Sex Work is Work with Jessica Raven
Stopping sex trafficking sounds like a great idea—and it is! But often, anti-trafficking laws actually make sex workers more vulnerable. We talk with sex work decriminalization advocate and all-around amazing guest Jessica Raven about the myths and realities of the sex trade, and how all us can better support people working in it.
Jessica is the executive director at The Audre Lorde Project and an activist and organizer advocating for sex workers—first with Decrim Now and now with the brand-new Decim NY. Her passion for the work stems from her own experiences with gendered violence, homelessness, and the sex trade. We fell in love with her insight, her voice, and her incredible compassion. You will too.
Those who are most vulnerable to sex trafficking are people who are already in the sex trades, just like any other industry. The solution to ending trafficking in the agriculture industry is not “ban food” or “end demand for food.” That’s not logical. The solution to ending trafficking is by meeting people’s basic needs.—Jessica Raven, executive director at the Audre Lorde Project and Decrim NY steering committee member
(Photo by Darrow Montgomery at the Washington City Paper)
We talk about:
- Jessica’s work with the Audre Lorde Project and Decrim NY
- Recognizing that sex work is work
- Sex trafficking, The Mann Act, and the connection to interracial relationships
- SESTA, FOSTA, and how bills and policies like them endanger the lives of sex workers
- Why closing down a website doesn’t end sex trafficking
- What a healthy sex industry would look like
- How to be a better ally to sex workers
- Sara and Katel unpack the messages they grew up with about sex work, why it’s becoming a campaign issue for the 2020 election, and why everyone working in tech definitely needs to pay attention to SESTA and FOSTA.
- We share our love for podcast BFFs She’s All Fat—an amazing show celebrating body positivity, chill vibes, and—surprise!—friendship. Listen up!
This episode of Strong Feelings is brought to you by:
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SWB Tracking time, managing projects, sending invoices—Harvest makes all that easy! It’s my favorite tool for keeping track of my clients and budgets, and it could be yours too. Check out all their features—like online payments and reports that shine a light on the health of your projects—at getharvest.com/strongfeelings. And when you’re ready for a paid account, you’ll get 50% off your first month. That’s getharvest.com/strongfeelings. [theme music plays for 11 seconds and then fades out]
SWB Hey, everyone, I’m Sara!
KL And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring all of them together.
KL So, on today’s show, we are talking about a kind of work that, well, we don’t talk about much, and that is sex work. And we have a guest today that you are going to absolutely love to help us out. Her name is Jessica Raven and she’s the Executive Director of the Audre Lorde Project, which would be just completely amazing by itself. But just last week, she was part of the team that launched Decrim New York, a new organization advocating for decriminalizing sex work in New York City. And before that, she helped to form a similar org in DC, DecrimNow.
SWB So, seriously, this interview was so amazing! I loved how clear and compelling Jessica was about this issue, and also that she made it personal. She’s someone who was in the sex trade when she was experiencing homelessness as a teen.
KL I know. I’m so glad we are talking about this because I was definitely not taught about sex work growing up—it was totally a taboo subject. Not only was it taboo, it was so incredibly “other.” So, it was something that might as well have been happening on another planet. And that makes me think about the fact that hate and ignorance breeds in places like that, right? The more I try to evolve as a feminist, I’m realizing the more I need to learn that I have to dissect everything I think I know.
SWB Totally! Really same for me. And I think a lot about how in the eighties when we were little kids, there was this big move that was backed by a lot of right wing folks, but also a lot of feminists that was really anti-sex work. And so I think some of that must have really filtered into the conversation because I definitely grew up with the strong sense—and I don’t know exactly where from—that being a “prostitute” or a “whore,” which were the words I learned—I would not have learned the word “sex work”—that those things were shameful, and desperate. And like you said, totally “other.” The people who did them were fundamentally different than me, they were more screwed up than me. And I definitely thought of it as always something that was a last resort, and that it was always something that was shameful, and most of all, sad. Of course, there are a ton of stories of sex work being sad, where people end up in sex work because there’s coercion involved, and they’re having to do a job in an unsafe environment. And that is all about things that are terrible, and awful, and exploitative that are not actually about the sex work itself. But growing up, I never heard any counter narratives. I never heard about people who want to do sex work or enjoyed doing sex work or felt like sex work was something that was positive for them or allowed them to have a career on their own terms. And I am really thankful to get such a variety of stories now that I should have started hearing a lot sooner.
