Conferences are everywhere. No matter what you do for a living or pursue as a hobby – be it technology, economics, cars, blogging, spirituality or pornography – there is a conference that is tailor-made for you; if you identify as an advocate, ally, sex worker or something within the professional spectrum of erotic service providers, there is “The Desiree Alliance” held in Las Vegas Nevada.
For those who may not know: a sex worker is a person who earns their income by choosing to do work within the field of erotic/sexually based services including sexual educators. Stigma is alive and well for sex workers; many face discrimination in every aspect of their lives. Some forms of sex work are still illegal in most places. The moral argument and shaming that is frequently mentioned makes a sex worker more than marginalized – it makes them a target for violence, bullying, sweeping judgements and more.
I wondered how such a controversial career, came to form a conference. I contacted Jennifer Reed, a member and volunteer for SWOP (Sex Workers Outreach Project) Las Vegas, a former sex worker and current Ph.D candidate in Sociology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas: “Desiree Alliance was founded in 2005 as a means to unite sex workers and erotic service providers from coast to coast. The organization is a coalition of sex workers, health professionals, social scientists, professional sex educators, and their supporting networks working together for an improved understanding of the sex industries and their human, social and political impacts. The focus is on building local and regional leadership and constructive activism in the sex worker population to advocate for sex workers’ human, labor and civil rights.” Reed told me.
The week-long conference included several panels daily on topics like High End Hookers and Street Based Hookers (A lively discussion of similarities and differences), HIV/AIDS prevention and action working group, Human Sex Trafficking Panel What’s Really Going On, Work Smarter Not Harder: A Sexual health Workshop for people in the sex trade and more. The conference also featured community-based lunches, yoga classes and a self-care suite provided by the San Francisco non-profit, Solace SF.
I spent two days at the conference and attended the sex trafficking panels and spent time interviewing attendees. I wanted to hear what sex workers had to say about this hot button topic. Due to how human sex trafficking is portrayed in the media, many people seem to be unaware, that there is a section of the population who are self-employed, empowered, not coerced and choose this as a viable employment option that they enjoy.
One of the Desiree Alliance Strategic Committee members and panelists, Attorney Melissa Sontag Broudo, had this to say: “The common misconception that people have about sex workers and survivors of trafficking is that all commercial sex is exploitative, and thus, that all sex workers are trafficked. The conflation of sex work and trafficking is immensely problematic in that it presumes numerous facts that are not true, specifically: 1) that all people in the sex industry are cis-gendered women (meaning people who were born biologically as women and also identify as women); 2) that selling sexual acts is inherently demeaning to the person providing the services; 3) that purchasing sex is inherently exploitative or violent; and 4) that solutions or policies that aim to end prostitution should be applicable to end trafficking and vice versa.”
A large portion of sex workers at the conference felt that the numbers of people being trafficked for sex are inflated and that the statistics are skewed to make people afraid, making it easier for laws to pass that affect sex workers negatively. There was a great deal of discussion surrounding Proposition 35, which passed overwhelmingly in California last year and AB67 an anti-trafficking bill that will affect Las Vegas.
The panels got heated and attendees expressed fear and reservation at the topic of human sex trafficking. My experience interviewing sex workers over the years is that unfortunately, not all of them were sex workers by choice; both sides of this argument have valid points. So, who is right?
One panelist Siouxsie Q., the host of the wildly popular Itunes podcast, Whorecast, did say: “When people ask, “What are sex workers doing to end human trafficking?” The answer cannot be, “nothing”. When the sex worker movement spends our energy criticizing the anti-trafficking movement I fear that our opposition and our potential allies hear that sex workers are FOR human trafficking. We are not. I am a sex worker, and I am against human trafficking. Most of the anti-trafficking rhetoric being circulated right now utilizes scare tactics and disenfranchises sex workers. But there is no denying that there are people in the sex industry who are doing sex work without the privilege of choice. At the end of the day, human trafficking comes down the exploitation of labor, and there are plenty of people in our community who have had their labor exploited.”
When Q. said this on the panel, I remember thinking she was brave; this is an unpopular position among a segment of sex workers with a platform and a voice that is heard, loudly. Some within the crowd were triggered by Q., but she got a discussion started that is important be it unpopular.
Broudo, also told me: “To paint all individuals in the sex industry with one broad brush is to erase individuals’ experiences, agency, and is inherently demeaning and presumptuous. At the Sex Workers Project, we support people who are in the industry by choice, circumstance, or coercion – while recognizing that people’s experiences may not neatly fit into one or more of these categories. The critical component is a recognition that everyone’s experiences are different, and that having an abstract ideology about sex work is not useful in working with people and effectuating helpful policies. It is critical to understand that trafficking involves force, fraud, or coercion (which comes from the Federal definition of trafficking), and that sex work does not inherently involve force, fraud, or coercion. Assuming that all workers are trafficked belittles everyone’s experiences and creates ineffective policies that lack nuance.”
Serpent Libertine is not only an advocate, ally and educator, but was an attendee at this years conference. When I recently asked her thoughts on what the sex worker community should be doing, she said, “We need to be doing our own research; the anti trafficking organizations and their trafficking statistics are based on biased research, with inflated numbers. Those tie into law enforcement to ramp up arrests and more money being put out there for anti trafficking organizations and laws. I am working on a project that does our own research, because we’re industry insiders and veterans of the industry, we’re actually going to be a bit more in touch with the target populations. Were polling clients, workers, and others on their experiences with individuals who have been trafficked and looking at what our numbers are.” In reference to the decriminalization argument, Libertine had this to say: ”I don’t think decriminalization is a realistic solution, because I don’t think its a realistic goal especially here in the States – and even if it were to happen, I don’t think its going to eliminate trafficking within the sex trade and will create more arrests with other charges.”
After my time at the Desiree Alliance Conference, the thought that came to me, was that this is a conference about ideas and community. Sex workers often have a difficult time in day-to-day life, but for this week-long event, it was a time and place where they do not have to worry about being discriminated against. In the words of Cris Sardinia, co-director of the Desiree Alliance: “This conference is a place where we can hold our heads up high and not worry. It’s a safe space where we can all come together and be together.”
The topic of human trafficking is controversial, multifaceted and confusing. I recommend people take the time to research it, before forming an opinion or voting on something that may not be helping the problem at all. Educating ourselves is crucial and we all need to exercise this luxury more. If you would like more information about the Desiree Alliance, you can visit them at their website.
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Stay with me. I head to DC next month, for the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit along with a few interviews from people who are making waves in all the best ways – using their gifting, philanthropy and more.