On Saturday, the small park across from New York City’s famed Stonewall Inn began filling up and seemingly never stopped.
Demonstrators wove through the packed space passing out pamphlets, knelt to add finishing touches to their signs (“sex work is wealth redistribution,” “let us survive”), and opened symbolic red umbrellas against the afternoon sun. The crowd had assembled for International Whores Day, an event that, despite being celebrated around the world, goes largely unmarked in the U.S. This year, catalyzed by the recent passage of SESTA/FOSTA, sex workers’ rights activists were determined to take back June 2nd with demonstrations across the country.
The rally at Christopher Park quickly hit capacity, inspiring activists to lead the overflowing crowd to nearby Washington Square Park. As the 400-plus protesters took to humid streets, demonstrations in other cities swelled, with organizers reporting around 500 attendees at the San Francisco Bay Area rally, over 100 in Chicago and more than 300 participants in L.A.
In the face of SESTA, the controversial anti-trafficking legislation that sex workers say has already put many out of work and in harm’s way, International Whores Day taps into a history of resistance.
The whorestory of the day traces back to 1975, when a group of over 100 sex workers occupied a church in Lyon, France for eight days. Their protests against police brutality and harassment, and demands for an end to the humiliation and violence, still resonate with a criminalized and marginalized population. Red Schulte, an organizer with Support Ho(s)e and Survivors against SESTA, sees the 1975 church occupation as the “perfect analogy” for a moment when sex workers are organizing and fighting back in unprecedented numbers, telling the Daily Beast, “We’re experiencing a new wave of criminalization, a new wave of state violence.”
“The legacy of this particular day really resonated with those of us who have been doing the Survivors against SESTA organizing from the onset,” Schulte continued. “A lot of this has been, go into your community, meet in person because you can’t trust the Internet anymore, but we want to amplify all of our righteous anger and fury on the Internet.” International Whores Day provides “a tangible day to express collective rage, and to come together, and to take up as much space as we can.”
Taking up space as a sex worker has always been a risky proposition, given the ever-present threat of arrest and the stigma of being associated with the sex trade. Sex workers and activists say that SESTA, legislation which seeks to make online platforms liable for their users’ content, has further silenced their community. While SESTA’s purported target is sex traffickers and the websites that enable them, sites that consenting, adult sex workers use to advertise and screen clients have shut down in response to its passage. Experts insist that, without access to online advertising, newly unemployed sex workers may turn to dangerous street-based work or to pimps.
Cyndee Clay, the executive director of the D.C. harm reduction agency HIPS, previously warned the Daily Beast that SESTA is a step in exactly the wrong direction. “Online work got people off the streets, and it got people working independently. And that allowed a bunch of people who were formerly our clients to not live hand to mouth, and to not have to deal with the violence and the various challenges of working the streets. We saw a significant decrease in street prostitution and community complaints around street prostitution. And this law could turn all of that back.” According to recent post-SESTA reporting, Clay’s predictions are proving terrifyingly prescient.
Activists also fear that SESTA could inhibit the exchange of vital information and tools that help reduce harm among sex workers. Already, online lists of bad dates--clients who may pose a threat to workers--have started self-censoring, Reddit threads have shut down, and organizers have begun planning for a world in which it is no longer safe to discuss their plans or their work online.
At an IWD sign-making event days before the New York City demonstration, Schulte told the Daily Beast that these kinds of in-person spaces were even more vital post-SESTA. “The amount of labor and energy and time that organizing in general takes up is already astronomical, but then on top of it you’re trying to hustle to survive, you’re trying to help other people who are hustling to survive, and you can’t openly communicate on the Internet anymore.”
The fact that so many sex workers do not feel safe or comfortable being publicly “out” is another challenge. “We want co-conspirators, we want accomplices, we want non-sex workers to be there so that folks can hide in plain sight, basically,” Schulte explained. “People are afraid, and it’s real, and we should take all of those things into consideration when we plan events, but agitating and taking up space is necessary, demonstrating that we don’t have to just feel like fucking doormats.” No wonder Saturday’s rally began and ended not with a moment of silence, but with a collective scream.
“There are non-sex working people here who have our backs,” Schulte continued, gesturing at the group of about 20 sign-makers, diligently writing out their demands for decriminalization and “rights not raids” in inky cursive and decorating red umbrellas. “There are going to be non-sex working people at the event. We have accomplices in this struggle.”
The Survivors against SESTA website articulates the need to center the most marginalized within an already marginalized community—those who have been hit hardest by SESTA. Their “core message” for International Whores Day emphasizes that, “Our actions must center and lift up our most vulnerable community members. The police most often target immigrant, undocumented, POC, trans, gnc [gender non-compliant], and cash poor workers.”