KL The more I’ve been thinking about this, the more I’m also realizing that I have a fairly [laughs] puritanical view of sex. And it’s troubling to me. I think this sounds so obvious saying it out loud, but if we’re brought up to think about sex or race or gender or or or, that those things are something that you should never talk about. And if you don’t know where you really stand in terms of what you believe to be true about it, then you can’t be a good advocate to help change things.
SWB Yeah, I think that’s true for me also—that’s still sort of stuck somewhere inside me. I have some more unpacking to do around processing some of my immediate assumptions about sex work. Like assumptions that it’s inherently degrading, for example. Jessica actually was really helpful for talking us through that [laughs] because I think it’s so tied into all of these shame messages about bodies and about sex that separating those things out is something that is hard for me. So, instead we have to think about it as, “oh, we’ve created a system where a large percentage of sex workers are being exploited. That’s not about the work. In any system where workers are being exploited, it’s not the work, it’s not the labour, [laughs] as much as it is the exploitation.”
KL Yeah, absolutely. This has made think about this principle I really love that Layla Saad teaches. And I highly encourage you to look at her work and follow her, she’s really amazing. So, she teaches this principle about doing the “inner work” to be a better ally and think beyond yourself. I think about that myself as a white woman as it relates to feminism. And she talks about it as a circle. It starts with information, which is self education, to interrogation, which is self reflection, to transformation, which is self change, and then integration, which is self leaderships. And then it goes back to the beginning. And I really love this because I think a lot of people, myself included, aren’t sure where to start or think they have to “do” something outwardly to center black, and indigenous, and women of color. And yes, ultimately, that is a huge part of it, but that this work does not have an endpoint. It’s a circle. And if you don’t know something or you’re not sure where to start, you have to start with learning about it. Learn everything that you can and question what your perspective is.
SWB Yes! And I think that’s kind of our whole jam here. So, I think it’s also a great time to bring these issues out for a couple of reasons. One—just this past Sunday (March 2nd) was International Sex Workers’ Rights Day! And we didn’t even plan the calendar this way, [KL laughs] but it came out pretty perfect. And then two—I know that a lot of our listeners are starting to think about the 2020 presidential candidates, and just this past week, sex work became a campaign issue—
SWB —because Kamala Harris announced support for decriminalization! Which sounds great, but it’s a little bit more complicated than that. So, are you ready for some backstory?
KL Uggh, yes. I know a little, but I’m just getting up to speed on the more recent stuff. And it sounds so important, so what should we know?
SWB Okay. So, Kamala voted for SESTA and FOSTA last year, which Jessica talks about a bit about in her interview, but I think we should dig into a little bit more, since I know a lot of listeners come from tech. And if you work in tech, you should definitely know about these laws. They are laws based off of online platforms. So, SESTA was the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act from the Senate and FOSTA was the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act from the House. They were passed and reconciled into one piece of legislation last summer. So, the idea is that they would prevent online sex trafficking by making it a lot harder to post ads for sex work in general online. And they do this by making an exception to something called Section 230, which is a law that would prevent online platforms from being responsible for what third parties post on them. So, if you think about Craigslist, for example, Craig is not responsible for your ad that lies about the IKEA furniture that you want to sell. That’s not Craig’s responsibility.
KL Right. [laughs]
SWB But SESTA and FOSTA make it so that section 230 doesn’t apply if those third parties are posting ads for sex work, regardless of what kind of sex work it is. Regardless of whether it’s consensual or not. So, sex workers very loudly opposed this bill. Because for one, it doesn’t really differentiate sex trafficking—so, sex work done by force—from other kinds of sex work. And two, sex workers said that it was not going to make them safer because it was going to push them into less safe working conditions and make them end up on the street, for example, where they can not vet their clients nearly as much. They can’t keep each other safe nearly as well when they’re working on the street.
KL Yeah, exactly. God, that’s so disheartening. And frankly, not surprising because lots of white men in power making these decisions.
SWB Right. So, interesting update—and by interesting, I mean not surprising, but still sad—last month in February, reports started coming out of San Francisco that the San Francisco police department were showing that overall crime was down, but that sex trafficking was up 170% [KL sighs] after SESTA and FOSTA went into place. So, apparently street based sex work has had a huge increase. There’s one local sex work advocacy organization that thinks that it’s tripled. And it just leads to way more unsafe and coercive conditions, where people can end up being trafficked. So, that’s what’s happening with SESTA and FOSTA. So, now today we have Kamala Harris—who again, she voted for SESTA and FOSTA—and she has a track record that’s been pretty hostile to sex workers. So, for example, in 2008 she was the San Francisco DA, and she was against a proposition there that would stop arrests for prostitution in the city. So, now—just the other day—we have her telling The Root that she supports decriminalization. So, they asked her, “do you think that sex work ought to be decriminalized?” And she said, “I think so. I do.” And then she also went on to say, “when you are talking about consenting adults, I think that, you know, yes, we should really consider that we can’t criminalize consensual behavior, as long as no one is being harmed.” Which okay, cool! It sounds like growth, right? And I support my politicians evolving their views. I mean, one hopes they would evolve their views, thankfully. I have evolved my views on things.
