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The Dangers of Conflating Sex Work and Human Trafficking

Strip club raids don’t stop human trafficking — they criminalize sex workers’ existence.

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 worked as a sex worker? 

Dev: 13 years. 

N: How did you start?

D: Through art modeling, I took on more and more explicit photo gigs. I took on gigs through escort and fetish gigs, more nudey and porny photos. 

N: What was your work like back then versus today?

D: It was different. This was 2008. It was during a recession. I never knew what work was like before the recession. But I was working in a rural area and at that point it was not my full-time work, it was just like extra money that I needed… then I also got into stripping after doing photo work — it was around that time that I was still taking better gigs off of Craigslist. I was stripping then meeting clients for escorting out of the strip club, as well off of Craigslist.

I didn’t know what “sex work” meant at the time, I didn’t know that I was a sex worker. I was just doing things for money with friends that I couldn’t talk about beyond nude photo modeling.

There was a lot of shame and I didn’t know other people who were doing this kind of work.

When I started working out of the club, I met other sex workers, but I still didn’t know what those words meant. It wasn’t a thing to me, all I knew was what the word “stripper” was. The word “escort” didn’t come to mind necessarily when I was escorting. I knew the term existed, but didn’t know what the term GFE [Girlfriend Experience] meant. The way that Craigslist was used as personals — I didn’t know what those terms meant. It was like, oh, Craigslist, here is a place where you can find gigs and jobs, and also sex work jobs. It was like, oh, taboo, it was the adult gigs section. It wasn’t like Eros or Backpage, I hadn’t learned about those yet. 

N: who taught you what “sex work” meant?

D: I think I only learned about it I would like that after began domming honestly. This was five years after I started stripping. I was still not politicized as a sex worker… I was fighting for my dignity, though people who knew me didn’t know much about sex worker orgs at that point. It was just labor for me. I did not have community. 

N: How did you find community?

D: It started happening slowly. I was on Twitter. I started meeting other workers on sex work social media, like on Instagram. As a domme, I saw other dommes begin to talk about it… becoming friends with escorts on Twitter… When I started escorting, I had a ton of shame about it. When I was working as a domme, I had not acknowledged escorting as my past because a lot of dommes are whorephobic. I just told dommes that I had been stripping, not speaking about full-service, because of all of the shaming. Doing extras or oral on you from a client. Then strip club culture, too, is extremely whorephobic, people are very stigmatizing about doing extras.

N: Why is that? 

D: Hmmm what do you call it? A lateral whorephobia. As different types of labor within stripping, it’s like “oh we’re just performance, we don’t do X. Also it would be because they would come in and raid the clubs, so the whole shtick had to rail — “we’re not offering full service here, this is just fantasy, this is just lap dancing, there are no genitals involved,” you know what I mean? Whatever, it’s intimate, but with just clothes on, legally — that’s how strip clubs are allowed to be open. Once it goes beyond that, it’s a crime.

The clubs I would work in would get busted, my colleagues would get busted. An undercover would come in and pay for an extra. Then come in with a sting operation. 

N: With sting operations, how would the police come into your club and posture themselves? You’re saying they would pay for extras, follow-through, and then the club would get busted?

D: They would come into the club and get someone to agree to do extras. Then slap everyone with solicitation and prostitution charges. It was mostly for show, they truly don’t care, this is all just for the government, and for the public. Like going in and saying “We’re cleaning up the city, blah blah blah.” Things would go back to regular business after that.

N: You said the term “whorephobia,” would you explain what that means?

D: Yeah, it’s just stigma. It’s mostly full sex workers… but I think all sex workers face it. There are levels of whorephobia but at the root of it is the stigma against people who do sell sex for a living. 

N: what effects have you seen of FOSTA-SESTA on you and your community?

D: It did not affect me nearly as much, but it did affect my colleagues and it certainly affected me at one point. Backpage was not my primary source of advertising, it was mostly Eros. But I did get a lot of work off of Backpage at one point. When it went down, it affected my income. I knew some people who had to move or were living out of their car, different situations for everybody. But it was a very accessible way for people to work. I made a living off of Backpage for many years, I survived off of Backpage. I met my second pimp off of Backpage. It was accessible, it was free to do, you have to pay money to bump your ad up. But ultimately you could post for free. Or anybody who is potentially working off of the street could post an ad that can have safe indoor work readily available. It was well-known, and a similar format to Craigslist. It was an easy transition for me to go from Craigslist to Backpage, it was a natural progression. 

N: That’s wild, the owners of Backpage had no charges of human trafficking. What should people know about differentiating between consensual-based sex work and sex trafficking?

D: It gets confusing because of the whole issue of consent versus needing to survive. It’s more sensationalized when it comes to sex but labor trafficking is a worldwide issue.

The only reason why sex trafficking receives the amount of attention that it does is because there are people who have been forced to work against their will. There have been people who have been groomed from a young age who are being trafficked.

But because trafficking is used in a way to criminalize sex workers who want to do this for a living or who don’t want to be rescued… It’s used in a way to throw a blanket on all sex workers as trafficking because nobody would ever voluntarily want to do this. But people get into sex work as a need to survive, just from different circumstances… to support an addiction… there’s a myriad of reasons why people get into sex work.

Those people who try to see sex work as trafficking, just want sex work to be abolished, they’re not just concerned with people who are working against their will.

N: Right, just like what you said — even within places where legal sex work does take place, people still experience raids. 

D: There are all these regulations, especially in places where legal sex work does take place, when it involves intercourse, or even if it involves genitals. In some places even nipples. I remember hearing stories of when strippers were arrested because clients touched their nipples. It’s a gray area, cops enforce this shit however they want. 

N: What is the gentrification of sex work to you?

D: For me, it’s when people who don’t need to in the first place… who don’t need it as a means of survival… they’re doing it for clout, they think it’s cool. Some people have a level of privilege to enter it, there’s lots of sex work tourism. People making informed decisions on going into sex work, without life circumstances pushing them into it, like how a lot of us have been. They’re using their platform saying that they’re coming from an empowered place. They decided how they want to work, what their brand is, what type of work they want, have a mentor — not to say that everyone who has a mentor is privileged — there’s a new generation of people coming into it differently because social media exists. So people know what it is… now it’s more acceptable to support sex workers.

Some people think it’s safer to get into. When I got into it, a lot of people did not respect me in my life. I had to fight for my respect.

Sex work was not cool at the time, Facebook was just for students when I started. It was not open to the public. There was no Twitter, there was no Instagram. 

There are more people talking about this online, just being vocal that sex work exists. The gentrification of this comes from celebrities using sex work images — they want the image without the stigma, the criminalization, or the violence. A lot of celebrities are getting into online sex where, dare I even call it sex work, a lot of them weren’t doing anything different… in terms of posting content under the facade of sex work that makes people think they’re about to see something racier. When you’re a celebrity, and you have all of this privilege, you can do all of these things without facing any stigma. Or losing everything. 

N: Damn, thank you. Why do we need decriminalization?

D: We need decriminalization because we need rights as sex workers. We need a right to exist to perform our labor safely. Because we need protection in case our clients get violent with us. Sex workers do experience so much violence because we are a vulnerable population, simply because we are criminalized. There is no protection. In countries where it is decriminalized, they still do experience violence, but there is some recourse. Not that I support the criminal justice system or support prisons. But it’s just knowing that you can receive some kind of help or that there are emergency services available for you. You don’t need to fear being arrested. It’s a human rights issue.

We should have the right to exist without fear of being placed in jail.