Sacramento Sex Worker Panel Discusses Latest Legal Developments

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—As anyone who's been following the news knows, sex workers have been waging both a legal and media campaign to let the American public know that—surprise, surprise!—they're workers who in most ways are just like any other worker, and that they're deserving of the same respect and, perhaps more importantly, police protection that are already given to all other workers as a matter of course.

Figuring out how to gain that respect and protection formed a large part of the discussion that took place on the evening of November 7 at the Sacramento Universal Unitarian Society Church. Largely organized by the Erotic Service Providers Legal Education and Research Project (ESPLERP), the discussion, which was open to the public, included representatives from the Sacramento Chapter of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP Sacramento), the US PROStitutes Collective, the LA-based Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, the Washington, D.C.-based Helping Individual People Survive, and even the adult industry's own Adult Performer Advocacy Committee (APAC).

The evening began with trailers and short clips from documentaries such as American Courtesans, Scarlet Road, and Hug Me If You Love Sex Workers, produced by various sex worker-friendly organizations, as well as an extended version of Red Canary Song, dealing with Asian massage parlor workers exploited by New York City police. Also shown were clips from Tales of the Grim Sleeper, about a serial killer targeting sex workers in Los Angeles, featuring Margaret Prescod of the Black Coalition as one of the main interviewees.

Ostensibly, the evening's discussion was to center on sex workers' concerns surrounding a new $1.5 million study authorized by the California state government allegedly to "fight human trafficking and amplify the voices of victims" and mainly targeting the Sacramento area—but ESPLERP's Maxine Doogan expressed great concerns regarding who the recipients of those funds would be, and how they would be used.

"Though we really want to support that, we're concerned that the groups that were allocated the monies had conflicts of interest, in that the groups that were to do the investigation, the research into sex trafficking want to call all of us sex trafficking victims, when we're not," Doogan stated. "Also, the main group is involved in law enforcement, and they are able to arrest people for prostitution and then call them sex trafficking victims and then count them as sex trafficking victims and inflate the numbers of sex trafficking. Also, there's conflicts of interest in the group's diversion program that was allocated the monies because the diversion program is run by police. So now you have police, who have conflicts of interest, are being paid to arrest people for prostitution and trafficking into the diversion program and then turning around and telling the city that there's this big trafficking problem so they can get more money—like $1.5 million for a study."

Doogan also feared that, according to statements made by officials concerned with the study, some funds would be used to redevelop certain areas of the track where street-based workers work, for massage parlors as well as internet-based workers, and would be used to inflate the numbers of so-called "trafficked victims" and justify additional prostitution sting operations, "because the only way they identify sex trafficking victims is through prostitution sting operations where people are arrested for prostitution. We don't think they should be arrested."

The next speaker was SWOP Sacramento's Kristen DiAngelo, a locally based practicing sex worker, who honed in on the fact that sex workers have—or should have—the same labor rights as any other worker.

"This is my body and this is my right, and no one—and I mean no one, not law enforcement, not another person—no one gets to negotiate the terms under which I have sex but me," DiAngelo declared. "This is my body, this is my right, and you may want something else out of your sexual experiences and I so uphold that right, but if I want to pay my rent, I should have that right too. My body, my choice."

DiAngelo also spent some time discussing the differences between consensual sex work, which she practices, and non-consensual sex work, better known as sex trafficking.

"We talk about forced labor in the domestic industry, we talk about it in the farm industry. This is the same thing," she stated. "So when I talk about sex trafficking or human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, I'm talking about somebody who truly is a victim. They have no say, they have no rights, they do not get to benefit from the proceeds of their labor."

DiAngelo distinguished that situation somewhat from what she called "survival sex," where sex workers practice their trade simply to survive another day.

"When we talk about 'cleaning up the areas,' what they are talking about is attacking the most marginalized workers, those people who will not eat tonight if they do not engage in survival sex. Those people who will not have a roof over their head if they do not engage in survival sex. Those people whose children will do without, okay?

"I was out on the street for close to ten years," she added. "I watched the outside world try to help me over and over and over, and each attempt made it worse because we weren't at the table. Nobody was asking us what we needed or what we wanted. They were throwing us in jail. They were looking at us like we weren't part of that community. So as somebody who's a survivor, I have a problem with this study. Our organizations, the ones you're seeing up here, we represent people who have been trafficked and we weren't contacted. We represent people who are engaged in survival sex who are the most likely to be trafficked. We weren't contacted, This bothers us."

