive. Fewer women were abducted off the streets because of them, she contended.
During her turn at the mic, trans woman and former sex worker Tara Coccinelle, a drop-in resource coordinator with Sacramento’s Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), observed that those hardest hit by FOSTA/SESTA and the feds’ seizure of Backpage have been sex workers of color — a marginalized group now denied crucial resources.
“Being able to advertise safely, to screen clients, to be able to compare notes on bad dates — all this now has been taken off the internet thanks to FOSTA and SESTA,” she said.
Coccinelle also warned of pending legislation in the U.S. Senate, the End Banking for Human Traffickers Act, cosponsored by Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Florida Republican Marco Rubio. The bill could target sex workers’ bank accounts and impede their ability to obtain credit, she explained, potentially leading to homelessness.
Coccinelle’s colleague, Kristen DiAngelo — founder of SWOP Sacramento and a sex worker and former trafficking victim — gave the crowd a history lesson on prostitution in California, detailing how sex work was legal until the Red Light Abatement Act of 1913, which shut down the state’s brothels, forcing women out of doors and into street prostitution.
DiAngelo says the act led to the rise of pimps in the Golden State. She compared its changes to those brought on by FOSTA/SESTA.
“When I hear all this shit about how, ‘We’re doing this to stop human trafficking,’ I’m thinking: You motherfuckers created human trafficking,'” DiAngelo said.
The only answer, according to DiAngelo, is to fight for the decriminalization of all sex work.
Perhaps the best-known speaker on hand was adult-film star Jessica Drake, who is now also famous for backing up Stormy Daniels’ account of a tryst with President Trump — an alleged romp that Drake says she was invited to join.
Speaking to the crowd before the march, Drake described herself as an “unapologetic intersectional feminist with a hard head and soft heart.” She detailed some of her dark, early days as a sex worker and drove home the need for sex workers to support each other.
During the march, Front Page Confidential asked Drake about the perception of a split between sex workers and porn performers. She said she identified as a sex worker, but that it was not her place to label others.
“There are many, many people in the adult industry who are also escorts,” she commented, adding, “By definition, I would call that a sex worker.”
Porn performers, too, face stigmatization, she said. They too have to be concerned about losing their bank accounts. And FOSTA/SESTA’s chilling effect has a direct bearing on Instagram and other social-media platforms they use to promote themselves.
A day earlier, Drake accompanied a group of fellow sex workers and activists who visited the L.A. office of U.S. Senator Kamala Harris. There, they met with a staff member to discuss FOSTA/SESTA before stopping by Sen. Diane Feinstein’s L.A. office to do the same.
The visits were part of a nationwide effort on June 1, National Sex Worker Lobby Day, which included a major push on Capitol Hill spearheaded by advocate Kate D’Adamo, a sex-workers’-rights activist and a consultant for the progressive collective Reframe Health and Justice.
D’Adamo told Front Page Confidential that teams of sex workers and activists called on the offices of nearly 30 House members, including that of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. D’Adamo said some of the meetings were short but others lasted as long as an hour. Generally, she said, the feedback has been positive.
But D’Adamo emphasized that the lobbying day, timed to occur in conjunction with International Whores’ Day, is only the beginning of a long process of changing minds.
“This isn’t a one-off and it shouldn’t be a one-off,” she said. “These are too complicated of issues. I’d rather be able to sit down with [these legislative staffs] multiple times and walk through the nuances and get them to really understand.”
On a more micro level, the demonstration in Los Angeles may have helped win over some folks. Motorists expressed support for the demonstrators by honking their horns and shouting good wishes, and there was occasional, passionate dialogue — as in the case of one petite, African-American sex worker in bunny ears who stopped to explain to bystanders what FOSTA was and how consensual adult sex work differs from sex trafficking.
At one point, before the line of marchers rounded a corner, Siouxsie Q, a veritable ball of energy with Bettie Page bangs, took to the bullhorn for one of her impromptu rallying cries, telling onlookers, “Sex work touches every part of our lives in this country, and we deserve the right to survive!”
Nearby was one of the many individuals who dress up like superheroes to pose with tourists for photos on Hollywood Blvd. In this case, it was a gent outfitted like Superman, who applauded.
Without missing a beat, Ms. Q asked the Man of Steel for his opinion of their cause.
“I support every one of you,” he told the sex workers, who responded with a collective “Woohoo” as they filed past.
Later that evening, Front Page Confidential spoke with another of the march’s organizers, Mistress Bella Bathory, a sex worker and aspiring doctor who argued that sex workers were instrumental last year in defeating California’s Proposition 60, which would have required male actors in pornographic films to wear condoms.
Supporters of the ballot measure, including the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, raised $5 million to push the proposal, while opponents in the porn industry and elsewhere lagged far behind. Nevertheless, in the end, sex workers outperformed their well-funded rivals, defeating the proposition by more than seven percentage points.
“We hit the streets, we flyered, we spoke outside of offices, we talked to legislators, and we won that battle of Prop 60 by a fucking landslide,” cooed the curvaceous domme.
“People forget that we have voices and we are everywhere,” she declared. “Everyone watches pornography. Everyone interacts with sex workers in some way.”