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Why Legalizing Sex Work Isn’t What Sex Workers Want

Legalizing sex work has historically landed sex workers in harm’s way, often at the hands of the police.

Illustration by Sandra Markarian

Content warning: Police violence, gentrification, sexual assault from police. The nature of our work isn’t violent, but the criminalization of sex work can lead to dangerous and violent situations for workers. The end game is decriminalization. Please practice self-care while reading each worker’s story. Bless. 

Nessa: How long have you been working in sex work?

Santana: 10 years. Since right when I was 18, fresh out of high school. I started dancing at a nude club early on, that was more off and on… That was until I was 21, [when] I began working at a topless bar. This nude club management was ridiculous, I got a lot more respect when I began working in topless bars but, not by much, haha! If that makes sense.

N: Makes sense. I saw a thing you posted about clubs being raided. What was your experience with that type of police violence?

S: Yeah! OK, so the first time I experienced it I was working at a club in Orange County. Right when I started working at a topless bar. All the topless clubs that I’ve worked at have gotten raided. Some of the clubs did sell alcohol, but when I was in Orange County, honestly that was so long ago, I can’t exactly recall the details verbatim of what happened. But I began working in bikini bars in the Valley later on — those were getting raided constantly. There was one in the Valley and one out over in Vernon, they had the same owner.

I was there one time it got raided, it was about five or six years ago. They didn’t arrest me, but they did take pictures of me. They took photos of our IDs, isn’t that weird? They didn’t ask for our consent… I was young at the time. I thought they could do it. I had a ton of questions. Recently the last few clubs I have worked in have all been getting raided. It would happen during the day shift or happen late at night. Whenever we would get raided it was because a dancer sold coke to an undercover. It starts with that, then the club gets penalized, then the club makes a new rule — you have to wear booty shorts. Have you ever heard of that?

N: Yeah. 

S: They began enforcing really weird rules. First, they get weird about what kind of bottoms we get to wear. Then they get super strict. Then before you know it we’re getting raided. I’m hoping I make sense.

N: You make perfect sense, there’s this law firm based out of Chattanooga, TN, they enforce all of these incredibly super strict rules — not just in Tennessee, this is all over the country. It’s this man’s law firm named Scott Bergthold. His whole objective is to abolish sex work. Swear.

S: Yeah! I’ve worked in strip clubs all over Southern California. I’ve worked at really big clubs where we would cater to more celebrities. I’ve worked at Sam’s, I’ve worked in small hole-in-the-walls. Smaller businesses get hounded [by law enforcement] so much harder. These bigger clubs get away with so much more… don’t know how I feel about that.

One thing I will say about smaller clubs is they’ll hire more Black and Brown dancers, undocumented dancers… they hire trans dancers. That’s something bigger clubs won’t even consider — I mean some would argue that they do hire thicker dancers but not hire fat dancers.

N: That’s another conversation to be had right there. The differences between thick and fat, body discrimination.

S: That’s why I’m saying… I would say about smaller clubs that they have a more diverse hiring practice. 

N: FOSTA-SESTA happened and now there’s SIESA. What were some of the effects of these acts passing, what happened to you or the people in your community since these laws went into effect?

S: I was working at a club in East LA right around the time that Backpage got taken down — there were so many more dancers in the club. There was already more than full-service happening at the clubs. I remember thinking, what is up with this? I would go to work and it would be about 60 girls in a small club. I correlated it with Backpage being taken down, because you know it was safe-ish. I do all online work, but it’s so off and on honestly, because of advertising. 

N: Like censorship of work?

S: Yes, part of it too has to do with the Instagram thing, it’s so obnoxious. Twitter, I don’t know how people get followers on Twitter. And I used to do a lot of camming, but that was back in the day — now these days it’s all about quality. I have not brought myself to be so invested in that. Or make enough money off of that to invest in an HD camera. That’s what I could say about online work, I am really lucky where I could get a couple of good customers and keep them for a while.

N: Yes, that’s a thing with the hustle you have to cultivate a slow burn rather than a flash in the pan. 

S: I usually have long-time regulars. And that’s the thing with my customers, I usually go on to social-media-fish for a couple of guys, then disappear for a while! Hahaha! Just because I don’t want to get my account deleted — it would be devastating if I lost that account. I don’t give out my number to customers at the club, so many of my customers follow me online.

N: Why would decriminalization be critical and key to the survival of work? 

S: I mean, why not! I mean like, like, prison abolition, that’s where everything is at, like obviously. I don’t know how to answer this question, because I feel like it’s such a given! I would say decriminalization is important for a ton of reasons. As for me, I’m about to go into another level of work for it. If I were to get in trouble over the kind of sex work that I do, that would follow me. My career would be over. I want to have kids and I want to be a mom. I don’t plan on leaving sex work once I have kids. I don’t understand why people would ever plan on policing anyone on this kind of matter, it’s fucking absurd! My mom was a sex worker, it’s hard for my brain to comprehend, I come from a place where it’s just normalized. 

N: That’s beautiful, this is the world’s oldest game — it’s nothing new. What do you think of Bella Thorne’s gentrifying sex work? 

“People think sex work is a trend unfortunately and I think that’s scary.”

S: I think it’s bullshit! People think sex work is a trend unfortunately, and I think that’s scary. She said she was doing this for research — it’s messed up because they fucked up the pay and tip-outs, she charged all that money, and people got ripped off. She killed part of the game for a lot of people. 

From being in the industry for as long as I have and from doing in-person sex work until recently… I chose sex work and I loved sex work because it was private. I could do it in secrecy and nobody knew. I didn’t have to broadcast for the world to see. Now that it’s so online-based and it’s so social-media-based, I feel so vulnerable. I just miss in-person sex work so much. It’s just so much easier for me. Unfortunately, that’s scary, and I think she just feeds into it. She said she was doing it for research, but I looked into it, and the direction she was working with — documentary or whatever — that was a lie! She did not have to make an OnlyFans! I know the pay tip-out, that they have maximums on stuff… she charged all that money, and supposedly people got refunds. She fucked up an online game for a lot of people. She sucks. For being in the industry as long as I have, and doing in-person sex work, noticing the change, and especially within the past three years… I do sex work because I love sex work… I miss in-person sex work and I miss having a layer of anonymity without the world seeing. We’re more vulnerable than ever! I’m just learning how I could adapt, I’m trying.