DiAngelo also described a little "game" that Sacramento politicians like to play, where the city actually encourages massage parlors to open because the licensing fees paid by the businesses and their workers are far higher than for any other local business, making them a cash cow for the city. However, "what happens after a while is, the community members look around and go, 'Ohmigosh, there are all these massage parlors! How did this happen? We need to shut them down,' and so then there's money on the way out. And the way they get money on the way out is, they fine them. They go and they do raids, they fine not only the owners but they fine the workers as well, and most of the time, those workers who are the ones that they say they want to study, that they want to help, are arrested." And at one point, that included DiAngelo herself.

Since adult performers are also sex workers, Doogan had invited performer Siouxsie Q James to talk to the assemblage, and one of her main concerns was the effect on sex workers of the SESTA/FOSTA legislation which was signed into law in 2018, but took effect in January of this year.

"I've been a sex worker since 2008," she stated. "I started in a strip club. I wanted to make more money so I started doing massages and escorting and things of that nature, and I felt incredibly empowered. I had this beautiful support system. I had all my platforms that allowed me to put space, time and distance between myself and somebody who might want to hurt me and would be able to get away with it. A turning point in the sex worker rights movement is what we honor on December 17, which is the Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, and that came out of a quote from someone who had victimized us. He said, 'I chose prostitutes because I knew I could kill as many as I wanted and get away with it,' and ironically that quote, from one of our most disgusting adversaries, has given us the proof that, no, bro, cop-bro, you don't protect us. We can't turn to you for safety. Serial killers are targeting our community because they know they can get away with it. So what do we do? What we've done up until January of this year was to use the internet."

Of course, that ability ended even before SESTA/FOSTA took effect, with escort sites and adult ad platforms closing down preemptively for fear of being busted as "sex traffickers," thanks to the new law's removing the protections that had been in place since the passage of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

"It was the internet's First Amendment, right?" she asked rhetorically. "It allowed us to have things like Craigslist, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, you name it; anything that involved user-uploaded content, and that included ads, that included message boards, bad date lists, all the ways that sex workers were able to organize and take care of each other because we can't go to the police. If we do go to the police, we won't be safe. So all these mechanisms kind of vanished overnight."

Siouxsie Q had an article on the effects of SESTA/FOSTA published on Rolling Stone's website, in which she wrote, "Sex workers have lost the lion's share of their advertising and screening options in the past year, as many sites that catered to the community simply shuttered when SESTA/FOSTA became law. Remaining visible has been a challenge due to a massive chilling of online speech related to all forms of sex, sexuality, and sexual health, along with a culture of community policing, that has resulted in bodies and stories that are already at the margins being further excluded, harassed, and silenced." However, she lauded AVN Media Network for having created its AVN Stars platform where performers and other sex workers can post photos and videos in areas where fans can subscribe and support their faves, as well as sites like FanCentro and OnlyFans which perform similar functions.

“SESTA/FOSTA has really decimated our community on both a physical and I think a spiritual level as well, a social level," Siouxsie Q told the gathering. "We communicate via the internet. The internet is a way that—it's magic, in a way, right? It's changed so many industries and it changed ours by making sure that so many of us can survive, and so pulling the plug on that is inhumane in this day and age. It is a violation of this community's rights and needs to be treated such." She lauded the Woodhull Freedom Foundation for filing a lawsuit against SESTA/FOSTA, and urged sex workers to contact their government representatives to let them know how devastating that law has been, and urge them to repeal it.

Following Siouxsie Q was Margaret Prescod, who gave some history of the sex workers' rights movement, which largely began in the late 1970s, but her main focus was on the number of sex workers who have been murdered by clients and serial killers.

"I think the Sacramento Bee did a story about hunting down hookers," she said, "and even that particular phrase, 'hunting down hookers,' tells you quite a lot. With the serial murders of black women in south Los Angeles that began in the 1980s, let me give some context for it. I was back east, I think I was in New York at the time the Hillside Strangler was killing sex workers mainly in the Los Angeles area. I heard about it in New York, but his first victim was actually a black woman, but he went on to kill white sex workers. We know a lot of white sex workers get killed and no attention given to it, but when we look at what happened in south Los Angeles, and repeated in Cleveland and in cities across the county, a black woman, an impoverished black woman gets killed, period. It's like that is not a news story, that's not relevant, much less a black sex worker."

