Inside Sex Workers’ Fight for the Next Ocasio-Cortez: ‘There’s an Awakening Happening’
On a rainy Sunday in Brooklyn, organizers and sex workers went door-to-door canvassing for Julia Salazar, a buzzy DSA candidate running for New York State Senate.
This rainy Sunday, sheltered by trees and surrounded by a circle of supporters, Julia Salazar gave a short speech that covered a number of her core concerns, from labor rights to stable and affordable housing. Salazar, who’s challenging incumbent Democrat Martin Dilan for the New York state Senate’s 18th district seat in North Brooklyn, related all of these issues back to the cause of the day: sex workers’ rights, and the fight for decriminalization.
At the end of her remarks, Salazar heralded the historic meet-up—a canvassing event to talk to voters about Salazar’s sex-work platform—as a step toward “liberation for sex workers, and for everyone in our communities.” Gatherings like this one, in which sex workers, activists, and allies convene in parks, town halls, packed rooms, and even Congress, have taken on an increasingly urgent tone in the wake of SESTA/FOSTA, an anti-sex trafficking law that has further criminalized an already criminalized community, putting sex workers out of work and reportedly pushing them into unsafe and exploitative positions. Despite SESTA/FOSTA, which also threatens online communication between sex workers, sex workers’ rights activists have continued to organize—not just against the legislation, but for nothing less than liberation.
Salazar’s sex-work policy, billed as “concrete steps toward decriminalizing sex work and upholding the rights of sex working communities in New York,” includes a number of proposals that would be familiar to sex-work activists and allies. But for a New York state Senate candidate, they’re revolutionary—which is one more thing that Salazar would like to change. “People will say that this is radical,” Salazar told the crowd, “That what we are doing today is radical, that what I’m describing is radical, but we all know that it needs to be the norm.”
Salazar is the latest in a handful of politicians to stand with sex workers. The list includes Suraj Patel, who challenged one of FOSTA’s co-sponsors and lost but with an impressive 41 percent of the vote, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has come out against the legislation. For Lola Balcon, a community organizer who helped candidates like Patel and Salazar craft their sex-work platforms, Sunday’s event was all about sending the message that sex workers vote—and that candidates who support them will gain the backing of a passionate, powerful, and well-organized community. As she warned the circle of canvassers before they decamped to knock on doors, “The future success of our movement depends on getting Salazar elected.”
“I don’t know if there’s enough community awareness that Julia Salazar is really out here and supporting sex workers and supporting decriminalization,” Balcon told The Daily Beast. “Julia has a lot of media exposure. She didn’t need to come out strong on this issue. She did it because in her many years of organizing against abusive policing, she’s seen how the criminalization of sex work impacts communities, and she thinks it’s the right thing to do. This is actually quite a risky position for her to take, and I think as a community we need to demonstrate that if you’re willing to take that position, that’s something we really appreciate, and are willing to put in time for.” She hopes that this sort of demonstration will trigger a domino effect, with more politicians daring to take sex workers’ rights seriously.
“I think one of the biggest barriers that we face is the notion that this is a fringe issue,” Balcon continued. “It’s not a fringe issue. Twenty percent of trans people self-report trading sex, 50 percent of black trans women. Six percent of men and women report having traded sex at some point. And those numbers are all vast underestimates because of the stigma of reporting. So by sheer numbers, this is an issue that really matters. And on top of that, politicians that claim to care about things like LGBTQ rights and policing and bodily autonomy have to talk about this issue.”
“If you really want to fight for marginalized communities, then you need to stand up on this issue.”
Salazar’s sex-work platform mirrors Balcon’s remarks, placing policy proposals within frameworks that are far more ubiquitous on the left. A proposal to “stop vice raids on massage parlors now” quickly draws connections between these NYPD raids and the issue of immigrant rights. As the policy paper explains, “Many of these raids are conducted in conjunction with ICE, and as the arrestees are moved through the prostitution diversion courts, they are stalked and deported by ICE.”
Another proposal aims to “pass the bill to repeal the Loitering for Prostitution statute,” pointing out that, according to a 2014 Red Umbrella Project study, “94 percent of people arrested under this statute in Brooklyn and Queens were black women.” During her speech, Salazar emphasized that “sex workers’ rights are related to a greater fight for criminal justice reform.” She continued, “Criminalizing sex work is a form of broken windows policing. We oppose it in all of its other forms, it is generally accepted and known that broken windows policing is harmful and discriminatory and ineffective… And so, we shouldn’t tolerate it when it’s used to target sex workers either.”
For Salazar, the issue of sex work is far from fringe. When a Twitter user on Sunday criticized her for prioritizing the decriminalization of sex work, Salazar responded, “East New York and Bushwick—neighborhoods in my district—have the highest rate of residents being arrested for the harmful ‘loitering for the purpose of prostitution’ charge of anywhere in New York. It’s a serious issue here, even if you personally don’t care about it.”
