Last year, Hacking Hustling, a collective of sex workers, survivors, and accomplices working at the intersection of tech and social justice, hosted a conference on how sex workers are organizing around digital barriers to bring about policy change.
Sex workers are adults who receive money or other forms of compensation in exchange for consensual sexual services. Sex work includes so many forms of labor, and can look like: webcamming, pornography, street work, brothel work, erotic dancing, escorting, private services and so much more.
There are many reasons why adults do sex work, whether it is their main livelihood, a temporary means to survive, or an opportunity to supplement other income. However, when someone is forced or coerced into sex work, this is human trafficking, a crime that occurs across many labor sectors.
While there is no federal law banning sex work, the in-person exchange of sex for money is a criminal act in most U.S. states. Many sex workers and activists have been pushing for decriminalization for years to ensure the safety and autonomy of sex workers worldwide.
In honor of International Sex Workers’ Day, observed earlier this summer in June, we’re recapping highlights from this amazing conference, “Informal, Criminalized, Precarious: Sex Workers Organizing Against Barriers,” hosted by Hacking Hustling last year.
From “Sex Work as Work” to Sex Work as Anti-Work
In a seminal essay for Jill Nagle’s book, Whores and other Feminists, Carol Leigh famously told the world: sex work is work. Long understood by the many sex workers before her, this was a revolutionary idea for the time. This was the late 1990s when progressive views on sex and sexuality incited a generational culture war.
femi babylon, an erotic labor theorist, believes that attempts to legitimize sex work as work play into respectability politics and a desire to conform. femi notes, “I have grown to dislike the phrase sex work is work because of where it places emphasis: on waged work, on assimilating. It reminds me of racial integration or representation/inclusivity politics — it’s half-assed reform, it doesn’t get us to the root of the thing. The thing is capitalism. Why would we want sex work to be work?”
For those like femi, sex work is a lucrative alternative when conventional wage labor lacks flexibility, adequate compensation, or accommodations. In this panel, LoreleiLee, a sex worker activist, chats with femi babylon, Madeline Marlowe, and Kittle Milford about sex work as an anti-work strategy. (Watch the full session here.)
Sexual Gentrification: An Internet Sex Workers Built
Who does the internet belong to? From the beginning, sex workers were early adopters of platforms like Backpage, Craigslist, Eros, and more recently OnlyFans. Despite the essential role that sex workers played in growing these websites and other internet spaces, tech companies and local policymakers are pushing sex workers off of the very platforms they helped to build.
Content moderation, algorithmic profiling, surveillance, discrimination, and shadow banning are all tactics used to displace sex workers — or those suspected to be sex workers — from the internet. There’s a term for this intentional sanitization: digital gentrification and some say it’s making the internet less democratic.
Before the internet, sex workers used creative, analog methods to find and screen clients. Melissa Grant, staff writer at the New Republic, recalls how Greek sex workers evaded police. “To attract customers, Greek prostitutes would score a word on the bottom of their sandals, so that when they walked it would leave a trail and customers would know where to find them. It sounds so rudimentary, but think of all the different ways that sex workers have tried to exist in public space when they weren’t wanted, and all the coded ways that sex workers use public space — including the internet — to find people.”
Danielle Blunt, a professional Dominatrix, said it best: “Technology drives the visibility of sex work and then the visibility of sex work drives further policing and criminalization.” In this panel, Danielle speaks with Sinnamon Love, Melissa Grant, and Daisy Ducati about how sex workers continue to innovate around digital gentrification. (Watch the full session here.)
Sex Worker Activism: Lessons from Decriminalization Campaigns in the U.S.
“We don’t just want a policy win,” Michael Cox, Executive Director of Black and Pink Massachusetts explains, “we’re also trying to build a movement that allows our community to be better off for having fought this fight.” DecrimMA understands that justice for sex workers is also connected to affordable housing, universal income and healthcare — all integral to true public safety.
As Open Society Foundations says, “Decriminalization refers to the removal of all criminal and administrative prohibitions and penalties on sex work, including laws targeting clients and brothel owners. It differs from legalization, which is a legislative regime characterized by significant regulations — many of which can limit rights and protections, create mechanisms for abuse by authorities, and have other negative impacts on sex workers.”
While wins like decriminalization wins are hard to come by, movement leaders like Lakeesha Harris are learning the value of building a grassroots movement. “The legalization of sex work puts the most marginalized at the mercy of the state,” she explains, drawing parallels to the legalization of marijuana where 90% of the cannabis industry is controlled by White operators, while BIPOC people remain heavily policed for association with the same product. “Black trans women and immigrants are not likely to get certification; it will still be a capitalist system where White men make money.”
White supremacy sits at the root of the earliest anti-sex work laws here and abroad. In many ways, the fight to decriminalize sex work is also a fight for safe and just working conditions. (Watch the full session here.)
Paige Curtis is the Culture & Communications Manager at the Boston Ujima Project.