Decriminalizing Sex Work:
A candid look into how FOSTA-SESTA and SISEA have impacted sex workers and what they are doing to stay safe, continue their businesses, and fight for decriminalization.
Reporting by Nessa Moreno | Illustrations 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.
As an unemployed, underage, and generally “undesirable” teenager, I took my first foray into sex work when I agreed to jerk off a stranger I met on Craigslist for $200 in one of the last bathhouses of the Tenderloin District in San Francisco.
It was the early 2000s, and until that point, the only sex workers I knew were BIPOC trans girls and gay boys around my age who I’d met at the drop-in center for homeless youth, and my friend Princess, she was a dancer at The Lusty Lady. We’d walk down Polk Street where I bore witness to their hustle at close range, enthralled by how powerfully these young women commanded attention, desire, and money from these grown men.
Technology was about to dramatically change the way that sex, money, power, and public virtue would start to collide in the years to come. Those first friends I made in sex work — the girls, gays, and theys like us represented, have remained central to how I understand why it is that lawmakers, intellectuals, and moralizing pundits want to legislate sex workers out of existence. It is because we are living proof that no matter how insistently they declare our lives and identities and bodies to be depraved and deviant, and no matter how many lies they tell to justify dismantling the systems we’ve built on our own when theirs didn’t welcome us; we are smart, beautiful, and strong enough together to build our world.
After the trick came and before I was dressed I ran out, bolted for the door. As soon as I had the cash in my hand, I was terrified that I would find a cop waiting for me on the other side. Relief flooded through me when I realized that there were no fuckboy police, allowing me to take a deep breath and feel the gravity of $200 cash in my hand. It was the most money I had ever held in my hand until that point — proving to myself this was something I could do. Still learning the tools of self-sufficiency, I took my friend Brooke out. We danced and partied all night. We feasted. It was decadent. Suddenly, I was broke again. That’s when I met my second trick, an absolute freak in the most endearing way possible. He took mercy on me and showed me how to collect tributes, how to screen; he was certainly a seasoned hobbyist. That form of etiquette has stuck with me throughout my involvement with the game. Something they don’t sell you on OnlyFans — The game must be told not to be sold.
Like our planet’s fragile climate I’ve witnessed the devolution of this industry: the shutdown of MyRedBook, print ads disappearing with the Communication Decency Act, the Neo-con evil law firm of Scott Bergthold shutting down our strip clubs with brutal violent raids. Governments have tried to abolish sex work by imposing criminal penalties on sex workers since forever. We saw a tipping point with FOSTA-SESTA, thus creating a rapacious cycle with the shutdown of Backpage, a personals site sex workers used to screen potential johns shut down ostensibly to prevent human trafficking. Then came the Earn It Act, the End Banking for Human Traffickers Act, the Cloud Act, and now SISEA, or the Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act. Senators Merkley (D-OR) and Sasse (R-NE) proposed the bill, which is meant to address “revenge porn” and limit exploitation and trafficking on sites like Pornhub, in December 2020. This is SESTA-FOSTA 2.0.
Despite its savior goals, SISEA is inherently problematic as fuck; this bill seeks to ban downloading adult media, enforce rigorous verification processes, and place web hosts in charge of 24-hour hotlines for content removal requests. This introduces many more difficulties for sex workers — we’re already fighting against systematic oppression. SISEA is wildly unconstitutional and unacceptable, and, if passed, would effectively silence online sexual freedom.
On March 16, 2021, six women of Asian descent lost their lives in a shooting touted by the media as the act of a sex-addicted man. The Atlanta police said the shooter had carried out the attacks on the massage parlors to eliminate his “temptation.” The shooter had frequented massage parlors in the past and carried out his attack as a form of vengeance. The victims at Young’s Asian Massage were Delaina Ashley Yaun, age 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Xiaojie Tan, 49; and Daoyou Feng, 44. The victims at the Gold Spa were Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; and Soon Chung Park. The victim at the Aromatherapy Spa was Yong Ae Yue. She was 63.
Organizations like Exodus Cry, Polaris, and other “anti-trafficking” outfits continue to conflate trafficking with consensual sex work, peddling their message of pro-deportations as rescue missions. These organizations are also responsible for fanning wild conspiracy theories, like the notion that trafficking happens during the Super Bowl — or at massage parlors like those in Atlanta. These attempts to reduce child sexual abuse through policing adult pornography have not only repeatedly failed to end human trafficking, but have also increased violence against sex workers. It’s not a mistake; people have tried to eradicate our industry since the very beginning of time, from King Louis IX of France to the downfall of Storyville, to Giuliani shutting down Times Square strip clubs.
Where we stand today with sex work is a stark contrast to where I first began in this industry; sex work can be isolating, but with gentrification of our work and where our culture stands with pandemic online work like Nite Flirt and OnlyFans (I was kicked off that platform, lol. But that’s a story for another day) has only exacerbated this exclusion. Then, there are celebrity culture vultures, pole dancers with the #NotAStripper hashtag, and then Bella Thorne, claiming she invented sex work, taking a highly stigmatized and criminalized industry to gentrify with impunity without advocating for our rights.
Get off the cross, we need the wood.
Should sex work be decriminalized?
All answers point towards an irrefutable yes.
Amid a pandemic it’s important to highlight that decriminalization is a public health matter, too. Stigma, poverty, and exclusion from legal social services have increased our vulnerability not only to COVID but to HIV and other stigmatized, costly conditions. By breaking down stigma and increasing access to health services, it reduces the risk of HIV/AIDS, other STI infections, and deportations. Studies have shown the decriminalization of sex work decreases the risk of HIV infection, and a study from West Virginia and Baylor University indicated the shutdown of the Erotic Service section of Craigslist was linked to a higher rate of homicides with women victims.
Why does sex work need to be decriminalized, not just legalized?
What’s the difference between legalization and decriminalization?
Civilians (non-sex worker folk) have argued that legalizing sex work will make our lives safer. Creating a narrow path of ‘legal’ sex work necessitates the creation of illegal sex work, which presents the same issues that we have now. In countries like Germany, where prostitution is legalized, workers who don’t comply with regulations and registrations and taxes are criminalized. Even if a sex worker wanted to comply with all of the regulations, immigration status, age, and other factors make working in a legal capacity impossible.
Decriminalization eliminates all laws and prohibits the state and law enforcement from intervening in any prostitution-related activities. In Nevada where it is legalized, but highly regulated, this does not ensure sex worker safety. This leaves undocumented workers, drug users, workers with HIV, and survival sex workers out — their very existence criminalized. In 1980 sex work, specifically prostitution, became decriminalized in Rhode Island, then outlawed once again in 2003. The receipts proved that decriminalization had brought STI infections and sexual assault numbers down.