TAKING A STAND

A New York Political Hopeful’s Sex-Worker Fight

Suraj Patel is challenging Carolyn Maloney for her congressional seat in the upcoming New York Democratic primary. And he’s doing so by coming out strongly against FOSTA-SESTA.

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In June, a crowd of over 400 sex workers, activists, organizers and allies convened across from the Stonewall Inn to celebrate International Whore’s Day. Sex workers, who belong to a criminalized and marginalized community, gathered in celebration and in protest. Their demonstration made a statement—that, even in the face of ever-present policing and a new wave of harmful legislation, sex workers can and will gather out in the open to flex their political muscle. This was best articulated in a chant, near the end of the protest, for congressional candidate Suraj Patel.

Patel is challenging Carolyn Maloney for her 12th District seat in the upcoming New York Democratic primary. In addition to being a 25-year incumbent, Maloney is also a co-sponsor of FOSTA. FOSTA and its sister Senate bill, SESTA, were ostensibly designed to fight sex trafficking. Already, the legislation has resulted in numerous websites self-censoring, for fear that they will be held liable for “facilitating prostitution.” Rather than, say, providing resources to trafficking survivors, community organizers and sex workers report that FOSTA-SESTA has served to shut down platforms for advertising and screening clients, pushing sex workers into the streets and halting online communication and harm reduction.

Standing in the crowd of protest signs and red parasols, Patel got to hear hundreds of community members and allies screaming his name, as an organizer urged protestors to “show up for someone who stands up for us.” She continued, “Let’s show the nation you don’t need to throw sex workers under the bus to win an election.”

In a courtyard outside of his campaign offices, Patel described being completely overwhelmed by the crowd’s support. “I’m just a first-time candidate, I’m 34 years old—eight months ago I was a completely private citizen,” he told The Daily Beast. “So it’s strange to be honest with you, and a little overwhelming. A lot of people are counting on this campaign to win.”

While the hotel executive and NYU business ethics professor has gotten a good deal of press exposure for being the rare anti-FOSTA-SESTA candidate, he didn’t initially aim to align his campaign with sex workers’ rights. In fact, Patel says that he had no idea what FOSTA-SESTA was when he started out. He was quickly inundated with messages from constituents, asking him what he planned to do about his opponent’s pet bill. “Honest to God, the first few days we just ignored it,” Patel admitted. “We Googled it and were like whoa, probably don’t want to touch that, kept moving.” But as time went on, and the messages kept coming, he decided to revisit it, thinking, “Maloney’s a big champion of this thing, let’s at least look at it and see what it is.” His campaign spent two months working with various organizations, talking to sex workers and trafficking survivors, people who opposed FOSTA-SESTA and people who championed it.

Not only are people being hurt by this, trans women especially, but it’s actually become harder to prosecute trafficking.

“We realized there are a lot of people being hurt out there,” Patel recalled, adding, “Harm reduction is the number one principle that I want to start this campaign with. Legislating morality is way above my pay grade, and I do not plan to do it. Ever. But we have caused harm, by our own doing, and we have not solved the trafficking problem. Not only are people being hurt by this, trans women especially, but it’s actually become harder to prosecute trafficking.”

“Clearly this is like a Mike Pence-y, moralizing bill because sex trafficking isn’t even the largest form of trafficking!” Patel offered. “If we cared about trafficking, we’d talk more broadly about labor trafficking—and of course undocumented immigrants, who don’t have any recourse in the police and the criminal justice system. But we didn’t. And so clearly the motives were skewed, and Democrats fell for the trap, as they tend to often do.”

He continued, “So I think that it’s important that we offer an alternative to the actual problem they were saying they were going to solve, and then say, what you really were trying to do is moralize around sex work and stigmatize it further.”

