Menaced by the Backpage bust and new federal anti-prostitution legislation, sex workers gathered in Los Angeles to stand up for their safety and their livelihood
More than two dozen sex workers and advocates for sex workers’ rights from across the nation convened in Los Angeles June 23-24 at the offices of the ACLU of Southern California for a strategy session to address harsh new federal legislation that has targeted their industry. The summit’s participants concluded the two-day meeting by agreeing on a declaration of independence for the sex trade, which they hope will guide them and their allies as they battle for survival.
Modeled on the response of gay men to the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, the document, titled “National Sex-Worker Anti-Criminalization Principles,” demands “autonomy and self-determination” for adults who work consensually in the sex trade. It also condemns prostitution “abolitionists” and those in the so-called rescue industry who aim to eradicate all commercial sex transactions.
Decrying “punitive intervention,” the statement reaffirms the dignity and humanity of people who engage in commercial sex and insists that sex workers be empowered to take the lead in any and all decision-making that concerns them. It delineates the “rights of sex workers,” including the freedom to work as they choose, “without onerous regulation that is disrespectful of our agency and our autonomy.”
The “onerous regulation” uppermost in the minds of most attendees: Congress’ recent passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), a.k.a. FOSTA/SESTA, which effectively outlaws the online promotion of prostitution by creating severe penalties for any website that “facilitates” or allows advertisement of sex work. Signed into law on April 11 by President Donald Trump, the measure is part of an ongoing federal crackdown that has resulted in widespread fear, self-censorship, and the shuttering of online forums and other websites.
Adding to the sense of urgency was the FBI’s April 6 seizure of the internet listings giant Backpage.com, coupled with the arrests on federal felony charges of seven current and former executives and co-owners of the website. (Editor’s note: Among those arrested were the site’s former co-owners, veteran newspapermen Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey. In 2017, Lacey and Larkin founded Front Page Confidential to cover issues related to the First Amendment and freedom of speech.)
The federal government’s message was chilling: Henceforth, even business owners who had operated strictly within the letter of the law would be treated as common criminals. (So there would be no mistaking the intent, FOSTA/SESTA includes a retroactivity clause that was inserted over the objections of U.S. Department of Justice personnel who labeled the language “unconstitutional.”)
Cris Sardina, director of the Desiree Alliance, a nonprofit collective that advocates for sex workers’ rights, heard the message loud and clear.
Sardina organized the weekend summit after announcing that her group’s biennial conference, scheduled for 2019, would not take place owing to fears that FOSTA/SESTA-wielding federal agents might target attendees.
Sardina told Front Page Confidential that the new legislation and the Backpage seizure “had everything to do” with canceling the 2019 conference, which she said normally draws hundreds of sex workers and activists from around the globe. She arranged for the much-smaller L.A. strategy session to regroup and agree on a plan to move forward.
One goal of the summit was to develop a statement based upon the “Denver Principles,” a revolutionary, self-empowering manifesto drafted in in June 1983 by five gay-rights activists who’d been diagnosed as HIV-positive. Using a mere 300 words, they declared themselves “people with AIDS,” refused the label of “victim,” and demanded their rights as patients and advocates.
“These five guys came together and took back their voice. Thirty years later, they’re still using the Denver Principles,” Sardina reminded her colleagues at one point during the meeting.
Participants spent the second day of the event drafting their own statement of principles, breaking into smaller groups to hash over an initial version, penned in longhand by escort and author Maggie McNeill, whose venerable blog, The Honest Courtesan, offers an erudite and sometimes scathing defense of sex workers’ rights. Only current or former sex workers were allowed to pass judgment on the document’s language, which went through a number of iterations before it reached its final form.
Debate over the wording was impassioned. New York-based writer and activist Ceyenne Doroshow, founder and director of Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society (G.L.I.T.S.), was among those who argued for a complete rejection of the jargon employed by members of the “rescue industry,” whose guiding tenet is that all sex work is by definition nonconsensual.
“I’d rather be out on the streets than have [them] control our narrative,” Doroshow said.
Both Sardina and McNeill emphasized the need to avoid verbose, academic language. Kristen DiAngelo, founder and executive director of the Sacramento branch of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, concurred, saying that the response they want from their fellow sex workers isn’t confusion, but “head-nodding.”
Sardina referred to the resulting document as “historic,” and declared the summit a success.
“We’re national voices, and we came together with a collective mission to put forth a statement of how we are to be interacted with,” Sardina said. “And that was accomplished today.”
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Day one of the summit proved less goal-oriented, instead featuring a wide-ranging discussion of how sex workers should respond to FOSTA/SESTA and to those who push the abolitionist agenda.
Regarding possibilities for legal action, Rainey Reitman, activism director for the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), informed the group that her organization, which defends civil liberties in the digital sphere, is contemplating a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of FOSTA/AESTA. She stopped short of supplying details, however, explaining that EFF doesn’t want to telegraph its legal strategy.
Two ACLU employees spoke to the same issue: Adrian Martinez, an LGBT community-engagement and policy advocate, and Amanda Goad, a senior staff attorney.
Martinez said the ACLU of Southern California has spent 2018 “coalition building” and “listening,” in preparation for a public campaign, which Martinez avowed was forthcoming.
Goad admitted that she has been “asked a million times” if the ACLU would be challenging FOSTA/SESTA. She said there have been “a lot of conversations” about the subject in the group’s offices in New York and Washington, D.C. Beyond that, though, she was noncommittal, saying the ACLU is in “listening mode,” with no intention to act before working to discern “where the community is and where the priorities are.”
Publicly, attendees appreciated having access to the ACLU offices for two days. But privately, some expressed disappointment that the group isn’t doing more to aid them, citing the organization’s low-key opposition to FOSTA/SESTA earlier in the year.
Aside from legal matters, the summit’s first day included presentations from several attendees, and beaucoup brainstorming.
Norma Jean Almoldovar, a longtime advocate for sex workers’ rights, went over some of the inaccurate numbers the rescue industry relies upon to conflate sex trafficking with commercial sex among consenting adults. (The latter is what is known as prostitution. The former is defined by federal law as occurring when “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or [when] the person induced to perform such act has not attained eighteen years of age.”)
Almodovar, who has catalogued the data on the website policeprostitutionandpolitics.com, pointed out that there were only 1,007 reported cases of sex trafficking in the United States in 2016 according to FBI statistics, a fact that undercuts assertions that sex trafficking is sweeping the nation.
“Where are the hundreds and thousands of sex-trafficking victims?” she wondered, alluding to the bogus figures that alarmists frequently cite.
Later in the day, DiAngelo delivered a rip-roaring presentation that envisioned the group’s future strategy, drawn from discussions with activists in other realms, including one who helped organize the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations earlier in the decade.
DiAngelo outlined a multipronged attack that included the use of ballot initiatives to put decriminalization in the hands of voters across the country.
Sex workers have been playing defense for too long, she asserted. The time has come to borrow tactics from the enemy — the nonprofits that are dedicated to destroying the consensual adult sex trade and ruining those whose livelihoods depend on it.
“We have to be the ones out there doing what they are doing to us to them,” she said angrily. “We need to flip this fucking script.”
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