KL Sure, sure. I know, I was like, “okay, great, this great.” But…
SWB But…one of the issues this doesn’t really resolve is what we mean by decriminalization. So, Jessica is going to shed some light on that because what has happened is it sounds like Kamala is actually advocating for is not the same as what orgs like Decrim New York want. So, Decrim New York is advocating for decriminalizing both selling and buying of sex. But a lot of folks, and it sounds like this is Kamala’s position, want something that is often called “The Nordic Model,” which is where sex workers are decriminalized, but buying sex is still criminal. And Jessica is going to tell us why that doesn’t really work in practice.
KL So, I was actually just researching the Nordic Model and wanting to learn more about sex work laws look globally, and I found this really awesome resource from NSWP, which is the Global Network of Sex Work Projects. It’s a map of sex work laws around the world and it shows where decriminalization exists. So, you’ll see some really interesting information for countries like New South Wales, Australia, and New Zealand. And it also shows different types of legalization approaches, like some countries criminalize sex workers but not buyers! So, we’ll put it in the show notes, but take a look. I think it can be so illuminating to look at a map like that and see the disparity of things.
SWB Yes. Well, it was illuminating for me. It also sort of bummed me out because there were a lot of countries that were criminalizing sex workers and not buyers. That was actually pretty common, which just smells like misogyny to me since the majority of sex workers are women.
KL Yeah, totally. And speaking a little bit more about international issues, I also read about this safety app called “Ugly Mugs,” which is commonly used by sex workers in Ireland and the UK, and it’s facing removal from the Android Play Store following changes to Google’s permissions policy. So, this wasn’t even a case like SESTA/FOSTA, which directly targeted the sex work industry, but because Google changed a permissions policy around phone and SMS data access, it’s affecting this app. And then, of course, thousands of people who depend on the app to stay safe.
SWB Yes! I am really glad we are talking about this because this is something I feel a huge responsibility to get better educated on. And as somebody who cares about tech, I want to know what are the technical implications of this? And also, what are all the implications just on people and on people’s lives? So, Jessica has been an amazing resource, and I completely loved everything about talking with her. Let’s share that interview. [short transition music plays]
Interview: Jessica Raven
KL Jessica Raven is the Executive Director at The Audre Lorde Project and has helped to form multiple coalitions that advocate for sex workers, including Decrim Now in DC and now the brand-new Decrim New York. Jessica is a powerhouse when it comes to organizing community, and she still made time to run for President for her daughter’s elementary school PTA last year. We are thrilled she’s joining us today. Jessica, welcome to Strong Feelings.
Jessica Raven Thank you so much for having me.
KL So, you are involved with multiple important movements and coalitions. Can you tell us a little bit about your work and your activism?
JR I have always worked at the intersection of homelessness, gendered violence, and state violence. That’s my passion and it’s rooted with my own personal experiences with gendered violence, with homelessness, and with criminalization. So, I got my start back in LA when I was 17 and had been recently homeless living in a dorm room in California. And I started organizing fundraising for shelters for homeless youth, especially queer, and trans, and non-binary youth experiencing homelessness. Most youth who had been abused in their homes and put out. So, I did a lot of fundraising, then moved to DC and worked for a poverty relief organization, and then I became the Executive Director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, which did organizing to build for safer public spaces through training, through education, through arts activism. And now, I am at The Audre Lorde Project, which I had admired for many years from afar. And really similar to the work I was doing at CASS, we are a community organizing center for lesbian, gay, two spirit, bisexual, trans, and gender nonconforming people of color. And especially, I focused on decriminalization of sex work and working to build strategies to build safety for our communities without police and without prison. So, without the criminal legal system.
KL We definitely want to dig into your work with Decrim Now and Decrim NY. What does that coalition do and how did you get involved with it?
