By Allyn Gaestel, Paradigm Shift Staff Writer
Sex work advocates from around New York gathered at The Tank March 30 for a wide-ranging conversation on human rights, feminism and sex work in New York and internationally. The audience started out quiet. Christina Cicchelli, a porn actress and panelist asked the room “How many of you watch porn?” The whole panel raised their hands, but few audience members did. Cicchelli responded, “In your mind I’m sure you’re saying ‘yes!’ But you can’t raise your hand right now.”
The panelists each introduced themselves and spoke of their individual work as sex work advocates. Experts ranged from lawyers to youth advocates and media liaisons. Later, as the question and answer period warmed up, audience members asked provocative questions that took the panel in new directions. One question was about what all these activists and advocates were working for, what were their long term goals, and what would the sex work industry look like if they could have it how they want.
The responses demonstrated the specific emphases the panelists have in their work, but the overriding theme—one that fits so perfectly with the question of the links between feminism, human rights and sex work—was that a utopian world for sex work would be linked to a utopian world for everyone, with justice across the employment sector, equality in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation and respect for youth. The responses were inspiring and quotes are located below.
This is a central issue for those interested in any movement building, it’s not a question of empowering one group or making specific changes for a certain population. Rather, everything is linked, and all of society must be engaged in movements to push through positive change. For exploited sex workers to be empowered, they must have options in and outside of the sex industry, and for sex workers by choice to do their job in peace, society must break down the barriers of stigma and criminalization.
Audacia Ray works for the International Women’s Health Coalition, is a respected author and co-founder of Sex Work Awareness.
“For me that question is larger than just what the sex industry would look like, it’s a question of what employment would look like. I would like to, in my wildest dreams, see a world where people can be compensated for all different kinds of work in a way that gives them actual real choice about how they want to spend their working days…I would like to see a world where women and trans people are able to get good employment and good wages in parts of the world and work that is not the sex industry and be really truly be able to choose between sex industry work and other work”
Christina Cicchelli writes for $pread magazine in addition to her work in porn and other industries.
“As a current sex worker let me tell you what my world is going to look like….Small things could ultimately change the way that we talk about sex work. In the beginning I told you, really I can only talk about pornography. In a different world I could tell you about other professions without feeling as if I’m going to get incriminated against by somebody in the audience or somebody listening, that is a big difference in terms of the way that we can even have this discussion with people who are currently in sex work.
And as someone who is currently running her own business, a big thing that I’m learning about is even finding ways of selling my content without breaking any laws…if you’ve ever used paypal or godaddy things that you would normally use just to sell your business, for me it would take much longer and it would cost me more in the end because of the work I do. Granted, it might be legal in some states, and granted in society’s mind pornography isn’t really thought of as having any of those particular issues, but for me just being somebody who has been in the porn industry and has started out I can tell you that the way I handle my business, it’s discriminatory. I’m not doing anything wrong, and yet I can’t…function like a normal entrepreneur.
I think what we’re all working towards is really just trying to find equality in terms of the choices that we have and be able to talk about sex work in a way that isn’t going to be incriminating and in a way that isn’t going to prevent us from living our lives to the fullest and making those choices that ultimately make us happy.”
Will Rockwell is a youth advocate and editor of $pread magazine
“’Ideally’ is such a huge question, and I like how Audacia framed it in terms of how the sex industry in a utopian vision would be part of different changes in the world around economic, racial, and gender justice.
I think ideally we would start incorporating young people into the vision too, not to assume that every young person is sexually exploited, but to assume that perhaps it’s a more complicated story and until there are those options […] to choose more empowering paths or different paths as opposed to the limited choices many of us who started young were left with, which is to say a ‘choice among limited choices.’ Still, every choice under post-industrial capitalism is a choice among limited choices, and those options would have to include, in this ‘utopian’ universe, a place to sleep, regular pay, non-minimum wage job, an end to racist, sexist, and transphobic occupational discrimination […] Definitely, I think a practical step to take right now is to incorporate more into the movement a vision of what we’re doing to help young people who work, too, and to address their self-determined needs, whether it is improved working conditions, an end to criminalization, or a safe exit from the industry.”
Sienna Baskin is an attorney at the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center
“People usually come to me when they have a problem, because I’m a lawyer, and it’s a sex work problem, because it’s for the sex workers project. So mostly people are not having their best day when they come to me. But every once in a while I have someone who comes to me and says “I have a problem, but let me just tell you one thing first, I love sex work, I love it, I tried being a psychotherapist, didn’t like it, I love it, it’s what I want to do” and they just want to make that clear. I wish every client felt that way and that we lived in a world where everyone felt that way about their jobs and that they just love their jobs. And I think that’s a bigger, broader change in capitalism…we need to make that happen.
Another thing I would love is if people could put their sex work jobs on their resumes when trying to get other jobs. When I often talk to people about employment discrimination and they [say] “I have to…hide the fact and hope that no one finds out the fact that my work experience is in sex work.” But there are so many transferable skills and I wish that that could be recognized and people could talk about all the great skills they now have that could be applied to other kinds of work.
And then in doing policy work on the federal level, on the state level, I realize that sex workers are the last thing its OK to discriminate against, it’s OK to throw under the bus. And if you really want to get the votes out or get elected again, just make a law against sex work—another one, even though it’s already illegal. I would love a world where sex workers are recognized as a really formidable constituency and every law that you’re trying to pass you have to think ‘well how might this impact my sex work constituency and I should really talk to them about it and make sure they’re on board.’”
Maryse Mitchell-Brody is co-founder of Sex Workers Action New York
“I want a world with access, whether that means access to condoms, access to choice, access to housing, also access to justice, whatever that means for individuals and not necessarily [through] what I call the criminal legal system (not the criminal justice system) because I don’t think people experience much justice there.
We really are talking about what we’re against, but we’re up against an awful lot. I want to see more collectivizing and solidarity in sex worker communities…I’ve seen a lot of amazing solidarity and I’ve seen folks not always having each other’s backs as much as I’d hope. So I want a world in which it’s safe for people to have each other’s backs because it doesn’t mean you going hungry that night.”
There is a lot to change to make a just world for sex workers, but the links between sex work advocacy and broader social issues can inspire solidarity between movements to move the process forward.