Patel conceptualizes his fight against FOSTA-SESTA within a larger framework. He emphasized that the legislation affects “the most marginalized among us,” including but not limited to trans folks, people of color, and undocumented people. Talking about FOSTA-SESTA lends itself to a conversation about mass incarceration and harmful policing—and it is Patel’s belief that the diverse, educated, extremely liberal district he seeks to represent ought to be at the forefront of these debates. Or as he puts it, “If we don’t look at prevention instead of punishment here, across all kinds of criminal justice issues, not just SESTA-FOSTA, then who will?”

As a candidate who “plans to win,” Patel aspires to raise up the sex-worker community that has literally rallied behind him. “I get to move in places and hallways that sex workers don’t get to yet. And therefore, my allyship is one to elevate their voices, and destigmatize sex work.”

A day later, on a scorching-hot New York City Saturday, Patel was in Ridgewood trying to do just that. With Survivors Against SESTA, Patel’s campaign organized a town hall for sex workers and allies. It was billed as an opportunity for the community to ask Patel questions, share experiences and concerns, and generally hold space.

Two hundred people packed into The Dreamhouse, a DIY venue draped in chandeliers and gilded mirrors. For the event, the club was filled with chairs circling a makeshift stage. Lola, an organizer with Survivors Against SESTA, welcomed the crowd.

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On the phone a few days before the town hall, Lola stressed that Patel was a singular candidate. “We have a lot of conversations with various elected officials at various levels of office where they will seem to understand the issues that we talk about, and then just feel like they don’t have the political cover to support us publicly,” she explained. “And so that I think is what’s really different about Suraj, is that he’s not ashamed, and he’s actually actively and explicitly supporting the safety of sex workers.” In speaking up for sex workers, Patel has gained some vocal supporters. According to Lola, “We know a lot of sex workers who’ve canvassed for the campaign because of his positions on sex work. People have done a ton of spreading word about it on social media. I know people who registered to vote who were not previously registered to vote in Democratic primaries, just so they could vote for Suraj.”

While sex workers are still very much reeling from FOSTA-SESTA, Lola posited that the “devastating” legislation has also managed to catalyze the community: “Because of how swift that devastation was, it politicized a lot of people who weren’t previously politicized, and media also began covering the harm in such a way that in previous times sex workers weren’t really covered. So it sort of gave people more room to think about this issue critically instead of just having that immediate response of, ‘Oh, sex work is trafficking, all women are exploited, etc.’”

“Obviously we really hope that Suraj will win, we hope that he’ll be an advocate for us in Congress,” Lola concluded. “But at the end of the day, even if he doesn’t, this is a really big step in the right direction for us, because the entire campaign shows that you can support sex workers and still do OK, and actually get a really positive community response from it.”

Ceyenne Doroshow, the Founder and Director of the advocacy organization GLITS (Gays and Lesbians Living In a Transgender Society), explained why so many people were sacrificing a day at the beach to sit in a dark room in Ridgewood. “Our community is getting raped, beaten, murdered, and we have no way to defend ourselves,” she said, introducing Patel to the crowd. “Suraj, you’re our way.”

Doroshow joined Cecilia Gentili of GMHC and Womankind’s Aya Tasaki in a panel discussion that hit on the aftermath of FOSTA-SESTA and potential next steps. Gentili, who’s the Director of Policy at GMHC, “the world’s first and leading provider of HIV/AIDS prevention, care and advocacy,” spoke candidly about what she’s been seeing in the community: “Specifically right now in Jackson Heights, there’s been a tremendous number of violence against sex workers that identify as trans and are undocumented. And because they are sex workers, because they are undocumented, and because they are trans, these people are not comfortable with coming out in any kind of way.” She added that, “These people were doing sex work in their houses, in their places, and it was relatively safe for them. But because they are unable to advertise online, they have been forced to go back to the streets, where all these predators are going to them and stealing their money, violently approach them, rape them.”

