How L.A. Activists and Allies Are Fighting to End Violence Against Sex Workers

Activists gathered to read the names of 200 sex workers who lost their lives last year—but remembrance is just part of their mission

Gathered in a meeting room at an East Los Angeles healthcare center, activists pass around a cellphone from which they read names, one by one. There are a lot of names on the list they’re looking at—over 200—and it takes more than 20 minutes to memorialize the each of the sex workers who’ve died around the world this year. It’s an emotional ritual, you can hear it in voices that grow quieter as the remembrance continues. In the end, there are hugs and tears.

Surrounding the group are artworks that were made last year as part of a Vision Quilt project that focused on gun violence and sex workers. One poster-sized piece depicts a stiletto-heel clad foot stepping on a wad of cash and reads “Stigma Kills!” Another succinctly states “Let Us Survive.”

December 17 is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, a day of both solemn remembrance and activism. The commemoration began in 2004 when the founders of the Sex Workers Outreach Project and sex educator, artist and activist Annie Sprinkle joined forces to remember the victims of the Green River Killer, a number of whom were sex workers. For the members and allies of SWOP’s Los Angeles chapter, it’s one of their most important days of the year. SWOP’s list of the deceased is compiled from submissions of loved ones as well as from news sources. In all likelihood, the list is far from complete.

Sex work is broadly defined, and includes everything from go-go dancing to escort services, and, for some individuals, jobs might overlap. Similarly, the types of violence that a worker might face vary not just based on the sort of work performed, but also factors like race, gender identity, class, and immigration status.

“The needs of this community are varied because there are so many different kinds of people who make it up and violence impacts them all differently,” says Zooey Zara, director of SWOP-LA and a member of SWOP USA’s Board of Directors.

Liz Ohanesian

Violence can also include the institutional variety. SWOP focuses on harm reduction. “Our approach to harm reduction is within a sex worker’s network, specifically is around the legal archetype of decriminalization,” says Zara. “We believe that reducing harm for sex workers means taking away the criminality of it. ” They also have a program, SWOP Behind Bars, that supports incarcerated sex workers. On December 17, the group here wrote holiday cards to incarcerated sex workers.

Several new pieces of legislation have had an effect on sex workers across the U.S. and in California. On the federal level, Trump signed the SESTA/FOSTA package of bills into law last year. Sex workers are already feeling the brunt of this controversial law. “SESTA/FOSTA turned people’s worlds upside down,” Zara says. Touted as a means of ending sex trafficking, the law hinders the ability of sex workers to both advertise and organize online, taking away networks that had developed to protect people on the job in various ways, like sharing information about harmful clients. “All of that information about dangerous clients was no longer legal,” says Lauren Levitt, a member of SWOP-LA and a PhD candidate at USC studying sex worker support networks.

Zara points out that even SWOP-LA’s website was suspended in the aftermath of SESTA/FOSTA.

Meanwhile, California passed SB233, for which SWOP was a co-sponsor. In addition to providing “immunity from arrest” for sex workers who are victims or witnesses of a “serious felony,” it bars condoms as evidence of alleged misdemeanors related to prostitution.

Joining SWOP-LA on this evening were representatives from Free Speech Coalition and Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, both of which work in connection with the adult entertainment industry. “I’m here to show solidarity with all sex workers and to build a coalition to engage in the fight for decriminalization in the state of California,” says Riley Reyes of APAC.

“Trying to prevent violence in workplace interactions is one of the main drives for my work that I have at FSC,” says adult performer Lotus Lain. This includes educating performers on their rights.

“In our industry, [violence] largely goes unreported because people don’t want to lose work,” Lain adds. “Their fear is of being blacklisted.”

“The only options are going to the police, who won’t take you seriously, or a big messy Twitter call-out that’s bad for your brand,” says Reyes. “Or you can do nothing.” Both FSC and APAC are working toward another option. They aim to collaborate with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on standards that will help people report workplace violence and hold perpetrators accountable.

Ending violence against sex workers is a monumental task. “To end violence against sex workers, we need to get rid of all systems of oppression. Nothing short of that will do it,” says Levitt. That means tackling racism, sexism transphobia, homophobia and they myriad overlapping issues. “Sex work,” Levitt adds, “is an intersectional issue.”

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