Most conversations around legal advocacy for sex workers tend to focus on a handful of big ticket items, like the fight for decriminalization or protecting sex workers from rapist cops like Daniel Holtzclaw. But there are a lot of smaller, and much more mundane, ways that sex workers can benefit from legal representation, whether they're strippers going through custody battles, former escorts seeking a divorce, or cam girls looking to incorporate.
At long last, there's an organization dedicated to helping sex workers find culturally competent legal representation–and thanks to the internet, it's poised to have a pretty serious impact.
Red Light Legal was founded by Kristina Dolgin, a long time sex worker who enrolled in law school in the hopes of finding a way to help out her community. Since the organization's inception, the internet's been integral to its operations: as a way of raising funds, spreading awareness about sex work law issues, and, most essentially, connecting with clients.
Red Light Legal's battle is one I'm intimately familiar with: Years ago, when I was running a small company, I found myself in need of a lawyer, as business owners often do. But because the business I was running was porn related, and there was no guarantee any random lawyer I might reach out to would actually be comfortable working with me.
"We've had a lot of people contact us through the online legal clinic who are in the midst of a lawsuit and their lawyer has started to ask for sexual favors."
I happened to get lucky. Thanks to my days as a roller derby skater, I was aware of a pretty cool lawyer who, in addition to representing roller derby leagues, happened to work with a number of interesting and offbeat clients. I had a sneaking suspicion that she'd probably be fine with my line of work. I reached out through her website, had a quick phone call, and ended up bringing her on board as my legal representation. But not everyone who works in sex is fortunate enough to have leads on a cool lawyer–and that's where Red Light Legal comes in.
Because of the nature of their work, many sex workers rely on the internet to find community. "A lot of sex workers are working in isolation," said Dolgin, noting that cam girls, indie porn producers, and full service sex workers are often independent workers, all off on their own.
There's no communal watering hole for sex workers to gather around; when they connect with one another, it's usually online. So it's only natural that they'd find legal support online as well. Red Light Legal facilitates this process through its online clinic, which allows potential clients to securely submit information about their situation and request assistance.
Sometimes, online clinic clients are just seeking out basic legal advice, like the fundamentals of cease and desists, or how to write a demand letter. Other times, they're actually in need of a lawyer‚whether because they don't have one at all, or because they're in the middle of litigation, and their current representation hasn't been acting particularly professionally.
"We've had a lot of people contact us through the online legal clinic who are in the midst of a lawsuit and their lawyer has started to ask for sexual favors," said Dolgin. "Or they're in the midst of a legal issue working with an attorney and their attorney is starting to be super judgmental, using inflammatory language, putting them down for the things they do for work."
When a sex worker's in need of representation, Red Light Legal works to connect them to culturally competent lawyers: either attorneys who are directly affiliated with Red Light Legal or, in cases where Red Light Legal's staff isn't the best fit, vetted lawyers from around the country. (Which is another reason Red Light Legal's online presence is so important. It allows the group to connect with, and serve, clients from all over the country—even ones in remote, rural areas where getting to a sex work friendly lawyer isn't necessarily an option.)
So far, the model's found success. Dolgin told me of a recent situation involving a porn site that a number of indie producers were using to distribute and sell their content—even as the site started falling behind on payouts to its producers.
Because these producers were truly indie—often working from home, completely isolated from other producers—they weren't in a great place to unite for some collective bargaining. Making things even more difficult was that the site's terms of service included a mandatory arbitration clause, hampering their ability to pursue legal recourse.
Red Light Legal worked with a number of these unpaid producers to draft demand letters and create a paper trail. In many cases, those demand letters were enough to get the cash to start flowing again. According to Dolgin, the demand letters "showed that company, 'We know what our rights are, we know what the legal process is, if you don't pay us, we're going to follow through and force mediation.'"
That education and empowerment of sex workers is just as much a part of Red Light Legal's mission as any kind of legal action. When she's not working with individual clients, Dolgin's been working to create resource guides for sex workers, giving them the tools they need to self advocate and navigate the legal system. One example? A guide on how to vet an attorney to make sure they're the right fit for you.
Dolgin wants sex workers to be aware that "you are not at the whim of legal professionals, you have the ability to both hire and fire attorneys. You can negotiate rates, you can request that they keep certain boundaries. You don't have to take the first attorney that is referred to you. You can go through an interview process before deciding to go with somebody."
The more a sex worker knows upfront about a potential attorney, the greater the likelihood of hiring one who'll be a good fit—and the greater the likelihood of actually having a beneficial outcome.
The internet has made sex work safer and given sex workers a platform to tell their own stories and speak their own minds. If Dolgin succeeds, it'll connect sex workers to effective legal representation as well. And for population that's routinely disenfranchised and denied their legal rights, that could be the ultimate game changer.