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Inside the First Sex Worker Town Hall Hosted by a Congressional Candidate

At Congressional candidate Suraj Patel's event, Broadly spoke with organizers and participants about SESTA/FOSTA, decriminalization, and keeping sex workers safe.

by Lena Solow
Jun 22 2018, 5:15pm

Photo by Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The Dreamhouse is a cavernous, dimly lit space in Bushwick that’s most often home to sweaty, sexy, queer dance parties. But on the afternoon of Saturday, June 19, several young people wearing jeans and campaign T-shirts hurried around the building to double-check logistics—bringing in more chairs, setting up a microphone, and reviewing a guest list. The name on their shirts was Suraj Patel, a young business ethics professor running for Congress in New York’s 12th district.

Soon after all the logistics were taken care of, hundreds of people streamed in to attend what was, to many, a historic event: a town hall for sex workers, hosted by a congressional candidate.

Broadly spoke with members of Patel’s team, attendees of the town hall, and sex-worker organizers to learn how a candidate came to take what was previously a politically unfeasible position, and why that progressive position seems like the bare minimum to many activists.

Patel is running against Carolyn Maloney, a 25-year incumbent who is endorsed by the Working Families Party. Though Patel lacks Maloney's political experience, he's a contender because of his progressive platforms. A section of the homepage on his website summarizes his stances on issues with pithy phrases like, "Health Care: A Right," "Gender: A Spectrum," and "Black Lives: Matter." His platform includes a commitment to Medicare for all and legalizing marijuana. After sex-worker organizers reached out to his campaign, he took a stand only one other congressional candidate has taken: Congress must repeal SESTA/FOSTA.

The sex worker town hall, photo by author

SESTA/FOSTA were bills that became law this April. The bills were supposedly designed to close a loophole that helped facilitate human trafficking, but sparked backlash from sex workers, who said the laws would ultimately harm them as well as trafficking victims. SESTA and FOSTA make websites liable for facilitating "trafficking," but its definition of trafficking is so broad that sites that helped facilitate safe sex work, like Backpage, preemptively shuttered or were censored—including legal platforms, like Craigslist's "Personals" pages.

SESTA/FOSTA were overwhelmingly supported by legislators: Maloney, along with 387 other members of Congress and all but two Senators, voted in favor of the two bills. When Maloney tweeted that she co-authored SESTA/FOSTA and deemed their passage a "huge milestone," many sex workers took to Twitter to voice their concern.

Lola Balcon, a sex-worker organizer with the group Survivors Against SESTA, saw the tweets, noticed that election time was approaching, and thought, Maybe we should vote her out! Through a mutual friend from the Democratic Socialists of America, Balcon connected with staffers for Patel’s campaign. It turned out his camp had already taken note of the issue: His policy director Evan Roth Smith told Broadly that the campaign had already received emails from constituents about SESTA/FOSTA. At first, they were confused. "Why do people in our district know about this and care about this?" Roth Smith wondered. "It seemed uncontroversial."

As Patel's campaigners learned more about the bills, they began to understand why people were concerned: Free speech activists worried the laws would create a digital-rights precedent that would lead to further limitation and criminalization of online speech. The campaign then spoke with anti-trafficking lawyers and representatives of trafficking victims who agreed that the law was ultimately harmful to those the bills seek to protect. But until Patel's campaign heard from Balcon, it was missing the connection to actual sex workers.

After a mutual friend introduced the two, Smith and Balcon began exchanging emails, and Balcon shared stories from sex workers. They decided to work together on three main events: publishing a policy position in Broadly that included a white paper on sex work (the first by a Congressional candidate), canvassing with sex workers, and the sex worker town hall. The town hall was moderated by Balcon and featured three WOC organizers. One, Ceyenne Doroshow, met Patel earlier that week at another panel, and was moved by his commitment to listening. "I talked about the transgender experience," she told Broadly. "I’ve never been in a position where I could talk to someone running for office or in office about trans lives, especially Black trans lives." Doroshow is a former sex worker and founder of Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society (GLITS). She was joined on the panel by Cecilia Gentili, also a former sex worker and assistant director of policy at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and Aya Tasaki, policy and advocacy manager at Womankind.

To kick off the event, Patel gave a speech focused on ending the stigma around sex work and the importance of considering sex work the same way other labor is considered. After speaking, Patel sat offstage, listening to the panelists. The mood was, at times, somber and grim. Gentili and Doroshow shared stories of violence against themselves and others in their community. "I don’t have the mental capacity to bury another motherfucking girl," Doroshow said, recounting stories of violence against trans sex workers. They both described sex workers' interactions with police as violent and traumatic. Speaking specifically about SESTA/FOSTA, Gentili and Doroshow noted that when sex workers couldn’t advertise their services online, they were "forced to go back to the streets," where the risk of violence is much greater.

When many sex workers and organizers envision the future, they’re thinking about much more than repealing SESTA and FOSTA. Lorelei Lee, a longtime sex worker organizer, attended the town hall and wanted Patel to know that, while she was happy he was speaking out and that the moment felt historic, it was "not enough." Lee and other sex workers want to see an end to any criminalization of sex work. As she explained to Broadly, when their professions are deemed criminal, it prevents gatherings of sex workers where they could organize and advocate for themselves

Audience members spoke about their own experiences and asked Patel his feelings on decriminalizing sex work. While his position on SESTA/FOSTA is notable, he has not voiced support for decriminalization, and has, in some cases, advocated for piecemeal solutions that limit criminal penalties for sex work, but don't eliminate them entirely. For example, he pointed to Philadelphia's new District Attorney, who has lowered prostitution charges to tickets for first-time offenses.

In addition to the discussion on decriminalization, the town hall's panel highlighted some of the tensions within sex-worker organizing, and how to get politicians to listen to sex workers most impacted by harmful policies, like those who are Black, trans, or disabled. Though the panel featured all women of color (including two trans women), one attendee noted the low number of Black people in the audience. The panelists acknowledged this, and noted that outing yourself as a sex worker can potentially lead to violence, and that the risk is greater for Black people, trans people, and the disabled, meaning outreach for these kinds of events can be difficult.

Akynos, the founder of the Black Sex Worker Collective, did not attend the panel. She told Broadly that she and other Black organizers have been focused on day-to-day survival, providing "financial, emotional, and spiritual support" to current and former sex workers. She encouraged all politicians to focus on groups that are Black-led and trans-led for guidance on forward-thinking sex work policy.

Penelope Saunders, a longtime sex-worker advocate who founded the organization Best Policy Practices Project, told Broadly, "It is important to build on the history of organizing and honor all who came before, otherwise it is a movement without roots that cannot grow." Though the event was referred to as the "first ever" sex worker town hall, Saunders pointed out that it was built on years of sex-worker organizing, like the 2008 effort to decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco or the 2009 campaign for comprehensive healthcare for sex workers in Australia.

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Still, an ally in Congress would be an historic first step. For Lee, one measure of success is continued conversation: "If all that happens next is politicians say, 'Oh, I should check in with sex workers'—I think that is the path forward."

On June 26, voters will choose between Patel and Maloney. Attendees and panelists at the sex worker town hall pushed Patel to state a firm commitment to continue to stand with sex workers regardless of the outcome of the election. Patel assured the audience, "I’ll be right there with you guys, all the way through," adding, "That’s a promise."

Balcon told Broadly, "You can be damn sure we’re going to hold him accountable to that."