JR So, I had been involved with Decrim Now in DC for several years, which was able to successfully introduce a bill to decriminalize the sex trades in DC. That bill failed last year, unfortunately, but we did build public support and did build a lot of support among legislators in DC. And so it will be reintroduced this year. And then a couple of months ago, I moved to New York, where there had already been some work happening around this issue, particularly a lot of organizing around SESTA and FOSTA. So, SESTA was the Stop Enabling Sex Traffic Act and FOSTA was the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, which were two pieces of federal legislation that supposedly sought to address trafficking, but actually really put the lives of sex workers and people in the sex trades at risk, at greater risk. So, there has been some work happening in New York over the past year and several years, and now this new coalition is similar to DC—working to introduce legislation that will fully decriminalize the sex trades.
KL So, can you help us understand just more about what decriminalization means and why it’s so important to understand?
JR The people who are most severely impacted by criminalization are people who are very marginalized. Street-based sex workers, in particular, who are criminalized for homelessness, criminalized for trading sex. So, on one hand, it’s a bodily autonomy issue. Sex work is work and people, particularly women, trans, and non-binary people who work in the sex trade at higher rates, deserve bodily autonomy. And on the other hand, it’s an issue of just stopping violence against marginalized people. A lot of people don’t identify as sex workers. A lot of people are homeless and trading sex to access housing and access resources. Those are the folks who experience criminalization most severely. And we seek to decriminalize all aspects of consensual sex work among consenting adults specifically. So, that means decriminalizing selling sex and also decriminalizing buying sex. Some folks will argue—and this is the biggest challenge that we’re up against—that “end demand” is the right approach to addressing sex trafficking. And the research doesn’t support that model, but beyond that, what end demand does, the idea behind that is if you end demand for sex, then you can stop the trafficking. But we’re never going to end demands for sex, people are going to keep having sex for the rest of time, I believe. [laughs] So, end demand proposes that we criminalize buyers, so just the buying, but not the selling. But the actual impact is that it increases sex workers’ interactions with law enforcement and makes them more likely to be arrested, more likely to face incarceration or to experience police violence. So, it’s not so often buyers that are being criminalized in the first place, but also how do you sell sex if it’s illegal to buy it? So, that’s the goal of the coalition, but also beyond decriminalization, our goal is to decriminalize, decarcerate, and destigmatize the sex trade. So, I don’t think that we’d be going far enough if we were just changing the laws. We have to also understand that a lot of people are living with these convictions on their records—with criminal records because of their experiences in the sex trade. And also living with stigma of being a sex worker, of trading sex to access needs. So, we’re seeking to address this in a more comprehensive way.
SWB So, Jessica, I’d love to go back to something you mentioned a minute ago, which is you said, “sex work is work.” And that’s a mantra that I’ve been hearing in sex work advocacy for a while, and I’m not sure everybody really knows what that means, and why that’s such an important thing to come back to. So, I’d love for you to talk a little bit about why it’s important to think of sex work as work, and also you mentioned the sex trade, and I’m wondering if we can we talk about sex work and the sex trade and how those fit together?
JR So, sex work is work! It is labor that people choose to perform. You hear many feminists say, “my body, my choice” when it comes to abortion and reproductive justice. And yet, the same feminists when it comes to the sex trades will argue that no one would choose sex work and it must be coerced. That no one would ever choose this “for me.” As a domestic violence survivor and as a sexual assault survivor, I am more alarmed that many of us continue to date men for free. So, we call it sex work to lift up that value that you can choose to trade sex and to put value on work that you do—sexual labor—and that is a bodily autonomy issue. And then I also refer to people in the sex trades because we have to understand that not all of us entered the sex trade as empowered sex workers. So, while we do have that right to do so—or should—many of our experiences in the sex trade and my experience in the sex trade was rooted in my experience with homelessness. This is the experience of many youth, whose experiences are legally defined as “child sex trafficking.” So, child sex trafficking was defined in the law in the year 2000. And it is defined as “any experience in the sex trade that is coerced.” Or also “anyone who is under eighteen trading sex is by law, a child sex trafficking victim.” The trouble with that is there was a federally funded study that showed that I believe it was 80 or 85% of youth in the sex trades didn’t have a trafficker. So, if our whole solution to this problem is to criminalize the trafficker, criminalize the buyer, most youth, most people in the sex trades don’t have a trafficker. Then we’re not addressing root causes, we’re not addressing the need of survivors of sex trafficking or people who are trading sex because of their circumstances for economic reasons. In DC, there was actually a study in 2017 that showed that 26% of homeless women had traded sex to access resources, to access housing. So, a lot of people are trading sex, but not necessarily identifying as sex workers. There are people who are trafficked—their experiences matter. All of these experiences matter and should be taken into account as we work to build strategies and solutions to build safety for people in the sex trade. So, I use that term as an umbrella term to include people who are in the sex trade by choice, people who are in the sex trade by circumstance, and people who are in the sex trade because they are coerced.
