Sex workers organize

Sex workers around the country have stood up to say that sex work is work. Taking up that banner, Workers World Party has agreed that sex work is work and that sex workers are proletarian (working class). With sex workers being proletarian comes the fact that all proletarians deserve organizations to protect their interests and unions to protect their rights.

Given the mixed legal nature of sex work and the routine attacks on sex workers by the state and by clients, individual sex workers and organizations  took action. They created bad date lists, taught self-defense, self-policing and drug harm reduction classes, lobbied politicians and educated sex workers and would-be sex workers on their legal and political rights under capitalist democracy.

Drug harm reduction and self-defense classes are self-explanatory: Harm reduction teaches people how to use drugs safely and self-defense classes — customized for the needs and situations of sex workers — show how to defend yourself. Bad date lists are a form of self-policing. Other forms of self-policing include, but are not limited to, cop warnings and pre- and post-violence intervention.

A bad date list contains names, phone numbers and sometimes pictures of people who have committed acts of sexual or physical violence against sex workers, people who demand unsafe sex and people who spread sexually transmitted diseases. This list is needed for the protection of sex workers involved. 

Another type of protection is the cop warning list. It warns when a potential “client” is actually a cop in disguise. At best, their goal is to arrest everyone involved in the sex industry. At worst, they harass and coerce sex workers into giving them sex for free — which is a form of rape. When sex workers are able to protect themselves from bad dates and cops, they remain safer.

How else do sex workers protect themselves? How do sex workers maintain their political and job security? How do they do what almost all other workers can do and advocate for themselves as workers? They organize themselves! 

Organizing is harder for some types of sex workers, such as full service sex workers, escorts formerly called “prostitutes” or even legal sex workers like erotic dancers, also called strippers. In the case of erotic dancers, management can easily fire you.

Sapphire (not her real name), an erotic dancer and friend of this writer, described unionization as being a good thing, but also one that would be difficult to make work. A manager at a club she performed at was cruel and subpar. Doing anything to challenge that would have had negative consequences for her. Because some clubs hire under the table, these workers can make more money, but this comes at the risk of losing money to management or worse, being trafficked.

If dancers can’t unionize, how do they organize to defend themselves? They create harm reductionist organizations! Taking the principles of drug use harm reduction, they formed their own organizations to fight trafficking, inequality and mistreatment in the erotic dancing business. The main organization — We Are Dancers USA — fights to educate erotic dancers on a variety of topics: important terms to understand, the legal rights of erotic dancers, how to protect your identity and how to keep yourself safe from would-be traffickers and pimps and would-be obsessive stalkers.

Safety first: ‘Knowledge is power’

Founded in 2011 as We Are Dancers NYC, We Are Dancers USA fights to teach erotic dancers how to keep their identities and selves safe. Several years after its founding, it developed literature in the form of booklets to distribute discreetly to dancers in the New York City area. This was important because — as the saying goes — knowledge is power! 

The booklets teach powerful and important lessons regarding not just safety but the reality of working in the adult industry: people who fall outside the white supremacist beauty standard will have to work harder for less money. The booklet can be found here: (

There are other sex workers who have organized their own harm reductionist, pro-sex work groups. One of these groups is ANSWER Detroit. ANSWER stands for “A Network of Sex Workers to Excite Revolution,” and it fights for all sex workers. They believe there is no wrong or right way to be a sex worker. They see that revolution is needed for society. Among other statements in their manifesto:  They believe in abolition of the police and the liberation of both sex workers and all of society from capitalist state control.(, 

It’s important to look at the context of ANSWER Detroit’s creation. It was formed on the heels of the passing of FOSTA-SESTA, two bills grouped together which attacked the very basis of sex work in the United States. The acronym stands for “Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” and “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.” While these names might sound agreeable, because sex trafficking is evil, these laws actually caused more problems than solved. An entire article could be written about their impact, but the important point is that they shut down websites used by sex workers to advertise and screen clients.

A friend and comrade, Zee (whose pronouns are they/he) is a member of this organization and spoke to this writer about the creation of ANSWER Detroit. They highlight the FOSTA-SESTA package as the impetus for ANSWER Detroit’s creation. They saw sex workers who used to advertise and screen online turn to street sex work, a form of full service sex work which is far more dangerous because of the inability to screen clients.

Decriminalize/destigmatize sex workers

ANSWER Detroit organized sex workers — escorts, street level sex workers and sex workers who use drugs — to fight for decriminalization of sex work. They fought to give mutual aid to all who needed it and continue to do so. During the early stages of the COVID-19 epidemic, they gave sex workers who needed it monetary aid. While more difficult since funding ran out, they do provide safer use products (for drugs) to people who need them. ANSWER Detroit also uses their collective stories to inform their political work, making political demands at rallies and using International Women’s Day to demand a free Palestine.

As quoted in their manifesto, ANSWER Detroit fights for the autonomy, agency and power of sex workers. What does this look like? It means organizing for safe working conditions free of the threat of arrest, freedom from discrimination, freedom to hire assistants like drivers or bookers without the concern that everyone will be arrested and freedom to do what they want with their own bodies among others. They are a revolutionary group, because sex workers can be revolutionary, too.

The final group to examine is the Massachusetts-based Whose Corner Is It Anyway. It’s an organization dedicated to mutual aid, harm reduction and political organizing and education for survival street level sex workers, with a focus on those who use drugs. Some of their work includes bailing out incarcerated sex workers, giving out emergency funds, providing drug overdose reversal training, maintaining a bad date list, providing safer sex and safer drug use items and other services. They are a majority nonwhite, majority queer and majority criminalized organization that fights for sex workers.

Sex workers, highly stigmatized within capitalist society often do not have allies even among those on the progressive side of U.S. politics. Both active sex workers and former sex workers (like this writer) keenly understand this. Workers World Party is one leftist tendency that supports the sex worker community and understands that sex work is work, and sex workers are proletarian (working class).

Non-sex workers — especially leftists and other progressives – need to understand several important things. First, sex workers are capable of organizing for themselves because of abandonment by the progressive movements. Second, sex workers still need support from the revolutionary movement. Third, sex workers are workers and thus capable of political and social awareness for both themselves and for other oppressed sectors of society.

When we say, “Workers and oppressed peoples of the world unite!” we must include sex workers. Never forget that.

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