By Zoé Samudzi, UCSF Researcher & Social Psychologist
This past Labor Day weekend, over 200 people assembled in San Francisco’s Harvey Milk Plaza to recognize the labor of individuals whose work is frequently not considered “legitimate,” sex workers.
The rally – organized by Mark Sade, a member of San Francisco’s BDSM community – mobilized sex workers, sex work advocates and activists primarily in response to the recent federal shutdown of Rentboy.com and in support of the industry’s decriminalization.
Rentboy.com is an online platform that was used to advertise and promote male escorting services. On August 25, the Justice Department raided Rentboy’s headquarters in New York City.
The Department of Homeland Security and NYPD characterized the site as an “internet brothel” and justified the asset freeze and arrest of CEO Jeffrey Hurant and six other employees by alleging the website was a front for gay prostitution.
Rather than serve as a front for an otherwise illegal activity, Lance Navarro – a sex worker and therapist who spoke at the rally – said the website “provided a safe place where people could openly advertise [their services] versus having to work on the streets or advertise on sites like Craigslist.”
The website also gave male escorts “an opportunity to communicate with one another,” providing a safer community among sex workers.
Beyond negatively impacting the income of men who previously used the service to advertise to potential clients, the shutdown also critically impacted an important social network that many of these men relied upon for friendship and discussions with fellow workers in the industry.
“The internet really is a key way in which sex workers can access some type of protection and screening,” shared Siouxsie Q., a sex worker-activist and SF Weekly columnist. “When things go awry, sex workers can’t really go to the police.”
Because sex work is illegal, sex workers are unable to report physical and sexual violence to police without fear of further violations by the state. Incidentally, many sex workers fear the police far more so than their clients.
For these reasons, sex workers rallying around the world are calling for the full decriminalization of sex work.
In August, Amnesty International crucially voted to adopt institutional policy on the decriminalization of sex work, bringing sex workers’ rights – and the recognition of sex work as work – further to the forefront of human rights discussions.
While many of those attending this rally were queer men, it is not just queer male identities that are marginalized by the ongoing criminalization of sex work.
The criminalization of sex work is also the criminalization of poverty, people of color, women, and queer and transgender individuals. The sex workers most affected by these criminalization laws are those who are already most socially vulnerable.
“Criminalizing sex work is just another way of criminalizing being poor, being Black, and being queer in America,” said Siouxsie Q.
“You may think this doesn’t affect you, but it does,” said Navarro. “This isn’t just about protecting the rights and providing protection to sex workers. This is about the government dictating what we are allowed to do with our bodies.”