On Saturday afternoon, close to 200 sex workers and their allies attended a town hall in Brooklyn, New York, to hear Democratic Congressional candidate Suraj Patel and a panel of sex workers and activists discuss the sex workers’ rights movement. It’s the first known town hall to include sex workers in U.S. political history.
Patel’s campaign and Survivors Against SESTA organized the event. The panel and town hall focused on FOSTA/SESTA, legislation enacted in April that sex workers say drastically affects their ability to do their jobs safely. The bill amended section 230 of the Common Decency Act to hold websites liable for any third-party content that relates to the sex trade, with the intention of fighting sex trafficking. After the bill passed through the House and the Senate with an overwhelming majority, websites that sex workers use to post ads, screen clients, and get referrals have been completely shut down.
Patel is one of very few Democrat politicians to speak out against the legislation and openly support sex workers’ advocacy. Prominent progressive Democrats and presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Kamala Harris (D-Ca.), as well as Patel’s opponent in the New York primary, Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), supported the anti-sex trafficking legislation with no regard to how it would affect voluntary sex workers, many of whom are already susceptible to other marginalizing factors like economic hardship, immigration status, and being an ethnic minority or member of the LGBTQ community. Sex workers have criticized liberal politicians for ignoring their voices and advocacy.
In his 6-month campaign, Patel has already done the opposite.
“I don’t have the capacity to bury another fucking girl”
“We’re in this to protect the most voiceless and marginalized among us,” he said.
At Saturday’s event, Patel sat at the side of the stage taking notes, offering the spotlight instead to four activists and community organizers. Lola Balcon of Survivors Against SESTA led the panel, which included Aya Tasaki from Womankind, an agency that provides services to survivors of domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking, Cecilia Gentili from AIDS prevention and advocacy organization GMHC, and Ceyenne Doroshow, an activist in trans and sex workers’ rights movements and the founder of trans-inclusive LGBTQ organization GLITS.
The panelists spoke about what the sex workers’ rights movement looks like in a post-FOSTA/SESTA world, and why it felt momentous to have a politician listening to their stories.
“When I first met [Suraj] ... I got a hug. Right from there, you kind of know it’s not bullshit,” Doroshow said. “Suraj is not only transparent with his work, he’s transparent in how he wants to work with us,” she continued. “He’s actually asking us. He’s in the room with us.”
But the event was not entirely celebratory.
Through tears, Doroshow and Gentili, both of whom are trans women of color, spoke of the violence that’s plaguing their community, and how that violence is getting worse under the new legislation.
“Our community is getting raped, beaten and killed,” Doroshow said. “I don’t have the capacity to bury another fucking girl.”
Gentili said that a trans woman in her neighborhood, Jackson Heights, was stabbed nine times and was too afraid to go to the hospital because of her immigration status and profession.
“That’s what FOSTA/SESTA is doing,” she said.
Tasaki pointed out that potential allies ― whether they are media, politicians or community organizers ― ought to better understand why members of the community may be hesitant to report instances of violence, and why sex workers’ rights should still be taken seriously even if there isn’t always hard evidence about the number of sex workers affected by violence and harmful legislation.
“What we are demanded by all of these funders and politicians is ‘give us numbers,’” she said. “Somehow still the system is requiring us to bulk [this violence] up with numbers ... Just trust us.”
Given that sex workers are often already members of marginalized groups, reporting violent crime to the police is not guaranteed to be a safe option ― and not just because law enforcement members are often predatory themselves.
Gentili spoke of her experience as a trans woman immigrant, who for a long time was also undocumented. She reminded attendees that the immigration status makes a person both more vulnerable to predation and less eager to go to law enforcement ― especially under an administration that has staunchly defended its extreme border patrolling.
A turning point for the community
While sex workers have historically been skeptical of both politicians and mainstream media (for good reason), the town hall with Patel’s campaign marks an exciting turning point in the sex workers’ rights movement.
“We have the opportunity to turn the page on a really, really disgusting past,” Patel said on Saturday. He cited the issue of sex trafficking being conflated with voluntary sex work, and said that his potential future colleagues in Congress failed both sex trafficking victims and voluntary sex workers when they passed FOSTA/SESTA so quickly.
“Democrats fell for this trap like they do every time,” he said, acknowledging what many activist groups have already pointed out: human trafficking is an issue much larger than just sex trafficking, and removing online spaces for the sex trade makes trafficking victims and voluntary sex workers more susceptible to violence but pushing both communities offline and underground.
Many of Patel’s responses at the town hall drew applause and cheers, and sex workers and their allies were notably moved by his commitment to their cause.
“I dreamt, 20 years ago, that a politician would sit with me and listen to me talk about sex work,” Gentili said.
“We are going to destigmatize this profession and elevate your voices,” Patel promised. “The stigma around sex work ends now.”
CORRECTION: This piece previously identified Womankind as a domestic violence survivors group. It is an agency that provides services to survivors of sexual and domestic violence and human trafficking.