It’s Not About Sex

Blowin’ Up

a documentary film directed by Stephanie Wang-Breal
drawing by Molly Crabapple of protesters at a rally for the decriminalization of sex work, New York City
Protesters at a rally for the decriminalization of sex work, New York City, February 2019; drawing by Molly Crabapple

Every year, on December 17, sex workers from Bombay to Zagreb gather to demand that the world stop killing their colleagues. The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers started in 2003, to commemorate the dozens of women murdered by the Green River Killer in Washington State in the 1980s and 1990s, and has since grown into a collective cry of mourning, solidarity, and sex workers’ refusal to be ashamed.

American sex workers are today more organized, and more oppressed, than they have been in years. Last year the US government passed the twin laws of SESTA and FOSTA—the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, respectively, which have closed online spaces where sex workers found clients and shared information—forcing them to work with pimps or to work on the streets where they may be beaten and murdered. Sex workers have responded with ferocious activism. Collectives like Survivors Against SESTA and the Sex Workers Project are lobbying, marching, and canvassing to overturn these laws. More surprisingly, Democratic politicians like New York state senators Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar have listened to them, canvassed with them, and even promised to introduce laws to decriminalize prostitution.

On February 22 sex trafficking made its way into the headlines when New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a billionaire septuagenarian and Trump crony, was arrested during a series of prostitution stings on massage parlors in three Florida counties and charged with two misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution. During the seven months police spent investigating the parlors, they secretly installed cameras in massage rooms and made videos of the women as they gave handjobs to their customers. The Vero County police department refused to answer questions from sex workers’ rights advocate Kate D’Adamo as to whether their officers had had sexual contact with any of these women in the course of their investigation, but one detective confirmed to the sports website Deadspin that he had.

Police described the investigation as an anti-trafficking operation, but no trafficking charges have been made. Four women who ran the massage parlors were arrested. Among other crimes, they were all charged with prostitution. All of them have spent more time in jail than any of the men they allegedly serviced.

While the media lingers on the spectacle of Kraft’s disgrace, sex workers and trafficking survivors are advancing in their battle to be heard. In February, I stood in the freezing cold of New York’s Foley Square at a rally called by sex workers’ groups to demand decriminalization and listened to Julie Xu, an organizer at Red Canary Song, a collective of Asian…

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