Q&A with the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Pittsburgh Chapter About Stigmatization, Support, and Safety

Content Note: sexual violence, erasure, sex shaming, criminal justice

Last month, I shared a link on my social media channels to an article that I mistakenly thought was lifting up the voices of Women of Color around sex trafficking. I was called out on the link by several people and realized that I had fallen for a very common bait and switch tactic conflating sex work with human trafficking.

After removing the link, I reached out to Pittsburgh’s chapter of the Sex Worker Outreach Project and asked for help understanding how my good intentions (I support and stand with sex workers) had led me to make a problematic choice.  There’s more to my story, but I’m going to save that for another post because Jessie from SWOP graciously agreed to complete this Q&A to help us all learn to do better.

So I did remove the link, I did take steps to educate myself & share accurate information, and I made a $50 donation to SWOP Pittsburgh chapter to in some small way offset the harm I may have caused, intentionally or not. There’s a link below where you can make a donation, too.

I am deeply sorry that I didn’t catch the error before I shared it and regret any harm or confusion I may have caused.

Your Name: Jessie Sage

Your Age: 41

Your Pronouns: she / her

Your Affiliation with SWOP Co-Founder and Organizer

How do you describe your identity? Queer femme, writer, feminist, mom

What specifically is sex work? Sex work is an umbrella term that includes all erotic services for money: prostitution, escorting, sugaring, stripping, sex camming, pornography, phone sex operation, etc.

As an umbrella term it is intentionally broad in order to capture the variety of erotic labor that folks are doing. Many people also consider sex work to be a political identity. All sex work, regardless of whether or not it is legal, shares stigmatization.

What is SWOP? SWOP stands for the Sex Workers Outreach Project which is a national social justice network dedicated to the fundamental human rights of people involved in the sex trade and their communities; focusing on ending violence and stigma through education and advocacy. We are one chapter of a larger national network, which started in 2003. The Pittsburgh chapter started in January of 2018.

How does consensual sex work differ from sex trafficking? Why is it important to make that distinction? Sex trafficking is broadly defined as human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, and involves coercion, and sometimes violence, at the hands of a third-party. Sex work often occurs under a range of different conditions that often involve some combination of choice, situational necessity and coercion. When we are talking about sex trafficking we are talking about the most coercive forms of sex work occurring at the hands of a third-party. But it is also important to recognize that often victims of trafficking may return to sex work under different conditions. It is unfortunate when trafficking victims are pitted against sex workers because the work we are doing is aimed at providing harm reduction for trafficking victims and sex workers alike. We wish that there were better safety resources for those in the industry and those wanting to exit the industry.

There is a long history, particularly in second wave feminism, of assuming that women (though folks of all genders engage in sex work) cannot consent to sex work, thus robbing sex workers of agency and silencing them when they talk about their own working conditions, thus flatting all sex workers to victims.

This does a disservice to trafficking victims and consensual sex workers alike. Sex workers and victims of trafficking need rights and resources. And trafficking victims need resources and the distinction often serves to designate who is worthy of moral regard. Neither benefit from the criminalizations that they both face under the current justice system.

SWOP challenges violence and stigma with education and advocacy. Please expand on how violence and stigma manifest in the everyday lived experiences of sex workers in contrast to what is depicted in media.

Threats of violence and stigma impact the everyday experiences of sex workers. While criminalized sex workers face more danger,  all sex workers are routinely pushed off the online spaces that make their work safe; they have their bank accounts shut down and their funds seized; they are unable to report rape and assault without threats of violence at the hands of police; they are often on the losing end of custody battles; and they lose their non sex work jobs when their history in the sex industry is discovered. Sex workers often sit at the intersection of multiple vectors of marginalizations (race, disability, class, gender, sexual orientation) and as such face all of the other stigma that face marginalized folks.

Unlike the media stereotype of sex workers as sexual outlaws, most sex workers are quietly going about their lives, trying to make a living under capitalism, while being constantly oppressed by stigma and criminalization.

What are some of your education and advocacy tools? Do you offer direct support to sex workers? We are a new and small organization here in Pittsburgh, but we are working to build coalitions with other more established organizations within Pittsburgh, like the ACLU, the Women’s Law Project, Planned Parenthood, Fair Moans Collective, TransYOUniting, etc. At this point we have a support group for current and former sex workers, and are working to build a more extensive resource list that would include legal, therapeutic, medical, and accounting services, among other things.

What does decriminalizing sex work mean? Quite simply, decriminalization calls for the removal of all criminal penalties for sex worker and their clients. While some countries have moved to what is commonly called “The Nordic Model,” named after the countries where it originated, which decriminalizes sex workers, but criminalizes their clients. A new study shows that violence against sex worker went up after the Nordic model was enacted.

Decriminalization is also distinguished from legalization, which would regulate the work of sex workers. Most sex workers advocate decriminalization and not legalization. Sex worker face widespread harassment and abuse at the hands of cops, where rape is an investigation tactic, and trafficking victims are often arrested and deported. Involving law enforcement in the lives of sex workers has proven harmful to sex workers, not helpful. It is for this reason that sex workers don’t advocate for the legalization and subsequent regulation of sex work.

