The film A KISS FOR GABRIELA inspires us to support the struggle for the rights of sex workers. One of our goals is to provide viewers with an overview of sex worker activism in Brazil, in the United States and beyond.
Organizing for the rights of sex workers in the US flourished in the 1970s with the emergence of organizations such as COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), US PROStitutes Collective, PONY and the North American Task Force on Prostitution. The term “sex work” itself is attributed to US activist Carol Leigh who coined the term in 1980. In the early and mid-nineties the Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network, a San Francisco based collaboration of the Coalition on Prostitution and Exotic Dancers Alliance, launched one of the first online resources about sex worker rights, the Prostitutes Education Network, and established the San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Art Festival in 1999.
After a lull, organizing for rights re-ignited in the 2000s driven by the increasing repression of sex workers post-9/11, abuses caused by the ongoing “war on drugs” and the re-emergence of misguided attempts to end so-called “sex trafficking” by policing anti-prostitution laws. Communities of sex workers in the US are harmed by state level anti-prostitution laws, laws against drug use, federal and state laws against trafficking, migration restrictions, criminalization of HIV transmission, municipal regulation of the use of public space and a host of other policies.
Currently activists in the US fiercely organize for change, despite limited resources and the constant threat of arrest in many communities across the country. Terminology and strategy differ—not all in the US embrace the term “sex work” for example—but pushing back on injustice unites many for the end of repression against people who for whatever reason offer sexual services or who are profiled as doing so. Targeted organizing during the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC to protest the exclusion of sex workers and drug users due to immigration restrictions is an excellent example of how the strands of US organizing unite as a force to be reckoned with.
Service providers and harm reduction organizations such as Women with a Vision (WWAV), HIPS, Sex Workers Project, Casa Ruby and the St James Infirmary work at the frontline of addressing health and rights for sex workers, people in the sex trade and communities of people profiled as engaging in sex work (such as transgender people). Some of these organizations also engage in policy reform affecting sex workers. US activists have developed resources specifically for and by male sex workers such as HOOK. Many groups lead by people of color have developed new ways of speaking about the experiences of youth that go beyond the “sex worker rights” frame. Streetwise and Safe works to protect the rights of homeless LGBTQ youth of color who are or profiled as being engaged in the sex trades, and Different Avenues and the Young Women’s Empowerment Project base their work on transformative justice strategies organizing for the rights of youth and young adults who engage in street economies.
In addition to sex worker film festivals in San Francisco and other parts of the country, important forms of cultural activism include $pread magazine, independently published sex worker media on a quarterly basis for five years, and the Red Umbrella Project which produces monthly storytelling events, creative workshops, and a podcast of sex worker stories.
The Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP USA), a national campaign style organization was co-founded in 2003 by Robyn Few, Stacey Swimme and other activists. SWOP USA provides a way for sex workers and their allies to unite, to form chapters addressing local issues and raises the profile of sex workers issues via national celebrations such as the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers held each year on December 17. The December 17 event was initially proposed by Annie Sprinkle and Robyn Few and the concept has been developed by US activists and colleagues around the world to be a powerful organizing tool to raise awareness about violence against sex workers including abuse perpetrated by law enforcement. SWOP chapters, such as SWOP-NYC and SWOP-Chicago, have campaigned against efforts to close the advertising spaces for sex workers and “end demand” policies that target the clients of sex workers. A complete list of SWOP chapters across the nation is available at the SWOP USA website.
The Desiree Alliance and the Best Practices Policy Project, national groups both founded in 2005, have worked to take the concerns of US communities to the international arena by submitting reports to the UN. In 2010 as a result of such reporting the international community recommended that the US address violence against sex workers and LGBT people, sparking intense organizing within US sex worker rights circles via the Human Rights for All network to ensure that the US accept this recommendation in 2011. The Desiree Alliance holds a conference every two years to create space for debate, learning and growth of actions for change.
International Networks and Organizations for Sex Worker Rights:
Key Regional Groups
Well-known organizations for sex workers rights globally