Taking on initiatives that sex workers’ rights organizers have prioritized stands to improve the lives of many of the people that Salazar hopes to serve—particularly marginalized groups, like trans women and women of color. Additionally, much of Salazar’s preexisting platform already speaks to sex-work activists’ concerns. In the fight against sex trafficking—a fight that Salazar insists should be led and informed by sex workers’ experiences—as one organizer told the canvassers, “Antipoverty work is the best anti-trafficking work.” The more opportunities a person has, Salazar’s platform suggests, the less likely they are to be exploited.
Salazar told The Daily Beast that, due to this profound interconnectedness, she didn’t initially conceive of sex workers’ rights and decriminalization as a “separate plank” in her platform. “In the course of this campaign, I actually didn’t think about it, I guess, as a single issue, or in a vacuum,” she began. “I would still say that I don’t think of it that way; because I don’t think of it that way, I didn’t think of it as a separate plank in my platform. I think of it as a labor issue and a feminist issue, and an issue of human rights that intersects with all of these other social justice issues.”
“We know that black women especially, but women of color, immigrant women, certainly in the case of massage parlor raids, are disproportionately affected by this. So when we speak about rights for all immigrants, for all people of color, for all women and gender non-conforming people, we need to consider what is actually affecting their lives, and the decriminalization of sex work certainly is,” Salazar continued. She cited Balcon and advocates from the Sex Workers Project, who contacted her about potential policy surrounding sex work and “alerted me to really emphasize it, instead of just taking it for granted.”
But the state Senate candidate’s personal reckoning with this issue predated her campaign. “Just as an individual and an organizer and activist, I probably first started to think about it when I was a domestic worker,” Salazar told The Daily Beast. “I was a nanny for a family of four, I cleaned apartments, that’s the work that I did for the most part for about four years. And it’s not the same as being a sex worker, but when I would hear stories about sex workers and how people started doing the work in the first place, and also the challenges they faced, a lot of it was really relatable to me. Domestic workers likewise, and for similar reasons—often a history of discrimination—are excluded from collective bargaining rights, from labor law and labor protections. So I think that’s when I first started to think about it, and became really empathetic toward the fight for sex workers’ rights.”
Before heading out to talk to registered Democrats around Williamsburg, an estimated group of 35 canvassers spent a few hours in McCarren Park. In addition to the requisite canvassing clipboards and infinite supply of Domino’s Pizza, volunteers were given quick tips on talking about sex work, and briefed on common questions like, “What is sex work?” “What about trafficking?” and “What’s the difference between legalization and decriminalization?” While going over possible responses, organizers Lola Balcon and Emily Iris urged canvassers to focus on economic realities and harm reduction, not moral debates: “We don’t need to have a conversation about feminism. The fact of the matter is, people will trade sex for economic reasons, regardless of the legal status of that work. You can either make it safe, or not make it safe.” A “canvass workshop” led by organizers Eric Wimer and Kaytlin Bailey emphasized the urgency of this gathering, with Salazar’s September 13 primary fast approaching. Volunteers were told that, given the historically low turnout, just a few dozen people could have a significant impact.
Sydney Casey is an activist and a street medic who’s been organizing around sex workers’ rights for years. She showed up to Sunday’s canvass to support Salazar’s campaign, but also to congregate with sex workers, activists, and allies. “At all of the community spaces that I’ve seen since FOSTA and SESTA passed, the desire for that kind of support and community seems really present,” Casey told The Daily Beast. “Sex workers have always been on the margins, but now to even exchange information or communicate with one another online is dangerous, so in person meetings have never been more important. I think holding space together, and going out into a neighborhood together, with the understanding that this is hard and a little bit embarrassing and anxiety inducing, but we believe in it so we’re going to do it anyways, is imperative.”
Walking down a quiet Brooklyn street with a clipboard and a handful of flyers, Casey said that she was excited to see sex work getting more and more press coverage, and becoming part of the political conversation: “When SESTA was passed, it brought a lot of people to the idea that sex work should be decriminalized. I think post-SESTA there’s a lot more organizing happening because of the fact that sex workers are in the press a lot more now, so more people are thinking about it. I think there’s an awakening happening in our culture right now.”
“If we can move this to a more mainstream issue, I think a lot of people would see the reason in it,” she told The Daily Beast. “If you care about workers’ rights, if you care about women’s rights or bodily autonomy for trans folks, queer folks, people of color, then you should care about this issue.” Plus, Casey added, “It’s not about, ‘Do you know any sex workers?’ Everyone knows a sex worker, whether they feel comfortable coming out to you or not.”
Still, Casey makes it clear that she wouldn’t show up for just any candidate. “I tend to be really skeptical of elected officials, especially on the state and federal levels. Like, I don’t know these people. Julia Salazar is somebody I know. She’s in DSA, I’m a DSA member. Because Julia is a member of my community, seeing her speak up and be a leader on these issues made me want to be here today.”
Casey consulted the assigned route before arriving at her first designated building. The building is huge, and dense with registered Democrats. People are generally kind when they open the door, but there are various impediments to meaningful conversation—one potential Salazar voter is on the phone with her mother, another’s baby is asleep, some folks aren’t home or appear to have moved apartments. Whenever she gets the chance, Casey briefly summarizes Salazar’s platform, and explains that the particular focus of today’s canvass is sex workers’ rights and decriminalization. The response is solid, more interested than not—one “Salazar? I’m going to look her up,” and a number of verbal commitments to reading the pamphlets.
