Bay Area Sex Workers Speak Out About Dangerous Conditions

Activists say Congress has targeted sex workers and curbed their rights while putting them at an increased risk of trafficking and violence.

By Veronica Irwin

When Trixie Mehreban scrolls through her Facebook feed, it is not uncommon for her to see the dead or missing faces of women she used to know.

Sex workers face an increased risk of trafficking, abuse, and criminalization since the passage of FOSTA/SESTA, a congressional package signed into law in April 2018. 

The two Senate and House bills — the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) — make web providers liable for users who knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking. 

However, the definition of what constitutes “support” of sex trafficking is unclear, leading online platforms where sex workers advertise to close for fear of federal prosecution. 

A number of activist groups and licensed massage therapist Eric Koszyk filed a lawsuit saying the bill creates a “chilling effect” on speech protected by the First Amendment. 

The case was dismissed, and plaintiffs appealed the decision. Oral arguments appealing the district judge’s dismissal were heard in September and the district court will make a decision on the appeal in the coming weeks.

“I’ve worked with women who have been killed,” says Mehreban, a senior undergraduate linguistics major at UC Berkeley who has been working in the sex industry for over six years. She references a private Facebook group run by sex workers, where members often share the news of colleagues passing. Though there’s no published statistics on increased violence against sex workers in the Bay Area, she says “the number of deaths people tell each other about has skyrocketed.”

St. James Infirmary, an occupational health and safety clinic which releases “bad date” reports recording violence against sex workers, has witnessed a similar trend. “We have had an increased amount of bad date list reports this year and an increase in the number of workers on the street directly after the passage of FOSTA/SESTA,” says Outreach Manager Celestina Pearl. 

Sex workers who can afford it have turned to advertising on websites based outside the U.S., and are still able to use conventional background checking services to screen clients. Dominatrix and sex-worker activist Ckiara Rose, who used her stage name for this interview, says she’s mainly turned to sites like Melbourne-based Switter to publicize herself and support her family. Mehreban says she uses background services like CheckMate that cost a total of about $40 per month to screen her clients’ legal history. 

“They know we basically don’t have a choice,” says Rose. “I know of many women who have to walk the streets because they can’t afford [advertising and background services].”

Even the background checks some workers can afford aren’t consistently useful.  Many workers don’t report attackers to the police because they fear being arrested themselves for doing sex work. Violent offenders sometimes target sex workers for precisely this reason. These offenders, though a risk to workers, don’t have criminal reports on their background checks. 

Before FOSTA/SESTA, many American sex workers used free, community-led forums which allowed sex workers to leave Yelp-like reviews for clients, like Redbook and VerifyHim. However, most of these sites have shut down part of or all of their sites for fear of federal prosecution, leaving many workers ignorant to their client’s often un-reported violent history. Many sex workers argue that this makes them even more vulnerable to violence, including sex trafficking, than before.

“A trafficked person is now less likely to connect with people who have information,” Mehreban tells SF Weekly. “It’s made it harder for us to help ourselves, and it’s made it easier for other people to ignore us.”

Many organizations have rallied to address the effects of FOSTA/SESTA on sex worker’s health and safety in past year. With workers needing to find and screen clients in-person, assault, theft, and arrest have become more serious threats, especially for low-income workers or those with criminal records who can’t afford a legal battle. 

Bay Area Workers Support (BAWS), created in the weeks after FOSTA/SESTA, provides spaces for workers to meet and share their resources, connects workers with emergency medical and psychiatric services, and organizes local rallies for sex workers’ safety.

Sex Worker Integrated Support and Health (SWISH) in Oakland collaborates with BAWS to create a broad, international resource network “by and for sex workers” according to their site, as opposed to agencies that can further criminalize or pathologize the community. Because of SWISH, there are now “safer sex distribution boxes,” throughout the city of Oakland, with condoms, resources, and snacks for workers. 

There is also a push among activists to partner with LGBTQ rights, criminal justice reform, and anti-racism efforts, and to make the fight representitive of the diverse sex work community. Activists like Mehreban argue that largely white sex worker organizations present a barrier to women of color getting involved by not including their input. Activist Carol Leigh  asks research groups, “Who is being arrested? Men of color? I don’t see any of that intersectional analysis within the context of actually looking at who’s targeted by police enforcement.” 

In reaction to the silencing effect FOSTA/SESTA has on their speech, many activists are also fighting back simply by going public about their experiences in the industry through interviews and social media. “A lot more people have come out, and people are seeing that their daughters and sons and nieces and nephews are in this industry, whereas they didn’t know that before” says Ckiara Rose. 

Rose adds, “Although there has been a big increase in violence against sex workers, because we’re being pushed out onto the streets, there is a pro to it: the activism is a lot stronger, and we’re coming out of hiding.”

If the courts rule in favor of activists and declare FOSTA/SESTA unconstitutional, sex workers might be able to once again use online forums to share information, advertise, and otherwise engage with the community. However, the plaintiffs may be unsuccessful, and sex workers will be forced to continue facing safety risks if they want to continue working. General Program Counsel for the Woodhull Freedom Foundation and First Amendment lawyer Lawrence Walters warns that FOSTA/SESTA isn’t going to be the first or last case of law which endangers sex workers in the U.S. 

“It looks like it’s more of a beginning in terms of what sex workers are going to have to deal with,” he says. “You’re now seeing bills that focus on bank accounts, and other efforts to marginalize sex workers and keep them out of participating in normal processes like getting bank accounts and using the internet.” 

However, in anticipation of the court’s ruling, he remains hopeful. “Sex workers have found their voice as a result of FOSTA,” he says. “It may ironically result in more people paying attention and some changes in policy that might not have occurred had FOSTA not become a reality.”

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