Sex workers and their allies gathered in New Orleans recently for the 6th annual Desiree Alliance Conference. Last held in 2013, the conference is organized to help sex workers.

This year’s conference was about 50 percent bigger than the one held in Las Vegas three years ago. There were about 300 attendees, about three-quarters of whom were current or former workers. The rest were allies, like myself.

It is important for people to understand the sex worker’s rights movement. It is shaping up to be the next great civil rights effort in the United States and elsewhere. But there are lots of problems to overcome, here in Hawaii and around the world.

Many advocates in Hawaii have had problems with how local police and prosecutors go after prostitutes as a means to get to their pimps.

Some defend Hawaii’s laws on the theory that going after prostitutes will help identify and prosecute pimps. Sex worker advocates dispute the idea that all, or even most, sex workers have pimps or that the laws drawn up are a good way to approach the problems of those who do.

Civil Beat

Fears over human trafficking have been used to create a massive anti-prostitution moral crusade. Falsehoods about the nature of the industry are widely repeated, with sex workers seldom allowed access to media to rebut them. Broad-based laws that attack all sorts of harmless people have been passed and justified in the hysteria over trafficking.

Logically, rescuing a person from trafficking means getting them away from the trafficker. Sadly, in U.S. contexts, it means abolishing prostitution. An often self-serving rescue industry, funding for which is contingent on there being lots of trafficking victims to save, has grown around the country.

Although many people with good intentions have been drawn into these efforts, few of them actually understand the harm they are doing.

All sex workers want is the right to work safely and legally. Punish abuse by traffickers and others who do harm. Just leave the rest of the industry alone, please.

Harassment, Infantilization Of Workers

Hawaii’s laws aren’t as bad as some others. Still, they are a mess of contradictions and misunderstandings of fact. They are a reflection of a Legislature that seems disinterested in problem solving. Perhaps with the growing alliance for reform, things may start to change.

But many terrible practices unfortunately continue. Anti-trafficking laws are used against sex workers who attempt to work together to increase their safety. Since the need to show harm or abuse has been stripped from many of these statutes, women who are simply trying to work more safely can be charged as felony traffickers.

In Arizona sex workers are sentenced to months working outdoors in desert heat on chain gangs. A couple of years ago, one died as a result. Until recent court action, sex workers in Louisiana could be convicted for “crimes against nature,” if they agreed to certain types of sex. This felony charge landed those convicted on the sex offender registry.

A felony conviction creates a much longer prison sentence than those typically given sex workers. In Hawaii, a felony leads to over a year in jail, while most prostitution law convictions lead only to a 30-day sentence.

A particular bone of contention is the spread of the so called Nordic or Swedish model for dealing with sex work. The Swedes don’t arrest the sex worker, only the clients. This is described as some sort of “feminism,” but how is chasing away someone’s customers a form of support? The situation is worsened by making any method by which a sex worker can be safer into a felony.

It is reflective of the whole “rescue” mindset that infantilizes adult sex workers and minimizes their voices.

Special Concerns For Workers Of Color

This year’s Desiree Alliance Conference was deeply concerned with the struggle of African Americans and trans women of color. Each day included a keynote speech from a black or Hispanic sex worker or advocate; one day’s address was given in both Spanish and English.

I learned how black women out on the town in a short dress and high heels can expect to be stopped and harassed by police. White women, unless they are known streetwalkers, don’t have this problem. A black man shopping in a drug store with his own daughter can be the subject of security alerts on the assumption he is a pimp with a minor.

The last surviving trans women of those who were present in the Stonewall bar the night the famous LGBT riots started in 1969, was a conference keynoter. A film about her life was presented on one of the evenings. I hope it will be shown in Hawaii.

As a transgender woman, I participated in several trans-oriented breakouts. Young transwomen of color have organized in New Orleans and are doing great things there in the fight for sex workers. I heard a talk from a black trans man who is a part time sex worker. Despite my vast experience with sex worker and trans issues, this was a first for me.

An interesting roundtable discussion dealt with ways to communicate about your life in sex work and the industry in general with outsiders. Overcoming the vast amount of anti-prostitution propaganda that is circulating in the United States can be difficult.

There were over 80 interesting sessions in all. It is important to understand that the sex worker movement is not just about reforming laws. Many sex workers are highly educated and prepared high-quality sessions on a long list of topics.

That portends well for the future of this conference and the people it serves. The movement is still young with a long way to go, but by engaging our community and joining forces around shared goals, we can work toward a future with fewer misconceptions, where sex workers are free to do their jobs, safely and legally.

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About the Author

  • Tracy Ryan
    Tracy Ryan is executive director of Harm Reduction Hawaii, a non-profit whose mission is to educate and promote the use of harm reduction approaches to solving social problems, such as addiction and homelessness. Ryan has more than 20 years of experience working with persons in the sex industry, their problems and the law.