Whatever the reason for doing sex work, we all deserve respect for our autonomy and access to services and safe working conditions
‘Many sex workers do not share my experience or my intersection of privileges. This does not erase their human rights or their right to survival by whatever means are available to them’ Photograph: Michael Wickham for the Guardian
I work in one of two places in the world where sex work is decriminalised. I work independently, indoors, in a capital city as a white middle-class cisgendered woman who could choose to exit sex work.. Arguably, I have the best possible sex-working conditions in the world, and I have no desire to abandon my business. But it looks like I might have to.
I don’t want or need to quit my job. My job is fine. The work I do, like any other service provision, is emotional, physical, intellectual. It’s better some days than others. It pays my rent. It is work.
Imagine this: you wake in the morning, complete your usual rituals, and go to work. You arrive to find that the building has imploded overnight. Management are unresponsive to communications. There’s no sense as to whether you’ll be working again anytime soon.
This is the experience that I and many of my colleagues around the world faced when we woke one morning to find that our primary source of work, backpage.com, had been seized by the FBI. Backpage was an online classified ads site where you could sell your car, look for a temp job, or find an erotic service provider. It was the great leveller for sex workers: whatever your presentation of gender, body type, niche services, class background, or working mode, you could find work on Backpage. Whether you were a career worker or a casual service provider, Backpage was arguably the most globally accessible way for sex workers to secure an income.
Overnight, my work flow was almost entirely cut off. For the first time in my 15-year career as a sex worker, I fear for my livelihood. 90% of my new clients came from Backpage. It’s not quickly or easily replaced..
H.R. 1865, commonly referred to as Fosta (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act), was recently signed into US law. The law targets websites that promote the provision of erotic services, removing prior protections afforded by section 230 of the CDA, which indemnified online platforms from the actions of their users. The bill is notable in its collapsing of two very distinct transactions: sex work and sex trafficking. Fosta passes from the acceptable (anti-trafficking law) to the dubious (sex work prohibition), and stands to wipe out a labour force in the process.
In the lead-up to the passage of the bill, web platforms began to censor sex worker content, disable their individual accounts, announce changes to their terms of service to exclude them, or simply close down, systematically closing every door sex workers walked towards to try to put food on the table for the week.
Whilst Fosta is US legislation, its effects are borderless. The most accessible digital tools for sex workers are US owned and operated, which is how I, working legally in Australia, can go from gainfully self-employed one day to effectively unemployed the next. I’m not prosecutable in the jurisdiction of the law itself, but the essential services I use in my daily labours are.
For many sex workers, this means searching for work, scrambling for rent, hitting the food banks or taking to the streets. As a criminalised labour force, we don’t have many tools with which to rebuild what Backpage’s closure destroyed.
The labour of sex workers is criminalised via a variety of legal models. Sometimes they even differ within the same federal jurisdiction, as is the case in Australia. On Wednesday Greens MLC Tammy Franks introduced a private member’s bill for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Australia to the state parliament. The recent proposal of the Nordic model by the Victorian Liberal party on the other hand has the potential to destructively increase disparity and further endanger sex workers. Having worked in both criminalised and decriminalised states, I can attest to a marked improvement of my income and business costs, my options for where and when I can work, my control over my working environment and how I’m represented to potential clients, and my sense of safety under decriminalisation.
Criminalisation renders sex workers unable to lay claim to any of the basic labour rights afforded workers in legal industries. Make no mistake about it: this, more than any other factor affecting a sex work transaction, is the single most significant contributor to the exploitation of sex workers and their labour.
Many sex workers do not share my experience or my intersection of privileges. This does not erase their human rights or their right to survival by whatever means are available to them. Whatever their reason for entering sex work, they are deserving of respect for their autonomy and access to services and working conditions that will uphold their survival. Human trafficking also takes place in the garment industry, but this doesn’t warrant legislation that makes all garment work illegal. It’s a labour issue, and that’s how we talk about it.Globally, sex workers have responded by taking their labour rights into their own hands, using peer-driven strategies like the creation of bad date lists, info about accessing harm-reduction services, and the sharing of information about exploitative brothel managers and pimps. Both sex workers and victims of sex trafficking access these modes of defence against the exploitation of their labour via the same digital platforms currently threatened by Fosta. We cannot afford to lose them.
Sex work is labour. Framing it as such is a necessary component of any anti-trafficking rhetoric; to fall short is to conduct state-sanctioned moralising.
• Gala Vanting is the professional name of a Sydney-based sex worker, writer and educator