The less privilege a worker has, and the more housing or food insecurity they’re already facing, the more likely they’d be to enter into a potentially dangerous situation. Dominique*, a representative from the Lysistrata mutual care fund, which provides financial assistance to workers on the fringes, explained at the rally that, “Shifting financial resources to those most in need is a form of harm reduction. With direct financial aid, our members are empowered to avoid risky work conditions.”
“Let me make this abundantly clear: sex work is work. It is labor. It is a solution more accessible than many others,” she said. “It provides immediate income to its workers across a multitude of genders, races, nationalities, and abilities. When other doors are shut, sex work is open.”
Dominique* reiterated that SESTA has empowered abusers and bad dates, putting “the individuals most harmed by criminalization and policing” in even more danger.
The real-world aftermath of SESTA proved a common thread among the community speakers, who took turns addressing the reassembled crowd in front of the Washington Square arch. Two representatives from the Sex Workers Project, which provides legal and social services to sex workers, spoke out in opposition to SESTA, “as advocates and daily witnesses to the lived experiences of people in the sex trade.”
“We know these hateful laws fail workers and trafficking survivors alike,” the representatives, Liz Afton and Molly Cohen, continued. “We are tired of watching law after law roll out robbing people of their human rights. Cutting off options for survival in the name of trafficking prevention. Human trafficking is an egregious violation of human rights. Why would you respond by taking rights away?”
An anonymous community organizer told the crowd about a friend who was recently assaulted “by a new client she was unable to screen after FOSTA,” adding, “legislators know they’re killing us. In private conversations, they say, we understand. But when it’s time to vote, they conveniently forget.”
Ceyenne Doroshow, the Founder and Director of the advocacy organization GLITS (Gays and Lesbians Living In a Transgender Society) shared, “I’ve buried so many children. I’ve seen so many girls get murdered…losing my sisters, losing my brothers. This is sick.”
As the circle of protestors constricted, a horizon of red parasols and black fishnets, speakers vacillated between rage, hope, love and mourning. The crowd held vigil for lost friends, wiping away tears and sweat as they repeated back names of loved ones.
Taking in the sight, writer and porn performer Lorelei Lee announced, “When politicians and police and our own families don’t believe we deserve safety, when survival is criminalized, when racism and whore stigma and trans stigma are enshrined in the law, the only way that we can survive is by showing up for each other.”
“I have been a sex worker for 18 years. And in that time, I’ve lost too many friends and many of them died believing that their lives were less valuable because of the work they’ve done with their bodies. Many times I’ve asked myself why and how I’m still here. The only answer I can come to is that I’m here because of you.”
At the same time, there was a palpable hope among the crowd; a sense of wonder at the turnout for the event and at the community, and the new world that an organized resistance might usher in.
Activists envisioned full decriminalization; Mariah*, the Executive Director of the transgender rights advocacy group STARR, demanded decriminalization by Pride, and pushed for “money and resources for sex workers to survive,” adding, “when I come across 24, 25 year old trans women in the outer boroughs working the street, I am alarmed. I am afraid. I am outraged that the Department of Health will give them a bottle of Truvada and not guarantee them housing.”
Activist and sex worker Yin Q. earned cheers by announcing, “Bodily autonomy and freedom to earn a living is the American way.”
“We are not just outsiders. We are part of the American fabric. There would be no gay pride without the blood and sweat of brown-skinned trans sex workers. They ignited a movement for love to win. Stand with us to fight hate, to fight violence, to fight for our basic human rights.”
The news that Congressional candidate Suraj Patel, who’s challenging one of the lead co-sponsors of FOSTA-SESTA, was in attendance also energized the crowd. An organizer urged protesters to “show up for someone who stands up for us,” adding, “Let’s show the nation you don’t need to throw sex workers under the bus to win an election.”
Near the end of the rally, Red Schulte read out a piece by Alisha Walker, who is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence for killing a client; Walker says that she acted in self-defense after the man charged at her with a knife.
“When International Whores Day started, in 1975, the whores of France banded together because they were sick and tired of being harassed and abused by the same people who used their services,” Walker wrote. “They were tired of cops.”
“Isn’t that our fight?” the piece continued. “To bring awareness to us whores? To stop the neglect and abuse that’s caused to us by the ones who still can’t stamp us out?”
“Why is everyone scared of whores? Well shit, maybe they should be.”
*Journalists were advised prior to the rally that some speakers would be going by their first names only, or may choose to remain completely anonymous.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misquoted Lorelei Lee as saying "whorephobia" and "transphobia" in her address at the rally. She said "whore stigma" and "trans stigma." We regret the error.