The Kink and Tattoo Artists Letting Their Freak Flags Fly for Sex Workers’ Rights
Brooklyn artists came out in force on Sunday to support a community raising funds for vulnerable sex workers endangered by a new law.
In April, a mashup of two bills, SESTA and FOSTA, was signed into law. SESTA/FOSTA aimed to combat sex trafficking online. But according to many sex working people and community advocates, as well as sex trafficking survivors, the law has already begun to put people in peril by limiting access to safety resources, work, and community. Already, websites that were used to screen dates, find clients, and share resources have self-censored and shuttered, forcing workers onto the streets and into potentially exploitative situations.
Lysistrata Mutual Care Collective & Fund, an emergency fund that provides financial resources to sex workers in crisis, experienced a “huge flurry of requests” in the wake of SESTA/FOSTA’s passage. Cora Colt, the co-founder and acting treasurer of the fund, told the Daily Beast that although the law does not fully go into effect until the new year, “the amount of instability they’ve managed to create from what measures online platforms have already taken voluntarily paints a bleak picture for the hardships workers will be experiencing when we start finding out how far this administration is going to take this very dangerous constitutional loophole they’ve created for themselves.” Lysistrata MCCF currently offers emergency assistance in amounts of $50 to $200, and has provided funds to “around 80 individuals” since March.
“The harm SESTA/FOSTA is causing is being exacerbated by increases in discrimination and violence, cutting of health/social services and benefits, and increased powers given to law and immigration enforcement,” Colt continued. “What this combination of factors is very literally doing is forcing people into the industry out of desperation, taking away what safety networks might have been available to them and pushing them out of indoor living and working spaces onto the street where workers are being assaulted, trafficked, pimped, murdered and arrested in staggering numbers compared to previous years (the majority of these deaths that I know of have been trans women of color).”
But SESTA/FOSTA is impacting a resilient community that’s intent on resisting, organizing, and surviving. Galvanized by the legislation, sex workers and allies have rallied for their rights and canvassed for politicians committed to decriminalization. On Sunday, the community came together to raise funds for Lysistrata MCCF. Organizers transformed a Bushwick bar into a kinky wonderland of live tattooing and BDSM experiences, selling original art and 20-minute bondage scenes to benefit sex workers in need.
KD Diamond, one of (K)INK OUT’s five hosts, first started brainstorming the event with Bridget Conway-Taylor last summer. “We talked about how it would be really great to do a fundraiser for all of our sex worker friends and loves that features tattooing and came from a kink perspective, but was just a great fundraiser in response to FOSTA/SESTA,” she told The Daily Beast, adding that she’s been involved in the kink scene for at least 14 years and has been tattooing for the past three.
In her experience, there’s a “huge overlap” between the tattoo, kink, and sex worker communities. A third organizer, Yin Q, who started (K)INK OUT last year “as a way to bring different arenas of the leather/kink community together,” echoed the idea: “Tattoo work, BDSM rituals, and sex work are similar in that they deal with bodily autonomy. The idea of the three themes coming together for the sake of supporting sex workers’ rights resonates deeply.”
Allison Brainard and Emily Iris, the organizers behind One Night Stand, a May benefit that raised over $17,000 for Lysistrata MCCF, rounded out the event organizing team.
In putting (K)INK OUT together, Diamond cited a desire to recognize folks who had carved out their own space in the traditionally “white boys’ club” of the tattoo world. The organizers reached out to tattoo artists “that were already making art that was a little dirty—coupled with people that identified as queer, as trans, as women.” The responses were immediate and overwhelmingly positive. “As soon as we publicly announced on social media, my phone was blowing up from people being like, how can I donate? How can I participate?” Diamond recalled. Artists contributed pieces for sale and private sessions for the silent auction.
Evee, a sex worker who helped out at the event, manned a table of donated pieces near the front of the space. “We have original pen and ink drawings, we have tattoo flash pages, we have screen printing, we have stickers, we have, let’s see here—hand drawn plexi! I mean you name it,” they laughed. “We’re surrounded by beautiful art from folks who care about sex workers, who care about their safety.” Organizers are planning to keep selling these pieces online, and recommend checking the (K)INK OUT Instagram page for updates.
Speaking to the “new climate of fear and anxiety” that SESTA and FOSTA have created, Evee told the Daily Beast, “We’re meeting that fear and anxiety with organizing, with creating benefit spaces like this to make sure that those that are the most in need get the resources they deserve to live fulfilled lives, to be taken care of. We’re going to fight this thing. We want it gone. We want full decriminalization and nothing less.”
In a written statement, Colt explained that the population Lysistrata serves exists in the gray area between “empowerment vs exploitation binaries. Typically, workers who are in the industry out of necessity due to marginalizing factors like chronic or mental illness, single mothers, trans workers (especially trans femmes) and workers of color who are making the best career and financial decisions available to them.”
“These workers are usually engaging in sex work consensually but are less likely to be able to rely on financial support from partners or family members, typically cannot charge as much, tend to be discriminated against in legal parts of the industry and are most vulnerable to violence, arrest, abusive managers, and trafficking in times of difficulty,” Colt continued. “They are also the workers who are most likely to lose stable living situations and to have to move to doing more dangerous street based work when they experience interruptions to their income due to outside factors.”
