Dancers at the Star Garden Topless Dive Bar in Los Angeles have been on strike for over six months protesting unsafe working conditions and unfair termination, among other concerns. This August, they filed a petition for union recognition with the National Labor Relations Board. Last week, their request was approved, giving them the go-ahead to vote on whether to affiliate with the Actors Equity Association. Their struggle has garnered national attention, adding them to the wave of rank-and-file workers demanding fairer wages and working conditions in the wake of the pandemic. Their message is clear: sex work is work, and workers deserve better.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Serena and Lenny, two sex worker organizers with Ocean State Advocacy, a mutual aid group for sex workers in Rhode Island, to talk about what these issues mean to them. We discussed working conditions, decriminalization of sex work, prison abolition, and why the labor movement needs sex workers to join its ranks. They spoke to NPQ using their working names to protect their safety and privacy. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us a little bit about the founding and establishment of OSA? When was it started and why?
Serena: OSA started in March of 2020 right when the pandemic started. Two people—who were both dancing at the time—saw a need for more mutual aid and related support. There was so much coming out at that time, such as service workers having mutual aid support funds, other sex worker advocacy organizations having mutual aid funds, and support services for sex workers, that it just felt like there was a lot of need there. It started there, and then expanded to include a broader network of sex workers. At its core, it has been a mutual aid group for its entire existence and has grown to include different things. Since then, it has grown and legitimized in necessary ways.
Lenny: During COVID, there was a lot of unemployment support for people. That was even expanded to contractors, who wouldn’t usually qualify for unemployment. But there was still no way for full-service sex workers or street-based workers to get that kind of support from the government. So OSA helped fill in that gap.
Your organization is mostly focused on mutual aid. Can you talk a little bit about why mutual aid in particular is an important strategy for sex work advocacy?
Serena: Mutual aid—providing resources for community members so that we’re all able to show up to organizing (or just life in general)—is fundamental. With sex worker organizing, there’s so many different intersections of identity within sex work—of class, race, gender, documentation status, housing status, substance use status, ability— and because we all come from such different vantage points within sex work, mutual aid or support and assistance can enable folks to live a life that has a little bit less tension around financial stressors.
And that extra space—whether it allows for organizing meetings or participating in community events, if it just means living your life—is I think foundational to creating a stronger sex work community. I think we’ve found that as the pandemic has “cooled down”—obviously it’s still going on, but restrictions have been lifted—the need is still there. We’re still going through a housing crisis. People are still struggling with paying rent, paying healthcare bills, dealing with childcare, getting basic resources, many different emergency situations. It just exposes this massive gap that has always existed, but just became more visible during the pandemic. So, I think that’s kind of our goal in continuing with the mutual aid, just meeting that continued need, but also alleviating financial stress enables people to live their life in a way that is more autonomous and has agency.
Lenny: Just giving money to people is really good, because it’s trusting someone to spend this resource in the way that they know they need it, instead of saying “here’s a rent stipend” or declaring what they need to spend it on. Also, the pandemic does affect in-person sex workers more than other kinds of workers because you’re in skin-to-skin contact with people. For sex workers, need is even greater, but help is even less.
How does OSA see itself championing change for sex work conditions?
Serena: We work from the understanding that sex work does need to be decriminalized. Decriminalization, more than legalization, would better address the intersectional identities that sex work has. It confronts the increased criminalization of immigration, of transness, of Blackness, and how they need to be decriminalized in the process of decriminalizing sex work. All of these intersecting identities are under a “sex work umbrella” but would not be otherwise addressed together in a legalization framework.
Legalization also preserves a fundamental power imbalance, where the profits end up once again in the hands of very few white men, as we’re seeing this with the legalization of marijuana, and ends up with people still being incarcerated, especially low-income folks, people of color, those who are housing insecure. Also, so much of criminality contributes to stigma, so when we think about sex workers accessing healthcare, accessing mental health services, accessing housing, so much of what is so challenging about that is the discrimination stigma. And so much of what creates that discrimination and stigma is criminality and criminalization.
We see this within sex work as a whole: there are kinds of sex work that are largely accepted versus kinds that are hidden and discriminated against more heavily. You can say that you’re working online or you’re working in a club, and that does experience a level of stigma—but not in the same way as if you are working on the street or in a brothel.
What is the state of sex work advocacy in “the Ocean State” right now? What does OSA hope can change at the state level in Rhode Island?
Serena: Indoor prostitution was legal in Rhode Island between 1980 and 2009 through a legal loophole, which was closed in 2009 due to sex work abolitionists, ie, anti-sex work lobbying groups that don’t believe that people can engage in sex work consensually. After that loophole was closed, there was a spike in STI transmissions. There was a spike in arrests. There was a spike in raids targeting sex-working communities. Obviously, the law only benefited a certain type of sex worker who works indoors, and really left out a lot of people. But I think we can see on a small level how it does change the larger dialogue around sex work, and why Rhode Island is existing in this specific context, especially now when other states are talking about decriminalization again.
Advocacy is challenging because it’s really draining, and advocacy in sex work really forces people to expose themselves in ways that are neither fair nor comfortable. To be “valid” as a sex worker advocate, you have to be “face out,” and if you’re face out, then your identity is critiqued. It pushes people who are most at risk to be face out, folks who have the most to lose. That’s why we choose to operate without a face, just to not have to deal with the doxxing and character attacks that come with that kind of advocacy work, and that so many anti-sex worker orgs are really keen to attack and target.