One resident immediately responded to Salazar’s name with an “I’m voting for her,” citing her position on affordable housing. He added, “This building’s subsidized housing, so hopefully you should be able to get people on your side. Folks can be kind of bougie around here.”
Heading to the next spot, Casey said that she was pleased with her first building of the day, and how folks seemed to take the sex work talking points in stride. “People that I was reading as women, they seemed pretty open to it,” Casey reflected. “I didn’t see a single pair of eyebrows go up. That surprised me.”
Canvassing just a few blocks in Williamsburg, Casey talked to residents in both subsidized housing and luxury apartments. It’s been hypothesized that Salazar, like Ocasio-Cortez before her, might benefit from gentrifiers’ votes. The Intercept has reported that, “Ocasio-Cortez did particularly well in areas of her district experiencing an influx of white transplants—disrupting the narrative that she won solely because nonwhite voters wanted a nonwhite candidate. Though these new residents tend to be wealthier than their neighbors, they’ve also experienced downward mobility as a result of the financial crisis and tend to support Bernie Sanders-type universal programs.”
Salazar’s opponent Dilan, then a City Council member, voted in favor of “vacancy decontrol” in 1994. According to ProPublica, that crucial vote “allowed a landlord to escape regulation and charge market rates once tenants moved out of apartments that cost at least $2,000 a month.”
As Gaby del Valle noted in a City & State profile, “If Salazar does win with the help of gentrifiers who replaced rent-stabilized tenants, one could say Dilan sowed the seeds of his own destruction.”
Waiting to see if anyone would buzz her up, Casey talked about the barriers preventing allies and activists, let alone sex workers, from showing up at events like this one. “I’m publicly for sex workers’ rights, and I’m often interrogated and solicited just for supporting those rights,” she told The Daily Beast. “So I think it’s really brave of people like Julia and other candidates that are talking about this issue to come forward on it, because the stigma is so intense in our society that people can’t even say ‘I think these people deserve rights’ without that kind of interrogation—let alone actually identifying as a sex worker. And that keeps people in the shadows. No one can fight for their autonomy if they can’t come out in public and be who they are.”
She laughed, “I want it to be cool to be a sex workers’ rights advocate.”
Balcon also noted that approaching strangers about this issue can put canvassers in a vulnerable position. “There’s still some fear around talking to a stranger about sex work,” Balcon said. “Like, what are they going to say about sex work that might make you feel really bad about yourself?”
But at a post-canvassing meet back at Union Pool, Balcon was pleased to report largely positive reactions from the Williamsburg community. “Everyone reacted well to talking about sex work!” she exclaimed. “Maybe it’s the neighborhood, but even people just walking by the canvassing event today, when they heard what we were talking about, they were like oh yeah, groovy. This is a great district for this issue.”
“I think it’s because the people who I canvassed all happened to be fairly young,” she continued, “And I think there’s a generation of people who grew up on news of racial bias and policing and incarceration and have a framing around that. So if you can put it into that frame, then you don’t have those old feminist debates about whether or not this is empowering. It’s just not relevant.”
Casey was also pleased with the day, saying, “Honestly, it went a lot better than I thought it would.” Another canvasser who spoke to The Daily Beast appeared to have had a similar experience, reporting that people seemed to be receptive and open to learning more, but didn’t ask the kinds of specific, probing questions that organizers had prepared the volunteers for. Casey found it revealing that, even in their own homes, people didn’t seem too uncomfortable engaging on the topic of sex work.
“I think it’s cool that nobody had the reaction that was like, what the fuck,” She said. “Nobody had an aggressive reaction to us wanting to talk about it. But I think the smile-and-nod response speaks to the level of stigma that surrounds sex work as an issue, even though, like, how normalized is it in our culture to be a sex-worker client? But somehow they can’t even talk about treating these performers and workers as people.”
Like Balcon, Casey has encountered the narrative that sex work is a fringe issue “that only effects a small number of people—and that’s absolutely false.” She explained that, “Having been a leftist in one way or another since I was young, I’ve noticed that this issue hasn’t always been seen as legitimate. I’ve heard people describe sex-worker concerns as bourgeois, which I find really upsetting, because who owns the means of production in their labor better than a sex worker? They are the means of their production!”
Still, Casey is cautiously optimistic, saying, “I’ve seen a trend in the last four years or so where this has started to be taken more seriously, and with SESTA we actually have momentum on the left. People see it as a matter of justice and liberatory politics.”
“I’ve never seen people take the concerns of sex workers this seriously,” Casey concluded. “This ability to hold space together in person and be seen as a legitimate voting force, a legitimate political force, is unfortunately new, but I’m so glad it’s happening. As we move forward and try to build a better world together, the conversation needs to include sex workers’ rights.”
“I hope that we can all keep in mind that this long-ignored community really needs us. I hope that the momentum keeps going. I hope that Julia Salazar wins and is proof to everyone who comes after that this is a winning position.”