KL So, you have a tweet pinned to your Twitter profile that talks about sex trafficking. Why is sex trafficking often misinterpreted as sex work?
JR Well, it actually started as a public education campaign very early on. The Mann Act, which was the first anti-trafficking law in the 1800s, referred to interracial relationships as “white slavery.” So, it started out as this campaign against, for example, black men dating white women. And in the public education campaigns that we still see, we’re still seeing that problem. Just a few weeks ago, there was a viral story about how Cindy McCain tweeted that she had reported to a police officer that she saw someone at the airport that she suspected of trafficking—child trafficking. And “if you see something, say something,” that’s what she said in her tweet. And then the story came out that actually this was just a multiracial family. And [laughs] a lot of people were very alarmed, a lot of people were very upset, but I think what a lot of people didn’t realize was that this was not an isolated incident, this is what anti-trafficking public education campaigns have been promoting all along. They tell you to report a tip to the National Human Trafficking Hotline and if you look at the data collected by the National Human Trafficking Hotline—one, they’re not actually providing direct services to trafficking victims. And two, their data actually tries to argue that it’s mostly white people who are sex trafficking victims. It’s not representative of the experiences that the majority of people who are trafficked—it’s mostly black, and Latinx people, and youth who experience sex trafficking. And every other piece of data will back that up, except the hotline data because the hotline data comes from reported tips. And if you go to any airport, if you go to any hotel—I was in Minnesota recently actually and saw ads on the buses that said “report sex trafficking; if you see something, say something.” They’re just promoting this hotline, so that people can report tips any time there’s suspicious activity. And when you’re encouraging people to report suspicious activity—so often we’ve seen this; Nextdoor is used this way, there was an app, Sketch Factor, a few years ago that was used this way—those hotlines and those apps are used most frequently by white people to report that black and brown people are around and that makes them feel unsafe. So, that’s what these public education campaigns have promoted the whole time; that is what we’ve seen in the media. I think a lot of people get their information about sex trafficking from the movie “Taken” a few years ago [laughs] that promotes this idea that it’s just white, middle-class women who are snatched. You also see a lot of viral tweets about “I think that I was followed by traffickers in IKEA.” And the reality is, that that’s not how it works. It starts with poverty, it starts with homelessness. And there have been so many studies that have showed this—that the youth who experience trafficking most frequently are youth who are queer or trans or gender nonconforming, who have experienced family rejection or abuse in their homes and who have ended up on the street and started trading sex to survive. And then may end up in a trafficking situation. Those who are most vulnerable to sex trafficking are people who are already in the sex trades, just like any other industry. The solution to ending trafficking in the agriculture industry is not ban food or end demand for food. That’s not logical. The solution to ending trafficking is by meeting people’s basic needs—starting by addressing root causes, figuring out why they ended up in this situation, so we can prevent if from happening. It’s not public education campaigns that will promote panic—widespread panic. And that’s actually the strategy that a lot of businesses are taking and I think it’s an easy out for businesses like Marriott and Delta that are training their staff on how to “spot trafficking.” That’s not what we need. We don’t need to spot it, we need solutions. If we know that there are up to 1.6 million youth experiencing homelessness in the US and only 4,000 shelter beds for 12-17 year olds across the entire United States. I just recently learned that there are no shelters in Philly for 12-17 year olds. So, there aren’t enough resources for these teens. So, if we’ve spotted them, great. But then what? What happens next? Where do they go? How do we keep them safe?
SWB Gosh, this is so important and so fascinating to talk about. If you keep on making sex work an exploitative industry by criminalizing it and making it something that goes into the darkest corners, then you’re going to have people who keep exploiting it.
SWB But if you judge the prevalence of sex trafficking by the number of stickers I’ve seen about it [JR laughs] in women’s bathroom stalls in airports, which is a million, [JR laughs] you would think, like you said, there’s this panic about it because you would think there’s this massive problem, that it’s happening constantly. And it sounds like you’re saying—I mean, obviously it is a huge problem when it happens, but it doesn’t sound like it happens with the frequency that somebody might think. So, I’m curious if you have any insight into how frequently that is a problem or trying to put that problem in perspective of the other associated issues that are maybe more pressing in sex work and the sex trade.