There are some folks in government who are talking about this, but I think we still have a long way to go. There was a recent health commission that began the conversation about decriminalization, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. And it’s so much easier to show up for this stuff if it doesn’t personally affect your livelihood, and it’s so much easier to critique legislation if it isn’t literally how you make a living.
Lenny: I just want to reiterate that Rhode Island is a really unique state because of that loophole where indoor prostitution was legal for a long period, and there’s data about it. It does put Rhode Island in a unique position where a lot of decriminalization groups want to focus on our state and use us as evidence.
Serena: It’s a small, Democratic state, so a lot of national lobbying groups see it is a test pilot for the entire country. In some ways that’s exciting, and in some ways that’s really challenging. Because we’ve definitely seen national lobbying groups want to use OSA, saying “look, we’re getting the verification from a local sex work org,” but not actually want to center the things that we’re saying or our needs, and operating within the political machine by working with lobbyists and representatives in backdoor-dealing ways. That’s been something that has definitely prevented us from doing advocacy work and makes us embed ourselves more on the community side of organizing.
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“Sex work is work” is a famous slogan in the sex worker advocacy movement. How are sex worker struggles related to the labor movement broadly? How can their connection be made clearer?
Lenny: Sex work is so many kinds of work under one umbrella, and each one has different needs and completely different legal standings. Being a stripper might present a different set of possibilities for workplace organizing than being a full-service sex worker, for example. Some sex workers have different types of control over their working conditions than others.
People love to say that sex work is so dangerous, and it can be, but other jobs are extremely dangerous as well, like construction, or fishing, or underwater welding, and they’re probably way more dangerous statistically. And sex work is not thought of as work by anti-sex work advocates, who think it’s always trafficking, or that you’re coerced into doing it no matter what.
Serena: We see the inclusion of strip clubs in a different context because of criminality: as long as sex work is criminalized, it can’t be included in traditional labor organizing models like unions because there is such high risk. There is already risk in joining unions and then participating in organizing. But for sex workers, outing yourself is so dangerous, and so many people are doing sex work to survive.
Karl Marx, for example, didn’t include sex workers in the traditional economy; they were part of the “lumpenproletariat,” or the class of people who are excluded from traditional economic participation and turn to the illicit economy. Exclusion is one of the biggest barriers to including and recognizing sex work as labor and including it in a larger movement.
So much of anti-sex work is rooted in morals. Labor trafficking, for example, is an enormous issue all over the world, with folks not working for fair wages or in conditions against their will. But popular narratives about trafficking are always about a sex worker who’s stolen out of a parking lot, when the reality is that so many people are subjected to trafficking through economic relationships, interpersonal relationships, immigration relationships. This is something we should talk about more in the labor movement, how most trafficking is actually done to domestic laborers and other kinds of…wage laborers, and it’s not all about sex work trafficking, even though ideas about it take up so much of the space.
Lenny: It’s so sensationalized. Because it has to do with sex, it’s bad. People automatically have this fantasy.
Serena: Yes, there’s this idea of the girl who gets taken from her like middle-class suburban home and gets put on the Internet. And that’s not the condition for a lot of people who are survivors of sex trafficking, and sex trafficking is very real. We in no way wish to invalidate the experiences of people who’ve been trafficked, but we want to represent that reality more accurately and how embedded it is in class condition and societal conditions that lead folks to be pushed into predatory situations of labor.
Lenny: Sex trafficking is not just that story about people getting kidnapped from parking lots. It does happen, but it looks so different than that, too. I feel…that it really does a disservice to sex trafficking survivors that that’s the main story when it can happen many other ways.
Serena: The stories of sex workers, trafficking survivors, anybody who has been involved in the sex industry—whether it’s been consensual or nonconsensual—they’re so nuanced and varied and can’t be homogenized by one larger story.
I think what both of you are saying is that all workers are at risk on the job—some workers, like domestic workers and undocumented workers are even at risk for trafficking—because all workers are exploited in different ways.
Serena: The future of the labor movement—because of the pandemic, because of the rise of contract and gig labor, because of the increase of people who are working without labor rights—could benefit at looking at the nuanced and varied ways that labor exists, and take a note from sex workers who have this deep resiliency that has enabled them to survive under exclusion forever. Being able to look at sex work, and the ways that sex workers have protected, organized themselves, and cared for one another would be valuable.
What other struggles does OSA hope to connect to the sex worker advocacy movement? There’s an obvious connection to worker rights, but what about reparations, abolition, or other movements for liberation?
Serena: Well, all struggles are intertwined. Specifically looking at prison abolition, there’s just a clear connection to the carcerality that exists to punish sex workers. There’s also a clear connection to drug users’ rights movements and housing movements. The decriminalization of drugs and the decriminalization of sex work also go hand-in-hand, because we see the…heavy intersection of sex workers who use drugs and the way that criminalization is used on both sides to prosecute large populations of people.
In terms of housing, it’s the same thing. When sex workers don’t have spaces to work, they’re at much higher risk. There’s the risk of police, of losing control over client interactions, of losing access to the community support from other workers. Sex workers can be so much safer with access to housing. But we see the way that all populations that are struggling for liberation and justice are embedded in one another.
Lenny: OSA also does work a lot in harm reduction, specifically. It’s focused on harm reduction materials like condoms, etc.
Serena: And going back to labor intersecting with identity, sex work is so intertwined with all movements because it is an umbrella for all identities. Because Black and sex workers of color exist, their struggle is intertwined with racial justice movements, for example. All identities include sex workers, and sex work needs to include all identities. Although people are expected to put their identities in different places to show up for different movement work, it would be wonderful if sex work—and the kinds of labor and identities that exist within it—was more included in other movement work.