Yesterday evening, a full room of women and non-binary folks gathered to unpack sex work stigma at The Wing (SoHo). It brought a legendary energy to the space, which has primarily centered white, cisgender women.
Many people have critiqued The Wing in the past for failing to be inclusive. For what it’s worth, after making the same critique to their event coordinator, I was invited to work on sex education programming there. And after SX Noir protested the Wing for contributing to harm against sex workers, the ‘Unpacking Sex Work Stigma’ event last night was made possible.
The panel featured Gizelle Marie (one of the organizers behind #NYCSTRIPPERSTRIKE), Claire Fitzsimmons (the founder and editor-in-charge at Salty World), Ceyenne Doroshow (the founder/CEO of G.L.I.T.S — Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society), and Liara Roux (a writer and online political organizer). They also invited members of the audience to share experiences and assist in educating the room.
Liara made important points about Backpage, which the Department of Justice has described as “the Internet’s leading forum for prostitution ads, including ads depicting the prostitution of children.” Since the website’s seizure by United States authorities, consensual sex workers have been increasingly vulnerable to violence. The loss of Backpage has made it difficult for them to work effectively or properly screen clients, but it has also made it more difficult to find (and assist) those who have been trafficked.
“When Backpage was up, they actually received a letter of commendation from the FBI for helping them identify trafficking victims,” Liara said of the classifieds website. “If Backpage noticed someone who seemed really young or something seemed off about the ad, they would send that information over to the FBI. And now that Backpage is gone, police or these organizations can’t even search it to find people who are actually being trafficked.”
A few days after the Backpage seizure, Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking (SESTA) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) were signed into law. Although ‘trafficking’ is written in both titles, these bills don’t actually target traffickers at all. Instead, both have opened digital platforms to new liability for their users’ activities — if those activities are perceived to “promote or facilitate” consensual sex work. FOSTA/SESTA has even criminalized the collection and distribution of information about violence, abusers, and STI transmission in consensual sex work, making it more difficult for sex workers to work effectively or screen clients.
“When you give a sex worker online access to screening their clients, they’re safer,” SX Noir said to everyone at The Wing last night. “They’re able to have a few barriers of entry before someone gets to meet them. When you take down these sites, it does not take away demand, it just means that people are pushed further into the corner, further into risky situations, further into potential violence and harm — disproportionately so people of color, black women, black trans women. These are not things I’m making up in my head, this is reality.”
In the aftermath of SESTA/FOSTA, companies have been forced to edit their policies to protect themselves. Craigslist’s personals section shut down and Reddit closed its threads on escorting/sugar dating/prostitution. Websites that existed so that sex workers and their clients could screen, review, and verify each other were also shut down. Google Drive started deleting files that they perceived as explicit and banning users. And Microsoft changed its Terms-of-Service to ban “offensive language” and “inappropriate content” such as nudity, which affects users of Skype and Xbox.
Social media platforms such as Facebook/Instagram have started banning and shadow banning sex workers, and even those outside of that industry have been affected. Businesses that sell lingerie or adult toys/products have had their content removed and restricted. Even a social media campaign I participated in to raise money for RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network), that had been organized by the company Bellesa, was labeled ‘too political’ for Instagram to promote.
And media brands such as Salty World have also experienced intense censorship.
“Salty is basically a platform for other people to tell their stories,” Claire told the crowd at the panel. “I’m not a sex worker but I’m here to amplify the voices of sex workers.”
Salty features dating tips for people with disabilities, safety advice for sex workers, and essays on queer dating, rape culture, and revenge porn. When the publication featured non-binary model Rain Dove on its cover, Instagram deleted its posts. Another cover, with a fully-clothed Zoe Ligon wearing a strap-on, was also deleted — although it didn’t violate any community terms.
“Instagram is huge, everyone has Instagram,” SX Noir said. “So for me to tell you that you can’t be on Instagram, that’s already an attack. That’s already violence against you, intended or not intended. You tell me because I’m a sex worker, I can’t be on these monopolized social media platforms, that’s detrimental to my health because I can’t connect with my friends that way, I can’t be sold products that way. I can’t interact.”
Unpacking Sex Work Stigma also covered the climate of NYC strip clubs. Gizelle Marie described NYC strip clubs as ‘congested’, making it difficult for strippers to actually make money. She also spoke about discriminatory policies at upscale strip clubs simultaneous to urban strip clubs being shut down.
“I’m happy because I seen something that just passed,” she told the crowd. “They passed a law with the stopping of the discrimination of hair so hopefully that changes a lot, especially for black women, because we do get discriminated against for afros and braids. So hopefully that makes a big difference for us to be able to go to these types of clubs.”
The panelists strongly advocated for the decriminalization of sex work, not its legalization, which would add federal regulations to the sex industry. But Ceyenne was clear that even after decriminalization, there is still more work to do.
“After you decriminalize, it’s not safe for me,” Ceyenne told us. “I’m sorry, it looks different for some of ya’ll but it’s going to look very different for a brown person, for a Latina.”
Ceyenne also called Melissa Broudo, an attorney with SOAR Institute, to the microphone to explain why Kamala’s push for decriminalization is actually harmful.
“The nordic model is the criminalization of clients of sex workers, of johns,” she told us. “But essentially, if you still are criminalizing half of the equation, you are still criminalizing that entire interaction. And that is the problem.”
SX Noir closed the panel by mentioning that The Wing had not paid her or some of the other panelists. The gospel singer, who opened the panel, had been paid out of her own pocket. SX Noir put in over 80 hours of work and was offered a comped membership, a value of $250, but was told that The Wing does not usually pay moderators or panelists.
SX Noir cited the fact that The Wing’s mission is to uplift all women and that to accomplish that, they need to be paying people for their contributions to the community space. Audience members were surprised to hear that their monthly membership fees weren’t necessarily going towards programming.
During the Q&A portion of the event, a former sex worker in the audience offered her last ten dollars as compensation, acknowledging how much labor the panel must have required. This immediately prompted other members of the audience to come to the stage with singles, tens, twenties, and even metro cards. The panelists were moved to tears.
The evening closed with a gospel performance and then a meditation led by a high priestess. It was an incredibly moving experience that will hopefully mean greater inclusivity at The Wing. Last night also provided an entire room of sex workers and allies with valuable tools for their activism. I am so beyond proud of SX Noir’s hard work and advocacy.
In the aftermath of the event, the Wing reached out to guests via social media, claiming that all speakers were compensated. According to SX Noir, this is completely untrue. They also used SX Noir’s legal first name in addressing the issue, thus outing her to members.
This was a radical conversation that really disrupted the space. But it was meant to advocate for those who had been consistently left out of The Wing’s brand of community. Unpacking Sex Work Stigma wasn’t about turning people against the coworking space but rather, about calling its staff in to address member concerns.
Hopefully SX Noir and The Wing can reach a compromise that will equal a better community space for women and non-binary folks in the future.
For any writing inquiries, brand collaboration, or speaking/hosting, you can find me at gabby [a] gabriellealexa.com!