JR I think there isn’t a lot of good data. And also, I think it comes down to how we define our own experiences; I think that’s crucial. Because I was told for a while that I was a sex trafficking victim because I was in the sex trade from the time I was fifteen until the time I was seventeen. And that’s not how I identify, regardless of what the law says. But that doesn’t mean that another fifteen year old trading sex might not identify as a sex trafficking victim. So, it’s really hard to say and I think that the research—the data collection—has to start there. How do people define their own experiences? Because what we read so often in news reports is, “well, this person didn’t identify as a sex trafficking victim, but actually we know that actually they’re wrong about their experience.” [laughs] So, there’s that. Or separately we see stories—a few years ago in 2015, there was a story about a police officer in DC who was paying a young person—I think a fifteen or sixteen year old—for sex. And then the police department said, “there were no signs of sex trafficking, this person was acting on their own,” which is the majority of cases. And also, that’s not how the law defines it, so maybe that person does identify as a trafficking victim, maybe they don’t. So, I think starting with data collection that defines people’s experiences in the way that they define their own experience. Cyntoia Brown—another great example—“I didn’t identify as a sex trafficking victim, but every story said, ‘this is sex trafficking.’” So, there’s that piece and then there’s the piece of what’s promoted by this public education campaign is that it’s as easy to solve as making a phone call. That’s all we have to do! If we’re all hands on deck, all reporting sex trafficking, then we can solve it. And that’s just not accurate.
KL Yeah. You mentioned earlier the two bills that were passed—SESTA and FOSTA. How are these bills and policies like them actually endangering the lives of sex workers, rather than helping? How are these things actually on the face of it, they seem like they’re helping, but they’re really not?
JR So, basically what FOSTA and SESTA seek to do is go after websites for not better addressing sex trafficking. And then separately, Backpage was seized by the Department of Justice. And Backpage was used by a lot of people in the sex trades to post ads, to screen clients. So, again, they’re proposing that sex trafficking is as easy to solve as shutting down some websites. If we shut down these websites, then people can’t be trafficked. And actually there was this really funny tweet a while ago, I can’t remember [laughs]—maybe if you find it, you can read it on the air—but it was kind of as though traffickers were going to say, “oh, darn! Backpage is gone, umm…I guess you’re free to go; I wouldn’t want you to work in less safe conditions.” [KL laughs] That’s not how it works! [laughs] People will be forced to work on the street! Whether they are trafficked or whether they are engaging in the sex trades consensually, people are turning to street-based work. And a lot of people don’t want to work on the street because you experience a lot of violence on the street. 80% of street-based sex workers have experienced violence in the course of their work. And that’s not to say that sex work is inherently violent, but every job where we interact with men, there is a risk. [laughs] Previously, my work in DC was I worked a lot in bars and restaurants—we were focused on building safety from sexual and gendered harassment in bars, and restaurants, and night-life. And there was plenty of data that showed that 90% of restaurant workers had experienced sexual harassment—data from the Restaurant Opportunity Centre. I think specifically, women restaurant workers. And, again, not to say restaurants are inherently violent spaces or restaurant work is inherently violent. No, it’s a larger problem of men’s violence, of patriarchy, of toxic masculinity. And then also understanding that people who are more marginalized, people who are dependent on these forms of work for economic reasons are more likely to experience violence because they’re vulnerable. Because violence is about power and control. People are targeted because they are perceived as vulnerable. So, again, the idea that we can just shut down a website and end trafficking—it’s not rooted in data, for sure, but it provides a very simple solution and people love that. People love the idea that all you have to do is make a phone call, shut down a site, and you’ve fixed the problem. It means we don’t have to invest in resources, we don’t have to invest in housing, we don’t have to investigate reasons why youth are experiencing high rates of homelessness, we don’t have to focus on building stronger families or making sure that families have all the resources and education that they need to support their trans, queer, and non binary youth. But that’s the hard work, that’s the work that we should be putting our attention toward—the idea that we can just pass a bill, shut down some websites, spend no money except on more public education campaigns—that is silly. [laughs] I hate to say it, but it’s just silly.
SWB Yeah. So, I’d love to ask you because we’ve talked a lot about what’s wrong in the way that we’re trying to handle abuses within the sex trade. I would love to hear from you—and I don’t think this is going to be a simple answer necessarily—but what would a more healthy or more functional sex industry look like for both people who are working in it and for everybody else?