“There was this girl last week that was stabbed five times. Five fucking times,” Gentili said, visibly emotional. “That’s how bad it is. That’s what SESTA and FOSTA is doing to the community.” As a transgender woman who was formerly undocumented, Gentili spoke on undocumented trans people who do sex work “because they make the decision to do, or because it’s the only thing that we can do. Because realistically, nobody offers many jobs to trans people, and there are not many jobs that a person without documented status can do here.” Trans people disproportionately engage in sex work, and are disproportionately targeted and policed for doing so. FOSTA-SESTA has only increased the danger. “I’m tired of us being stabbed, beaten, robbed, chased,” Doroshow offered. “And then we wind up being criminalized.” 

Still, Gentili offered a note of hope: “I dreamt years ago of the days when a politician was going to be with me, talking about what sex work looks like for an undocumented trans woman. And check this out: it’s happening now, and it’s happening out of struggle.”

Tasaki, Manager of Policy and Advocacy at Womankind, formerly the New York Asian Women’s Center, echoed Doroshow and Gentili’s testimonies while also offering a tip to outsiders attempting to catalogue community harm. “What we are demanded by all of these funders and politicians is like, give us numbers,” Tasaki said. “Give us all of the proof. And it’s like, just trust us. Just listen to our stories. It doesn’t seem to be enough for leaders like Ceyenne and Cecilia to be like, this is happening in my community! Somehow still, the system is requiring us to bulk that up with numbers…These are the deaths. How many more do you need for you to believe us?”

During his remarks, Patel spoke out against Congress for failing to “talk to the people who are going to be most affected by that law,” and against FOSTA-SESTA, calling it “a charade of a bill.”

“Every small-thinking politician that wants to take a bipartisan victory back home,” he continued, “can stand around Donald Trump in the Oval Office and pat themselves on the back for coming out against trafficking when all they really did was make it very difficult for lots of people in this country to survive, and made it much more likely that they would be exploited.”

But Patel urged the attendees not to be discouraged by the massive number of votes in support. If he were to defeat a 25-year-incumbent, he wagered, politicians’ sense of self-preservation would probably kick in. “If we terrify folks by saying, we’re going to vote, and we’re going to vote in large numbers, and we’re gonna organize, and we’re gonna out-organize, you’ll be surprised to see how many more doors and conference rooms start opening up to working on repealing this, or coming up with a way to dramatically restructure it so that it exempts voluntary, consensual sex work,” he said.

He went on to push back against the idea that sex work is a niche issue, or one that wouldn’t appeal to the majority of voters. Instead of “otherizing” the issue, he suggested broadening the conversation to talk about mass incarceration, and labor rights, as well as humanizing the sex workers who have been negatively affected: “Putting faces to the violence and showing that these are real people is one huge component.” Plus, he added, “There’s an estimated 10 to 20,000 sex workers in this district. Which means that there’s, who knows how many hundreds of thousands of clients in this district.”

While Patel received a lot of applause on his vision and allyship, he also got pushback. During the Q&A portion of the event, a self-identified organizer questioned if the candidate’s support of the sex-worker community would extend beyond the campaign—even if he loses. As one of the first and few politicians to come out against the legislation, would he continue to be a face of the anti-FOSTA-SESTA movement? While Patel joked that, if things didn’t go his way, he would start by engaging in a lot of “self-care,” he continued, “I’m 34 years old, and I’m not going anywhere.”

“For me this isn’t work anymore, this is just what I like to do. And because of it, I’ll be right here with you guys all the way through. That’s a promise.”

The fact that Patel, who maintains that he wants to keep hearing from the community and evolving his positions, has yet to come out in support of full decriminalization, remained a point of frustration. One attendee explained, “What you’re saying right now, it’s great, and it’s awesome, and it’s just not enough. So I need to know that you’re going to keep listening to us, and continue that learning that you’re doing.” While she thanked Patel for coming and speaking with the community, and for opposing FOSTA-SESTA, she continued, “I need to say that I am really tired of being grateful for so little.”

The event ended with another chant, something Patel’s probably gotten a little more used to by now.

“Sex workers vote,” the crowd screamed. “And we’re voting Suraj in.”