What would a robust, safe, and healthy sex working economy look like in the framework of capitalism that we have in the United States? This is a hard question to answer, in the same way that it would be hard to answer for any sector of the economy. In late stage capitalism, most people experience significant economic pressure that can be understood as coercive. Sex work is no different here.

Like other sectors of the economy, it is important to be able to self-organize to share resources and develop services informed by the community itself. Last year the Desiree Alliance, a harm reduction education conference  was cancelled, fearing that sex work organization post SESTA would put their attendees at risk.. We need to be able to meet and organize. We need money and other resources to direct on our own efforts.

Sex work is labor, in the same way that other forms of work are labor. When talking about issues of sex work, we should frame them as labor issues and understand that under capitalism people make all sorts of decisions about how to make money to make ends meet.

How does intersectionality inform your work? Intersectionality is extraordinarily important. Sex workers often are impacted by multiple forms of marginalization. Queer, disabled, trans, poor, and folks of color are disproportionately represented in sex work. Some of the reasons for this are obvious. Folks who are shut out of conventional employment because of systemic discrimination can find work in sex work. But also, folks who need flexible schedules because of medical condition, care taking, etc. can find flexibility in sex work that is often absent from traditional jobs.

Given that there sex workers are often dealing with multiple forms of marginalization it is important to understand how the intersections of these impact our community. For example, trans sex workers and sex workers or color face the consequences of criminalization more than their cis and white counterparts. Moreover, the criminalization of sex work is a way to keep marginalized people down. Criminalization is patriarchal, transphobic, and racist at its core.  When organizing, we work to make sure that we are fighting with and for those who are most heavily policed and punished.

SWOP Pittsburgh
Sex Work is a Queer Issue

In the LGBTQ community, we hear the term “survival sexwork” to describe choices made by some members of our community who are homeless or lack family support, especially youth and teens who are turned out of their homes. One solution is to reduce stigma around queer and trans identities so youth have homes and food. How would decriminalizing sex work help this particular group of individuals who may or may not choose sex work if their identity was respected and valued? Absolutely. Part of the problem with the criminalization of sex work is that it means that when sex worker are abused, raped, and assaulted they have no place to turn. If rape victims admit to previously consenting to sex for money, their claims of rape/abuse are dismissed. Even those who are trafficked cannot report crimes against them without being arrested and/or deported, depending on their circumstances. Queer and trans kids who are pushed by circumstance into sex work are placed in an even worse position when they have no recourse for their own abuse. This is one of the reasons sex workers rights organizations, such as SWOP, fights so hard for decriminalization. Another important point here is that sex work is better money than other things, speaking to broader issues of what, and who our society values.

In Pittsburgh, what dedicated resources are available to current and former sex workers through publicly and privately funded organizations – the anti-violence groups, the human service organizations, the sex positive agencies, the feminist activists, etc? TransYOUniting and Fair Moans are working to create/be safe space. Persad gives us space and is actively working to be inclusive of sex workers. The Women’s Law Project, the Pittsburgh DSA, and Planned Parenthood have been strong allies. But there is a near total lack of sex worker led services. These things just aren’t being funded.

And what resources would you like to see these organizations providing to sex workers? Counseling services, legal representation, housing, job training, etc.

A lot of this seems tied up in our typical contorted views on human sexuality – the tropes like women being divided into the Madonna/whore binary, men having ‘needs’ that they can’t control, policing sexual activity as an indicator of identity (girls who have sex with men not being ‘permitted’ to call themselves lesbians, transphobic bashing, etc.) So many of us are survivors of sexual violence that perhaps we mistakenly assume everyone is a potential victim in need of being saved from themselves rather than a professional working person in need of safe, healthy working conditions? This seems right to me. I think that there is a way in which folks outside of the sex trades project their own distaste for sex work on to sex workers, believing that they would never choose to do sex work, therefore others wouldn’t either. This is at best, patronizing, and at worst, downright dangerous, when it refuses to listen to the voices of sex worker who are expressing what they need to be safe in their jobs. There is a reason why sex workers have pushed back against the “Rescue Industry” by loudly screaming “nothing about us without us.”

Do you have data on sex workers either in the region or nationally? Do we know the economics of sex work?Not really. more importantly, there’s a profound lack of transparency from the police on sex worker arrests and on the PRIDE diversionary program as well as on sexual contact in policing. We should demand annual reporting.

Is there anything else I should have asked? What laws need to be changed in PA.

PA has an unusual “instruments of crime” statute that police consistently use to trump up solicitation charges (which isn’t even an arrestable offense). Historically, condoms have been treated as an IoC. Now they are targeting cell phones. Police should treat solicitation as the low level misdemeanor it is.

Also, police should report on whether so-called sex trafficking arrests actually yield trafficking charges.

How can readers invest in and support your work?


Editor’s Note – please consider a donation if you can. It will go to through the national 501c3 SWOP, but will be designated for Pittsburgh. Any amount, even just $2.00, can help. 

Where can readers find you on social media? What are some hashtags interested readers can follow?https://swopusa.org/Twitter: @PghSWOPInstagram: @swop_pghFacebook: facebook.com/PghSWOP/

You can find me at:

Twitter: @sapiotextual

Website: jessiesage.com

Thank you, Jessie!SWOP Pittsburgh


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