Prescod called attention to the Tales of the Grim Sleeper documentary, particularly the part where she took the microphone from the Los Angeles Police Chief and talked about how sex worker murders were given very low priority—if they were even mentioned at all.

"Some of you may have heard of the case of the Grim Sleeper," she said. "There is a blog that noted that Lonnie Franklin was responsible for about 50 or so of those murders. Recently you also heard about the guy killing 200 women across the country but some of those women were in south Los Angeles. We knew they were not prioritizing the women; they didn't really give a damn. ... We did everything we could to bring attention to these murders, to campaign and fight for justice, and to get a reward established. ... We are working on a permanent memorial for the victims, a beautiful life-size bronze. They'll never be forgotten, because if the lives of these poor, black sex workers, crackheads, however you want to call them, don't count, neither do the lives of any of us."

Perhaps the speaker who'd traveled the furthest distance was Jessica Martinez, a former District of Columbia sex worker who now works for the aid group Helping Individual People Survive, and who attended and spoke at the District of Columbia City Council's 14-hour hearing on sex work decriminalization.

"I am Latina, I am trans, and I am educated," she began, "and I mention those things because they all inform me in the decisions that I make and the work that I do. When my organization decided to introduce the Community Health and Safety Act to the Judiciary and Health Committee in our city, the purpose was to try to bring out people from the most marginalized areas—black women, trans women, black trans women, Latino women, white women, women who work—and let me be clear: Sex work is work. I'm sure people in this room know that, but many people don't, and one thing that I think is the most important thing that anyone can do is to talk about how sex work is labor and how every woman's labor deserves to be valued."

Martinez went on to discuss how the sex workers' opponents at the hearing had little knowledge of what sex workers go through under the current laws, and how what knowledge they had was often highly flawed—such as believing that decriminalizing sex work would lead to more trafficking, and that it would encourage minors to engage in prostitution.

"I can't tell you how many people came out against this piece of legislation, talking about the Nordic model, which essentially has the sex worker who is selling sex incapable of being imprisoned, but the individual purchasing sex work is still criminalized, and what I hear when someone says that is, 'Well, I want you to be safer and I want all women to be safer but I don't want you to have money; I want you to suffer; I want you to be incapable of paying for your bills; I want you to be incapable of getting that education; I want you to be incapable of getting food on the table for your family because I still think there's something wrong about this.' ... And the longer that we continue to criminalize sex work is the longer that we are economically subjugating women to this oppressive patriarchal force that basically states that men own women and that a woman is to belong to a man."

But it took the evening's final speaker, US PROStitutes Collective's Rachel West, to bring the discussion back to part of the gathering's original intent, to talk about the bill recently signed into law, SB 233, "Immunity from arrest." The bill had been authored by State Sen. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco), and its effect was/is to allow sex workers who had been attacked and/or raped to be able to report such crimes to the police without fear of being arrested for prostitution.

After reiterating what previous speakers had said about how many sex workers plied that trade because they were living in poverty—"One out of 25 families in the U.S. are living on $2 a day," she stated—and that besides the attempts to get sex work decriminalized in D.C., that a similar bill was being floated in New York City, she discussed what she described as two "recent victories" in California. One traces its origins to 2014, when sex worker and human rights organizations got together to petition the San Francisco police and district attorney to adopt a policy that would prevent police from harassing and in some cases raping and beating up sex workers, and which included the essentials of SB 233—a policy that turned out to be difficult to get official agreement on.

"The sticking point [was] that the police did not want to have a policy that violence committed by law enforcement would be taken seriously, and it took years, two years of going back and forth," West related. "First they would agree to it, and then the Chief of Police would take it back, and finally we got really fed up and went to the press, and at the same time, there was this whole case that you probably heard about, of a young sex worker who was abused by 30 police officers, and when that came out in the press, it was like a massive story. That was just happening, and the police were resisting having the law enforcement piece in the policy, but finally, they did agree to it, and we got two policies from the city of San Francisco that were official policies saying that when a sex worker reports violence to the police, they cannot arrest her and the DAs cannot prosecute, and so that was a tremendous victory to get that."

The second victory was SB 233 itself, making the protections that had been agreed to in San Francisco to apply statewide.