JR Yeah, definitely; thank you for that. I think it starts by ending criminalization. People shouldn’t be criminalized, arrested, face police violence for what they do to survive. I think that’s another reality that a lot of people don’t realize—that when we criminalize the sex trades, it actually makes sex workers more vulnerable to police abuse. Sexual assault is the second most common form of police brutality, primarily targeting black women, especially black women who are trans and working in the sex trades or drug users. So, they’re already vulnerable, their work is criminalized—they are experiencing more violence by police. So, ending criminalization is a starting point, but also investing in housing. Whether it is for youth or adults in the sex trade, that is the top need that I have heard consistently for people in the sex trades for years. For youth, there aren’t enough shelter beds, they’re put out of homes where they’ve experienced abuse or they’ve been put out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. So, there’s shelter beds and also for adults, especially trans sex workers and especially trans sex workers of color, experience high rates of employment discrimination, experience high rates of housing discrimination. In DC, 48% of DC employers prefer a less qualified cisgender applicant over a more qualified transgender applicant. So, folks are being denied jobs, denied access to resources, and turning to sex work because it is the only option for them. So, we have to address discrimination—employment discrimination and housing discrimination—and make sure that people have access to their basic needs. And then I think Urban Institute also made some really great recommendations—focused on housing for youth in the sex trades and also building supportive families. We have to take steps to make sure that trans and queer youth have the support they need at home. I think that’s the ideal solution. The foster system and the street, that’s not where we want kids to end up. We have to help create a strong, solid, affirming, and safe foundation in homes.
KL That makes so much sense. The Decrim coalitions—I noticed that on the website, it’s really prominent that it says that they’re led by brown and black people, trans and queer people, gender nonconforming people, and people with lived experiences in the sex trades. Why is that such a critical part of how it operates?
JR It is so important for this work to be led by people who are directly impacted because no one knows better what the needs are. I think that when a lot of these coalitions start—even in DC, I feel that when our coalition first started, we were hearing from black trans sex workers that their need was housing, that housing was the top need. And that was my experience too. And it wasn’t built into our original bill—investments in housing or strategies to ensure that folks who are particularly marginalized in those ways have ways to access housing. And I think a new iteration of the bill after our public education campaign will likely include something on housing. And it also helps us bridge the gap between the sex workers rights movement and the anti-trafficking movement. The piece that everybody needs—trafficking victims, sex workers, people in the sex trade—overall, need housing. That’s the top priority. So, we wouldn’t know that unless we listened to the people who actually had those experiences.
KL Yeah, absolutely. So, we noted that you’re the Executive Director at The Audre Lord Project, which is sort of newish, right? I think it happened last December?
KL Can you tell us a little bit more about ALP and about what your sort of day to day looks like in this role?
JR I am so excited to be at ALP. ALP has been around since the nineties. We now have eight staff members, we have a Trans Justice program, which does political education with trans and gender nonconforming people, we have a Safe OUTside the System collective, which helps to build safer spaces and equip folks to intervene to stop violence and to deescalate violence without involving violent systems like police. And then we have the 3rd Space program, which focuses on healing justice. So, I’m really excited to join the team! I just started only in mid-December, but my interest right now and my priority is making sure that we are taking all of those strategies that we’re putting out into the world, into New York City and bringing them into the office. So, our whole staff is made up of trans, queer, non-binary people of color. And these are folks with lived experience and people who also need to be taken care of who are also doing the work. I think that this fight for safety and for liberation is going to be a long fight and my focus is on sustaining the team for this long fight and building up the team. I’m recruiting board members right now. It’s not sexy work like I was doing on the grassroots level, [laughs] I can’t say, “I trained this bar today!” But I have a team and a membership community that is out there doing the work and I’m focused on taking care of the staff, taking care of the team.
KL That’s amazing. And before the ALP, you were the Executive Director at Collective Action for Safe Spaces, which you mentioned earlier, around working in the restaurant industry. And, again, working to make public spaces much safer. How did that work lead you to joining ALP?
JR Well, a lot of the programs are very similar. So, we had the Safe Bar Collective, which was very much modeled after the Safe OUTside the System Collective—similarly equip folks with safety strategies outside of intervening with police. I worked closely with my colleague, Fiona Connor, who is a black trans former sex worker and advocate, and she built a trans jobs program. So, we kind of combined our two programs, where she partnered with the Restaurant Opportunity Centre, did restaurant job skills training for two cohorts of trans current and former sex workers of color. And I worked with bars and restaurants to train them in creating safe environments, and then also started to tackle the discrimination issue that we were facing. And we connected the folks in Fiona’s cohort with jobs in our partner bars. So, we combined our Trans Justice program with our Safe Bar program. So, it’s very similar work and I’m hoping to similarly build connections between programs at ALP as I was able to do at CASS. And what I’m excited about is also being able to do it in my hometown. I grew up in New York City, I experienced homelessness here, I experience violence here, I almost ended up in a trafficking situation—that was the last housing that I had, someone who sexually assaulted me and then I think their goal was to put me into a sex trafficking situation. And I left! I fled when I was seventeen, three days after my high school graduation, and went to California and then to DC, which was as close as I felt safe being. And I think in the past year what I’ve realized is I need to do that work that I have done in LA and in DC, I need to do that work at home. This is where my work needs to be. I need to also expand my work to focus on gentrification and that’s work that Audre Lorde Project has done for a very long time.
