Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), a national group that works on the decriminalization of prostitution, held its third annual conference in Chicago. Members attended panels on topics like sex trafficking and the issues facing transgender sex workers.
One of the local groups that participated was Young Women’s Empowerment Project (YWEP), which works with many, but not exclusively, queer youth in the sex trade. Cindy Ibarra, YWEP communications coordinator, spoke of their “interactive discussion” with adult sex workers about how best to be allies with youth.
Ibarra pointed out that the world of sex workers was often different from that of youth in the street economy; the former tend to come from “the middle class sector of people.” Ibarra also said she was pleased with the turnout at the panel—approximately 50 people attended—and that attendees were receptive to YWEP.
Other attendees spoke about class and privilege, and said that sex workers can find themselves living in contradictions. While many make a comfortable living, they’re also extremely stigmatized and prone to sexual assault and police harassment. Violetta said that the conference had shown her the range of sex workers, not all of whom enter into it as a matter of choice. For Karly Kirchner, SWOP highlights “how the criminal system preys on the most vulnerable.” Her concern is that “if people don’t [pay] attention to the people at this conference and this organization, we’re going to continue to see the targeting of the most vulnerable among us.”
Tara, a female-identified trans sex worker, spoke about the issues facing queer and trans people. “Out in the ‘real world,’ a ‘freaky’ trans person like me won’t be hired by most employers … because I look like a man [even] though I’m legally a woman.” But Tara also emphasized that while many transgender sex workers did sex work because of a lack of employment options, that doesn’t mean they should be pathologised: “Because it’s their only option doesn’t mean it’s a bad option.”
Liz, a lesbian sex worker understood the distinction between street work and sex since she’d spent her youth working in the street economy: “Street work is harsh, violent, and dangerous—the goal should be harm reduction.” But she and others didn’t see clear distinctions between the street economy and sex work. Sienna Baskin, an attorney who works with sex workers, said that there wasn’t a distinction as much as a “continuum” between the two kinds of work.
Liz and Tara emphasized that SWOP advocates for the human rights of sex workers and that “sex work is work, and we deserve labor rights.” Both see the need for health care and worker’s compensation and are concerned with what they see as the unfairness of laws that target sex workers and the conference as a way to network and build solidarity among sex workers and allies.