"A number of us in the room—Maxine, Kristen—came up to Sacramento, and we did a lot of lobbying," West stated. "We came up to Sacramento many times, and one of the things we found that was really good was that we went there early, before the legislators' offices had actually read the bill, so we were introducing them to the bill and it was the first time they heard about it, and that really worked, because they took a look at it and said when it came to the floor, they were already familiar with it. It was very unusual for sex workers to be going into legislators' offices and they were quite shocked to hear from us, and it was good. And finally, the bill went through the Senate, it went through the committees, and then went through the Assembly, and the governor just signed it in August, so we now have a California-wide bill."

Another successful campaign that the sex worker groups and their allies ran was a revamping of the state's Victim Compensation Fund. West talked about a sex worker who was brutally attacked, but when she went to obtain compensation from the California Victims Compensation program, they told her, "Sorry, we have a regulation that excludes sex workers from getting compensation."

"We were terribly shocked; we didn't know that, that there was such blatant discrimination going on, and so it was Maxine's organization that put together a proper campaign to get rid of this discriminatory regulation," West explained. "And in the process of the campaign, we found out that formerly incarcerated people also were discriminated against in compensation; you come out of prison, you're on parole or probation, you get raped, and forget it; you also are excluded, and so we joined forces with all the incarcerated prisoner rights groups and fought for them as well, and it took us a year but we won the removal of the regulation from the Victim Compensation program and we also won rights for all the formerly incarcerated people to be able to get compensation."

After West completed her talk, Doogan opened the floor to questions, and the first one asked was whether religion and established churches had been a help or hindrance in getting sex workers' rights recognized. Most agreed that churches and their clergy could be helpful, especially when knowledgable sex workers approached the clergy to explain the workers' positions and the problems they were facing from both the police and the public. Martinez noted particularly that in D.C., "every church has a rainbow flag and #BlackLivesMatter, and ... these religious leaders in D.C. understand imprisonment, criminalization and incarceration, what that does, that it takes away opportunity... and part of what we argued is, we want to give women opportunities."

Prescod used the question to rag on the National Organization of Women, which she charged had mobilized a number of the anti-legalization protesters at the D.C. City Council meeting, and charged, "We can't just let them slide and get away with this mess because people are getting killed as a result of this. They have blood on their hands and we have to tell them, 'You have blood on your hands,' and when you're talking about criminalizing a client, then the fastest growing population of people going to prison in the United States today are who? Single mothers. Why the hell do you think that is? Okay? And they have their children being put into foster care and abused and sent over to these Christian fundamentalist families or whatever the hell it is they're doing, because we also know that there are pedophile rings in the child welfare system right here in California and across the country, and we're dealing with that, we're uncovering that, and so all I can say is, this stuff is interrelated, because if you're arrested, God forbid you say to somebody, 'You know, I gotta get home and pick up my kids.' No, you gotta have a plan, which is what we tell people. You gotta have a plan and somebody you can call who can get your kids before the cops get there, because you may never see your kids against after that. So this is just the reality of it. The church is an issue; I agree with that."

Another questioner asked whether traffickers would still be illegal under decriminalization laws, and several speakers assured that they would be.

"People from all across the United States, they said, if this bill passes, more women and children will be trafficked," Martinez noted, "but the first line of the bill says that this contract or contact has to be between two consenting adults over 18 years of age."

In response to another question about how clients would be affected by decriminalization, DiAngelo spoke about some of her own clients and their needs and how she serviced them.

"I have a lot of Vietnam veterans as clients, most with severe PTSD, very damaged," she said. "I provide a service that they need and that actually adds to their life.

"When people villainize our clients," she continued, "I'm going to be on the other side, saying, 'Uh-uh, you're wrong. The majority of them are amazing, amazing people who need affection or just need that connection. They aren't bad people. ... Criminalization of our clients does a disservice to the people who are being victimized, it does a disservice to the men in our communities, and it does a disservice to the unequal opportunities that some people face because of life experiences."

The final questioner was a sex worker who specializes in fetish/BDSM work, and who uses her earnings to pay her way through college, and who declared, "I do not like men. They hurt. They suck, and this work has made me love them again. This work has given me a little glimmer of hope that men could actually advocate for us, and through the work that I've done and interacted with, none of them are violent, and I'm immensely grateful I have never been a victim of violence in sex work. That is very rare on so many accounts."

In truth, this whole evening had been "very rare on so many accounts"—although the website The Observer noted that a similar gathering had recently been held in Boston, discussing similar issues and coming to similar conclusions.

Pictured, l-r: Rachel West, Margaret Prescod, Siouxsie Q, Jessica Martinez, Kristen DiAngelo, Maxine Doogan