The Lack of Equal Rights for Legal Sex Workers
Currently, on the other side of the country dancers at a club in Los Angeles California, are participating in a now over two weeklong walk out.
Prior to the walkout dancers at the bar had been refused permission to restrict patrons who had previously assaulted them from coming back into the bar. After this denial the women attended one of the free weekly legal clinics with Strippers United.
According to their websites about page, Strippers United’s focused to “create a safe and equitable work environment for strippers across the U.S. striving to advocate for strippers. Our ultimate vision is to dismantle whorephobia and decriminalize sex work.”
Tabitha Lenoard is a current law student at UCLA who volunteers with Strippers United. Leonard said in an interview that these clinics “see if they have any sort of legal issues or questions they'd like to ask, and usually have to deal with the conditions of their club, or things like wage theft.”
Upon hearing about the workers' circumstances, the clinic advised them to make a petition for a blacklist that allowed them to ban the customers who had assaulted them. In addition, the petition would also request access to the establishments panic buttons. The establishment currently has panic buttons, but they are only accessible to management and the bar staff.
In an interview Lenoards said “they presented this petition to the club and the club owners allowed them to walk out. And then the next day, they locked them out and wouldn't allow the dancers to go back into work. So since then, they've been picketing.”
Erik McGregor, Pacific Press, Getty Images
Despite this walk out taking place across the country these working conditions are not uncommon around the United States. Sex workers are lacking basic rights and protection.
There is an absence of data on both legal sex workers and full-service sex workers. Many sex workers are hesitant to provide information around their experience due to the stigma surrounding the field.
The few studies that are out there convey this lack of protection. A study done in 2016 by the Hands Off! Program found that in the past year 71% of sex workers around the United States had been sexually assaulted while working. Out of the 71%, 21% of those workers reported the assault to authorities.
Amy, a sex worker in Washington D.C., entered the sex work industry to help pay for college and housing. The flexible hours of the schedule allow her to still be able to go to class while also being able to pay rent.
She’s shared with few people that she’s in the industry due to a fear of judgment. In an interview Amy said “I do enjoy the job. And I want others to be happy for me that there are parts of it that I really love doing.”
When Amy has shared her employment with peers most of their immediate reactions are negative. “There are some students I’ve ended up sharing that information with about my job. And I remember one student in particular, she was like ‘You know, if my church found out what you were doing, they would gladly help you with tuition.’”
Her time in the career has been different than she expected. She has experienced stigma outside of the job and a lack of rights while working. There are fewer safety measures put into place than she’d thought there’d be, unexpected house fees at the club and more.
In an interview Amy said, “it’s difficult you know, situations happen at work like, a patron harassing you, or a customer assaults you. It’s already really difficult to deal with, even if you have those networks, and that support to reach out to. So, when you don't, it just makes you feel isolated. It's a lot easier to blame yourself for those things because you feel like you put yourself at risk.”
Amy said that almost all of the women she dances with have been physically assaulted on the job. She said all of the women had been sexually harassed.
There is a higher risk of assault in the sex work industry for a variety of reasons. The proximity to the workers and the decades of stigma surrounding sex workers combined makes it so nationally most sex workers have experienced assault.
“It's not because you decided to go into work that day that you deserve that thing happening to you,” Amy said in an interview.
Sex workers at the club are considered independent contractors, essentially renting out a space to work. Clubs have house fees that vary club to club. The house fees will consist of a base fee, ranging from $10-200 and an agreed upon percentage of all earnings (usually 10-20%).
Amy is one of the youngest dancers at her club. In an interview Amy said she works with primarily single mothers of color, dancing to support their kids through school. Amy said many of them are dancing because they have criminal records, whether that was due to sex work or not, and it’s the only work available to them.
The lack of regulation within the profession leads to many workers vulnerable to leaving without money. “Seeing dancers who would break down at the end of the night because they only made $20 after an entire seven-hour shift working incredibly hard, it’s heartbreaking,” Amy said in an interview.
“The individuals I work with are some of the strongest people I've ever met. And I don't mean that in a way that's supposed to sound as if they're supposed to put up with the kinds of issues that they have to deal with at the club. But they do, they deal with it. They really enforce their boundaries as best they can. They say something when the bouncer or security guards are more hesitant to come up in their defense and deal with really difficult customers themselves or you know argue with management about the fact that they shouldn't have to pay out so much when they're barely made anything,” Amy said in an interview.
Amy remains hopeful that the mindset towards sex work will continue to shift. She has worked to educate peers about the work she is doing and its lack of workers’ rights.
“There are so many people that I know who, after talking with them, and having a conversation, come to realize that they were just told it was something that was wrong. So they think these sex workers, strippers, and full service sex workers are bad just because they're doing it, instead of looking further and asking questions as to why they were doing it,” Amy said in an interview.
There is currently no legal movement in the mission to get sex workers equal rights in the workplace. There has however been work in the government towards protecting individuals from sex trafficking.
FOSTA-SESTA is a package bill that was signed and passed by former President Trump in March of 2018. The goal of FOSTA-SESTA is to lessen illegal sex trafficking online by adding penalties to sites for hosting illegal sex work. The bill passed in congress with a 97-2 vote.
Amy believes acts such as FOSTA-SESTA pose a serious threat towards the safety of sex workers. “These acts are going to censor and contribute to the physical harm of sex workers, especially full-service sex workers. We’re the most vulnerable to sensitive situations in which we start dealing with more dangerous individuals. With acts like these, workers don't have the same sort of opportunities to screen them and ensure their safety in that way,” Amy said in an interview.
An act that was supposed to reduce sex trafficking ended up putting workers who are in the profession by choice in more danger. “Sex trafficking isn’t non-existent and there needs to be protection there, but it’s not the same as sex work. The current language is really harmful to sex workers who choose to do the work, whether it’s out of necessity or not,” Amy said in an interview.
“It’s difficult when you have big anti-trafficking organizations that have a lot of support & financial backing & are really powerful,” Lenoards said in an interview.
Claire Doherty, Getty Images
There are a growing number of advocacy groups across the country working to dismantle this stigma and gain safer working conditions as well as better rights for both full service and non-full-service sex workers.
H.I.P.S. (honoring individuals’ power and strength) is a sex work advocacy organization out of Washington D.C. that was founded in 1993. According to their website their mission statement is to “advance the health rights and dignity of the people and communities impacted by sex work.” HIPS advocates to legalize full-service sex work and to increase the rights to those involved in the work legally.
Abigail Morris, the mobile housing specialist at H.I.P.S., has been advocating for sex work rights and safety. She’s volunteered for H.I.P.S. since 2019.
Part of Morris’ work at HIPS is going out in the overnight outreach van. The van carries first aid supplies, safer sex supplies, food, and other supplies for full-service sex workers. “We don't even get funding for snacks on the overnight van. We're asking volunteers to send us cereal bars and ramen. It's not because that money doesn't exist. It's just like the political will, isn't there to provide the services that are needed to make people's lives safer and healthier,” Morris said in an interview.
Morris continues to grow more frustrated about the lack of sex worker rights. “There needs to be more access to any kinds of support, whether it's financial or whether it's safety,” Morris said in an interview.
Sex workers around the country are beginning to speak out more against their unfair treatment. In an interview, Leonard said the workers at the Lusty Lady are “really in it together. They were brave enough to say that even if I’m going to lose my job, I’m willing to sacrifice that because I deserve better working conditions & I know that the girl next to me does too & we have to do this together.”
Leonards knows this walk-out will not bring about the amount of change necessary though. She said in an interview, “sex workers need their voice in legislation. That’s going to provide how they live their lives and pursue their work.”