The fissures in modern feminism were on display Monday in New York, when two sex workers crashed a protest by women’s rights advocates opposed to a sex-work decriminalization bill being pushed by a different advocacy group.
Members of the National Organization for Women, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and other anti-trafficking organizations teamed up to oppose the bill, slated to be introduced in the New York State Senate this session, which would remove all criminal penalties for the consensual sale of sex between adults. The participants argued the measure would allow pimps and johns to exploit women without consequence, turning New York into a “Las Vegas of the Northeast.”
But the gathering in front of City Hall—which featured a written statement of support by iconic women’s rights leader Gloria Steinem—was interrupted by two current sex workers who shouted, “Listen to sex workers!” and carried signs reading “Consensual sex workers against sex trafficking.”
“It’s important for us to be here because we are consensual sex workers, and the idea that sex work can never be consensual is just wrong,” one of the demonstrators, who goes by the name SXNoir, told The Daily Beast.
“Just with the language that’s been used here ... it’s basically painting us as victims, which is not our story,” said the second woman, who identified herself as Adrienne. “People have that story and I think that’s valid. But that's not my story and that’s not a lot of people’s stories, and those deserve to be heard as well.”
The showdown epitomized a hot-button divide in a movement that has long dismissed sex work as inherently patriarchal, but is facing renewed pressure to accept it as a legitimate form of work.
Prominent #Metoo movement figure Ashley Judd faced protests last year for referring to prostitution as “paid rape,” while Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) has attracted criticism for enforcing anti-sex-work laws as a California prosecutor. Even Steinem was taken to task on popular feminist podcast Call Your Girlfriend last month over her position that prostitution constitutes “bodily invasion.”
The participation of NOW, a historic women’s rights group, in Monday’s protest was met with backlash even before the event began. Women’s March Inc. Co-President Bob Bland implored the organization to cancel the protest, while International Women's Health Coalition President Francoise Girard called it “terrible” in a tweet.
NOW New York President Sonia Ossorio told The Daily Beast that her organization also wants to stop the arrests of sex workers, but contends that many of those advocating for decriminalization of buyers “haven’t thought it through.” She added that the primary danger to sex workers is not threat of arrest, but the job itself.
“What makes their job dangerous is when the door locks behind them, and they’re with a sex buyer, a stranger that they don’t know, who could potentially physically harm them,” she said. “The job is inherently dangerous because of the job that it is.”
Members of sex workers advocacy group Decrim NY pushed back in a press release, citing multiple human rights groups that endorse full decriminalization as the only way to prevent sex trafficking. The organization, which launched last month, helped write the New York decriminalization bill being championed by State Sens. Jessica Ramos, Julia Salazar and Brad Hoylman and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried.
“Decrim NY works to end violence, not just for sex workers but for survivors of exploitation,” the group said in a statement. “Decriminalization does not make rape, trafficking, assault or any form of violence or exploitation legal.”
The lone legislator to speak at Monday’s rally, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), said she also wants to decriminalize women in the sex trade, but argued that her colleagues’ bill would “let the pimps, the johns, and the exploiters off the hook.”
Rally participants also included members of OBJECT, a U.K.-based organization that advocates against prostitution, pornography, and “transgenderism,” as first noted by writer Melissa Gira Grant. A statement on the group’s website says it is “concerned by the dangerous impact ‘transgender’ ideology and practice has on women and children,” and that transgender acceptance is “in direct opposition to the views of feminists.”
“I’m not surprised the trans community was targeted here,” Mateo Guerrero-Tabares, a trans advocate and Decrim NY Steering Committee member, said in a statement. “We fight to decriminalize the sex trades because it is a matter of survival for our community.”
Both NOW and Maloney disavowed OBJECT’s message on Twitter. NOW spokeswoman Jean Bucaria told The Daily Beast she did not know how the group came to participate, though they were prominently featured in the crowd of supporters behind the podium.