7 sex worker activism efforts in the United States

Giving it up doesn’t mean giving it away — and the many activist groups in the United States that support sex workers’ and escorts’ rights across the country work to preserve, promote and advance the working conditions, human rights and attitudes of individuals who work in adult-oriented careers.

Because advocates for the sex work industry are seemingly few and far between, it’s important to highlight that there are significant efforts in the United States to support individuals who make careers in an industry where stigmatization is prevalent. Strong movement and advocacy programs began to spring up in the early to mid-2000s, but it wasn’t until 2010 or later that true activism started to take hold in larger numbers. Currently, here are the top seven sex worker activism efforts in the United States:

  1. Support Systems: It is extremely common for escorts and other workers involved in the adult industry to feel isolated, with little support from family and friends. Due to the moral and ethical implications associated with adult-industry work, many sex workers feel they are unable to confide in their closest family members and friends or may have been turned away when they did. Support systems and networks are essential for the emotional and mental health of escorts and similar workers. Being able to share similar thoughts, feelings and concerns can make it possible to endure difficult situations and to celebrate high points of your career. Without people to talk to about your job, it will become nearly impossible to stay in it. Being able to discuss the highs and lows of the industry with others who understand is essential to the success of escorts and others. The Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) is a national social justice network dedicated to the fundamental rights of sex workers and their communities, focusing on ending violence and stigmas through education and advocacy. Part of the project’s mission involves a support system that provides discourse for those involved in the industry. SWOP has at least 12 chapters located across the U.S. in Tucson, Michigan, St. Louis, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, New York City, Boston, Seattle and Portland. Additionally, another group called Solace San Francisco offers “all-inclusive, compassionate care to sex workers within San Francisco,” according to its website. Its goal is to “meet the immediate, as well as long-term needs of those we have the privilege to serve.” According to the website, needs include support for sex workers by those who have been there, themselves.
  2. Public Education: The media coverage of the sex industry is often sensationalistic and shallow, not to mention often untrue. Movies, films and books depict false representations of the industry, and sex workers are typically described as victims. (Not to say that some sex workers are not victims, but many are employed in the business willingly and happily.) Because the public education of the industry into the mainstream lacks so much, this is an area where activism is badly needed to reduce the degree of stigmatization and judgment that occurs when an escort or other sex worker is “outed”. The Red Umbrella Project works to amplify “voices of people who have done transactional sex, through media, storytelling and advocacy programs run by and for the community of people who trade sex for things they need.” Advocacy workshops, monthly storytelling events, media training and other efforts help to educate the public about sex workers and their attributes as people. Another organization working to educate the community about the adult industry and its employees is HOOK. According to its mission, “By crating positive relationships among sex workers to enable communication, sharing and support, HOOK educates male sex workers, clients and the general public about the industry — its risks and benefits — to reduce harm and to develop a network of trained sex worker-sensitive service providers and non-profit programs.
  3. Decriminalization and Legalization: Though efforts to decriminalize and legalize prostitution have been ongoing for many years, an even more significant need for these efforts are present today in order to enhance the safety and working conditions of many escorts and other sex workers. While aspects of the industry are legal (think: phone sex, modeling, porn, exotic dancing), others still remain very illegal or on the fringe of being punishable by law. With efforts to decriminalize or legalize, workers may have increased abilities to seek out services or assistance without fear of repercussions or prosecution. SWOP consistently works on efforts to decriminalize or legalize, in addition to keeping up with laws being proposed in order to protect workers’ rights. Additionally, the Desiree Alliance works toward decriminalization through the collaboration for political change on local, state and national levels. They are working to develop strategies and leadership skills to end criminalization and empower sex workers with knowledge, confidence and strength.
  4. Legal Advocacy: Because so many escorts and other sex workers fall through the cracks when it comes to legal help, it’s essential that strides in legal advocacy be made for the adult industry and its participants. Many sex workers feel as though they cannot stand up for their legal rights, because they fear legal prosecution or repercussions. Labor issues in adult-oriented businesses are rarely addressed, because employees do not know their rights. A club called “Brunch and Bitch” in New York City provides exotic dancers with opportunities to share their thoughts and concerns with helpful resources, including regular “Know Your Rights” trainings conducted by attorneys. The trainings cover workplace issues and concerns. SWOP also works to aid sex workers through its Legal Resource Guide and volunteer advocacy program. Another group working to fight unfair legal practices is Providers and Resources Offering Services (PROS). PROS is a coalition of sex workers, organizers, direct service providers, advocates and media makers who collaborate on programs and campaigns around sex work-related issues in the New York City area.
  5. Health: Sex workers have such high risks of contracting health problems (not just STDs, but other bugs and colds, too), so health advocacy is a necessary element for the adult industry. Sex workers have different needs than average citizens and they are often stigmatized by health care practitioners when their careers are shared in relationship to their concerns. The St. James Infirmary in San Francisco can serve as a model clinic for others across the United States. It is the first occupational safety and health clinic for sex workers run by and for sex workers. Its services (medically- and socially-oriented) are free, non-judgmental and confidential for all genders and orientations. The clinic’s mission is to increase access to primary healthcare, increase communication, cooperation and coordination among community members and to promote community-based health initiatives on behalf of sex workers.
  6. Sex Worker Culture: One of the problems about the sex industry is that the culture of its participants is regularly misrepresented. Messages and depictions about what life is really about to increase visibility through art, photographs, literature and film are necessary to truly share the culture in a fair, honest fashion. Years ago, underground galleries and exhibits demonstrated the culture, but they were often shielded from mainstream view. However, today is a different story. The Internet has opened up opportunities for photographers and artists to share their works online for interested parties, in addition to a number of sex workers and escorts posting regular blogs about their lives. Additionally, the Center for Sex and Culture’s Sex Worker Media Library consists of a database of videos by and about sex workers around the world. The center, located in San Francisco, works to meet its goal of preserving the sex worker culture and promoting its discourse through supporting rights and activism efforts.
  7. Media Advocacy: Media advocacy is very important to other elements of activism, such as health or public education, because those involved in the adult industry must be able to represent it properly in order for true, factual articles to be written and features to be produced. Not everyone is prepared to handle the members of the media, and education is essential for escorts and others to be able to put forth a positive image when contacted by reporters or journalists. SWOP works with elements of media advocacy.