The Growing Movement For Sex Worker Safety & Rights

The US PROStitutes Collective (US PROS), formed in 1981, is a multi-racial network of former and current sex workers working in different areas of the sex industry. We are part of the International Prostitutes Collective. Our starting point is women who work the streets who are most likely to get arrested and face violence.

We estimate that about 70% of sex workers are mothers, mostly single mothers, supporting kids and other family members. Most are driven into prostitution because of poverty and lack of financial alternatives. The poverty rate for single mother-headed households was triple the poverty rate for the rest of the population in 2011. Punitive welfare reform policies have thrown thousands of moms into destitution. When welfare is cut, more women are picked up for prostitution and more women end up in prison.

We work in the sex industry for a variety of reasons. One reason is that sex work pays better than many jobs on the market, such as working in the fast food industry or as a receptionist or cashier. Sex work also often allows for flexibility and control over our work schedule. Whether working the streets, as call girls, online, as strippers, making videos, etc, if we are mothers, we can fit sex work around our kids’ school schedules. Those of us who are students can set our hours around classes and studying. Many of us use sex work to top off the low wages of other jobs.

But sex work is illegal and we face arrest every time we go to work. The prostitution laws criminalize us and we are illegal workers with no rights. An arrest or a conviction for a prostitution-related offense can have devastating consequences. We can lose custody of our children, get kicked out of our homes, or be deported if we are immigrants. And once we have a criminal record, it is much harder to get out of prostitution and find another job. Criminalization also makes us vulnerable to rape and other violence, and fear of arrest prevents most sex workers from reporting violent crimes. Police themselves can be part of this violence. 20% of street workers and 14% of indoor workers have experienced violence at the hands of police and 16% of indoor workers had been involved in sexual situations with the police.

One of the women in our network, a young Black mother, was convicted of violating a “Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution Order.” Working with Legal Action for Women (LAW), a grassroots legal service, we contacted numerous agencies for help with affordable housing so the young woman could leave prostitution. Nothing was available. She was left with a choice between destitution and sex work. Either way she risked losing custody of her children. Tragically, this young woman was arrested again for pimping, after she helped another young woman to get off the street. US PROS intervened to stop her from being registered as a sex offender which would have had drastic and lifelong implications.

Under a new California law called the Case Act, this young woman could now be considered a “trafficker” and face 12 years in prison. The Case Act (Proposition 35) funded by ex-Facebook billionaire Chris Kelly, and supported by law enforcement, will further criminalize sex workers and anyone who we associate with. US PROS vigorously opposed the CASE Act and was joined by other sectors in the community such as people of color, church, gay, legal, civil rights groups, and many individuals. Despite claims by the people behind this law, victims of trafficking will not be helped by it. As prostitution is pushed further underground by increased criminalization of those working in the sex industry, it becomes harder for victims to report exploitation, rape and other violence, including trafficking.

Laws of this kind are part of a moral crusade. Some anti-prostitution groups, including some who call themselves feminist, claim that all prostitution is violence against women and that all immigrant sex workers are trafficked. But a recent crackdown on massage parlors showed that anti-trafficking laws are used primarily to tighten immigration controls and deport immigrant women, not to protect genuine victims.

The anti-trafficking lobby has used phony statistics to exaggerate the numbers of trafficked victims and to shut down online ads such as on Craigslist and Village Voice, claiming that these ads promote trafficking and exploitation. Sex workers protested that censoring ads made it harder for them to work independently–some were forced onto the streets where it is 10 times more dangerous to work. US PROS organized a counter protest of anti-trafficking feminist groups protesting Craigslist. We exposed those organizations which have profited from anti-trafficking funding without any consideration of the impact on sex workers’ rights and safety.

Sex worker-led actions like this are part of a growing movement for the decriminalization of prostitution which is gaining momentum and support.

In 2008 a voter initiative in San Francisco (Proposition K) called on the city to follow the example of New Zealand which had decriminalized prostitution in 2003 leading to clear improvements in safety. Despite ferocious campaigning by the Mayor, the District Attorney, anti-trafficking forces and the police, Proposition K won 41% of the vote. It was modeled on the recommendations of the path-breaking San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution, which called for the millions of dollars squandered on criminalizing sex workers to be redirected into community resources.

With the Homeless Coalition and others, US PROS has organized against recent Sit/Lie laws, which have increased the harassment of street workers, homeless people and immigrant day laborers. Sit/Lie has made it illegal to sit or lie on the sidewalk between 7am and 11pm in San Francisco. Claims that laws used against people on the streets are implemented in a racist way, are strengthened by evidence which shows that Black sex workers are seven times more likely to get arrested than their white counterparts. Occupy SF was the location of one of the actions where people spoke out against the criminalization of survival.

We’ve also taken action against serial rapists. With Legal Action for Women/SF we spearheaded a community monitoring initiative at the trial of serial rapist Jack Bokin. Bokin brutally attacked and raped four women, three of them sex workers. For two years, we co-ordinated a rota of people to attend court and pressed for justice for the victims. This public scrutiny was instrumental in ensuring a conviction and a prison sentence of 231 years. The case of Joseph Naso charged with killing at least four sex workers, is coming to trial soon and we intend to be there.

As cuts in benefits and services deepen, the numbers of women, young people, homeless and transgender people going into the sex industry increases. US PROS is part of a new national campaign to end the poverty of mothers and children by supporting two breakthrough bills in Congress: the WORK Act, by Pete Stark, to “provide low-income parents the option of staying home to raise young children without being pushed into poverty”; the RISE Act by Rep. Glenn Moore, which demands that “poverty reduction be put at the heart of welfare policy”. These bills signal a much needed change. From the point of view of sex workers, if mothers were given the recognition and support we deserve, women wouldn’t have to go into prostitution to feed our kids.

“Like women everywhere who do 2/3 of the world’s work for 5% of the world’s income, sex workers are fighting for more money and less work,” says Rachel West, US PROS spokeswoman. “If the billions currently squandered on war and destruction came to women, the primary caregivers everywhere, and to our communities to fulfill people’s needs, no one would be forced by poverty into sex with anyone. Our demand, increasingly taken up by others, is: Outlaw Poverty, Not Prostitution.”

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