SWB That is such a powerful story and I’m so glad that you are feeling ready to go back to your home and to sort of reclaim that space for yourself!
JR Thank you! I appreciate it! It’s definitely scary. I loved working at CASS, I loved DC—that was very much a home to me—but this is the beast that I have been a little afraid to tackle. [laughs]
SWB Yeah. Well, I really appreciate you opening up and telling that personal side of the story too.
SWB But now, we are just about out of time. So, before we wrap though, I would really love to ask you with your personal experience and with your expertise, if you could help our listeners out by sharing any thoughts you have about what we can all do to be better allies to sex workers and to people who are working in the sex trade?
JR I think that one of the best ways to be an ally is to lift up the voices of people who are working in the sex trades, people with lived experience, and echo those experiences. So often we see people who want to rescue sex workers from sex trades, that’s not what folks need. Folks need to be listened to and heard. And allies can use their position of privilege, of power on their platforms to lift up voices and work to make the changes that sex workers and people in the sex trades are asking for—like decriminalization, decarceration, and destigmatation. No, wait! [laughs] What’s the word? There’s no noun there!
JR There you go! Thanks!
KL You got it.
JR Ended strong!
KL No, that’s great. Jessica, it has been so great talking to you. Thank you so much for joining us today. Where can people follow you and all the work you’re doing?
JR Yeah! So, you can visit alp.org or follow @audrelorde to follow the work that we’re doing at ALP. And you can follow decrimny.org and @decrimny on Twitter and Instagram to see what’s coming out of the coalition to decriminalize the sex trades in New York City and State.
SWB Awesome, Jessica, thank you so much!
JR Thank you!
Fuck Yeah of the Week
KL So, we’ve been talking about a lot of serious stuff. Necessary, serious stuff, but we have come to the “fuck yeah” of our episode, and I am really excited about today’s. Sara—will you share what our fuck yeah is?
SWB Yes! This week’s “fuck yeah” is to our friends, Sophie and April, at the She’s All Fat podcast. So, I started listening to She’s All Fat a while ago after I heard them featured on Call Your Girlfriend. And it’s so good. Two besties—you sense a theme here—[KL laughs] talking about all kinds of issues related to body size and body positivity. And they’re just so refreshing, and positive, and joyful.
KL Ughh, I love listening to their podcast. And I love that it’s indie!
SWB Yes, totally! So, the bad news is that April has been having some health issues and she needs to take a step back. And that can really mean the end of a podcast when you have a partnership like that. But instead, they’re doing something I really love that’s going to let them keep going, and I want to share that with you. Let’s hear it from Sophie. [music plays with Sophie’s voice over the top]
Sophie Carter-Kahn Hey Strong Feelings listeners, Sophie here from She’s All Fat, the podcast for body positivity, radical self love, and chill vibes only. We’re switching things up this season, and I hope you’re ready to go on the journey with me. Because I’m pretty excited to share with you: Season Four—Sophie on the Street.
“We’re getting tattoos about being sisters.”
“Since starting college, I’ve thought a lot more about how my body’s been politicized.”
SCH This season, we’ll be following body positivity and fatness through more reported episodes. We’ll talk about tattoos, CBD, YA novels, costumes, siblings, college, family, massages, religion, YouTube—we’ve got a lot to cover. It’s going to be a real fat season. [music keeps playing]
“Yeah, remember when we were at Disneyland and that little girl bumped into me and then she looked up and was like, ‘you’re so tall!’ [laughs]”
SCH So, we hope you’ll come along with us. She’s fatter, furiouser, and fully researched. Season Four—Sophie on the Street. [music plays out]
KL Ughh, oh my god, love that. I am so excited about their new season. So, fuck yeah to loving friendships, to meeting each others’ needs, and evolving! We can not wait to hear Sophie’s new format, and for April to get the time and space she needs to take care of herself. So, fuck yeah!
SWB Fuck yeah! That is it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn from Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Blowdryer, and you should check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thank you so much to Jessica Raven for being our guest today, and thank you all for listening. If you liked the show, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us wherever it is you listen to your favorite podcasts. And you can always get Strong Feelings right in your inbox; get our newsletter at strongfeelings.co. See you again next week! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]