Colt’s stated goals for the fundraiser included attendees leaving with “a better understanding of the challenges sex workers face,” as well as raising “enough money to finish filling out our stipend budget and keep a healthy reserve in the fund for the challenges the year ahead of us bring.” Around two hours into the event, organizers announced that the fundraiser had already raised over $10,000. By the end of the night, organizers estimated a grand total of $35,000, with over 600 party-goers in attendance and 60 tattoos inked.
For just $69 dollars (plus tip!), (K)INK OUT attendees could get a flash tattoo from one of the nine tattoo artists on site. Diamond, who was on the 3pm to 7pm shift (the event went until 11), emphasized that the flash tattoos of the day would all be “a little dirty.” “Like we’ve got some roses, but also one artist has a bouquet of roses that has a Hitachi hidden inside of it,” she laughed. “And I have one that’s a flogger that says resist on it. So you can sort of decide like, how freak flag flying do you want to go?”
Sam, a partygoer and self-described member of the sex work community, showed off two fresh tattoos courtesy of Monikka Velvet and Kati Vaughn. “I think it’s a half face of a domme,” Sam explained, pointing at one. “And then I got some handcuffs. I love getting tattooed in general and I wanted something to match the lifestyle I live, and these ones just caught my eye.”
“I feel like tattoos totally fall in line with BDSM, because it’s like pain and pleasure, you know. Getting the tattoo is painful, but my pleasure comes from like seeing it on my body once it’s done.” Plus, Sam added, “It’s so awesome to see so many people in the community come out and raise money and support sex work—I always want to pitch in whenever I can, since shit is really bad, especially with FOSTA/SESTA. It’s such a small community, like everyone kind of knows each other, so it definitely feels like a family.”
Attendees also took advantage of the BDSM experiences for sale. Options ranged from a $10 boot blacking in a regal armchair to a $25 session in the spanking and rope lounge. At one point Miss Troy, a BDSM consultant, hugged and joked with a partygoer on the couch that she had just finished bending over. Miss Troy volunteered her time for two hours, for about 20 minutes per person. “They had the option of a spanking, however that might manifest, or rope bondage,” she explained. “It is a powerful thing for everyone who participates in it. It’s translating someone’s desire and energy and intention through growth or through sensation, through connection. And so I had moments where I was giving people a very cathartic, physical, sensational experience where we both ended up in tears afterwards, to you know, giving someone a hug with rope holding them, holding space for them as they discovered something about themselves.”
“I’m so thrilled to be able to be a part of this larger community and to make a difference, and put my energy and my time into supporting other women, other sex workers, and into saying that sex work is work,” Miss Troy told the Daily Beast. “Especially these days, we all need to come together and close ranks, or join hands at least. We need to stand together and stand up for each other. So in doing that, there are a lot of faces that I’ve never seen before, but there’s also a lot of people I know here, and that’s a really wonderful thing too—it feels a little like a family reunion.”
Yin Q, who is a BDSM/kink ritual worker and an educator and writer, spoke to pro-dommes’ position “at the top of the whorarchy,” noting, “There is a general idea that dominatrixes have greater privilege and safety network than other arenas of the industry.” Still, Yin Q said, “With the passing of SESTA/FOSTA, the pro-domme community has been deprived of online resources to share information about dangerous clients, to create supportive social networks, and of low-cost advertisement. The closure of online advertising sites such as Backpage and Craigslist has pushed many pro-dommes to engage in riskier sex work and affected those who struggle most with economic hardship. The potential for violence has also risen.”
“We choose to fundraise for Lysistrata because of the outreach and unquestioning support given to those people who are most in need,” Yin Q added. “If we empower and offer aid to the most underprivileged in our society, the work raises us all.”
Audacia Ray, the Director of Community Organizing and Public Advocacy at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, emphasized that “the ho-hierarchy is real,” adding, “folks who are sex workers and have relative privilege over other sex workers are getting a lot of good political education about what everyone’s role is in lifting us all together because liberation means everyone has to be supported.” Ray, who’s been involved in the sex worker rights movement for “about 15 years,” told the Daily Beast that this moment is “special”: “we’re like six months out from FOSTA/SESTA being passed and people are really coming together to figure out ways to resource individual sex workers and to come together to organize, to change the situation that we’re all in.”
“I think that cultivating joy and connection in this moment in our history is important,” Ray insisted. “This is not a rally, this is a fundraiser with tattoos and people with their tits out, and that’s great! It’s part of how we build community.” But looking forward, Ray explained, “in New York, I think we have a real opportunity to shift some things—to figure out, how do we actually shift legislative policy and policing and the court systems? And that’s something that a group of us are looking at and digging into really deeply.”
Later in the night, there would be performances—a rope bondage suspension and balloon torture, in which Sol, a “play-bottom,” would be encased in an enormous balloon. (“It’s a delightful scene to witness—who doesn’t love balloons?!” Yin Q said.)
Yin Q also noted the overwhelmingly positive response (K)INK OUT organizers received from would-be volunteers and performers, saying, “There is an astounding amount of support and enthusiasm from each of these communities. Just as our current president inspired a wave of activists, the passing of these bills has unified sex workers and their allies to action.”