Sex Work

The Best Sex Work Writing of 2017

We rounded up the year's best writing, reporting, and research on erotic industries, those who work in them, and how they're getting screwed by U.S. authorities and laws.


Fine Art Images Heritage Images/Newscom

As 2017 comes to a close, I want to highlight some of the year's best writing, reporting, and research on sex work. Traditional media is not known for its nuanced and accurate portrayals of erotic industries, but more than a few fair accounts managed to slip through the mainstream cracks this year, in the form of both commentary and original reporting. Meanwhile, sex-worker blogs, platforms like Medium, and indie press outlets have continued to allow current and former sex workers to tell their own stories. I hope the list below provides some idea of the awesome breadth of sex worker experiences in 2017, the outlets and writers capturing them, and the devastating toll that current cultural panic and government policy responses are taking on people in a range of "adult" occupations and circumstances.

"Surviving As Working Class After Backpage"

Most of this list comes in no particular order, but the top placement of this post from Kelly Michaels is quite intentional. It's the piece that has most stuck with me, out of a range of powerful contenders.

"In the last four months, I have been in the most unusual employment circumstances of my life," writes Michaels at the sex-work blog Tits and Sass. "I am kept in a small box with no access to even basic human needs like hot meals and showers. I am forced to stay there until my employers are ready to use me again. I am only permitted to shower when my employers are not using me. Up to a week in between showers has passed."

In "Surviving As Working Class After Backpage," Michaels details the way the criminalization of prostitution has closed so many outside opportunities for her and the degradation she now faces in "respectable" work as a cross-country truck driver.

"I am left now in a worse situation than I ever felt I was in as a sex worker," she writes. "I feel terribly exploited, and there is no 'Truckers Against Trafficking Truckers' to help me safely return to the freedom and independence of sex work."

In general, Tits and Sass—which offers its own best-of-2017 list here—is invaluable for interviews with sex workers' of all stripes about their work; highlighting sex-worker art and activism; reporting on policy that will affect sex workers; and publishing first-person accounts on aspects of the industry that most people rarely encounter. To get started, I recommend this August interview with SWOP Behind Bars organizer Alex Andrews; Jay St. James on how "Working While Pregnant Is About Survival"; and Caty Simon on the Department of Homeland Security's November raid of the headquarters ("no matter what security measures we take, no matter how many layers of privilege might mitigate our gray market or black market status, at any point, criminalization can strip us of all of them and leave us economically and legally exposed").

"Why the Stripper Strike Is So Relevant and So Long Overdue"

"Public perception often shapes law and policy, and vice versa. Without legal precedent or social acceptance we become prey to shoddy business practices," writes "BlackHeaux" MF Akynos in an illuminating post on the origins and potential of the recent New York City stripper strike.

"An Arresting Gaze: How One New York Law Turns Women into Suspects"

In this August article, Vanity Fair magazine delves into the unfairness of New York's law against loitering for the purposes of prostitution. (For Georgia's version of the same, see "Profiling and Prostitution Pre-Crime.")

"Since 1976, New York Penal Law Section 240.37 has criminalized loitering in a public place by anyone the police determine is present for the purpose of prostitution," the magazine notes. But because of the law's vagueness, "the reason for one's presence is ultimately decided by the opinions of arresting officers." And "police officers make their decisions to arrest often through a strange sexualized gaze."

Reviewing New York Police Department arrest records for this offense, Vanity Fair found that "indications of prostitution" included things such as carrying money or "sexual paraphernalia," being someone known to have previous arrests for prostitution-related offenses, or wearing clothing such as "tight pants" or a "revealing blouse."

"We Are Kinda Unbreakable"

At the Baltimore City Paper, Raye Weigel takes an in-depth look at how transgender sex workers "remain resilient in Baltimore while navigating neighborhood associations, cops, gentrification, and more."

"Sex Workers Are Not a Life Hack for 'Helping' Sexual Predators"

In the wake of Louis CK's outing as a serial exhibitionary masturbator, many people commented that he should have hired someone to fulfill his "sick" fantasies, while lamenting what a "sad perv" or "creep" CK was revealed to be.

As if 'sad pervs' are the only people who want to masturbate in front of women. And as if sex workers are a quick fix who can and should cheerfully quell serially predatory men's desires, making them no longer a threat to decent society.

Alana Massey says nope on both accounts in this short November 2017 essay for Self magazine.

See also: Massey on and "Why Amber Rose Is the Patron Saint of Strippers"; me on how 'the Harvey Weinstein of' sex work is the police.

"How $40 Can Land You In Prison for Seven Years and On the Sex Offender Registry for Life"

At Truthout, Victoria Law tells the story of a former sex worker named LeeAnn, who spent seven years in federal prison after letting a teen girl use her apartment to meet a man for sex. The girl, who had told LeeAnn she was 17, "turned out to be 14 and, in the eyes of the federal government," LeeAnn's assistance constituted the crime of sex-trafficking of a minor.

It didn't matter that LeeAnn didn't know the girl's real age, nor "that LeeAnn, who was addicted to various drugs and also engaged in sex work, never made money from the girl's actions," notes Law.

Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the girl was considered a trafficking victim, and LeeAnn a trafficker. One year later, federal agents questioned LeeAnn. She was high at the time and doesn't remember much, but she does remember admitting to everything. "I didn't realize it was a federal offense," she told Truthout. "That's normal in that life."

LeeAnn pled guilty and was sentenced to 87 months in federal prison, five years of probation and a lifetime on the sex offender registry.

A must-read for anyone who thinks that America's sex-trafficking prosecutions are actually about thwarting evildoers or protecting victims. See also: "Child Sex-Trafficking Victim Sentenced to Nearly Six Years in Prison for Child Sex-Trafficking" || Feds 'Rescue' Women from Freedom and Money in 11th 'Operation Cross Country'

"The New Abolitionist Model"

Media reports on sex work, forced prostitution, and forced labor "routinely confuse or use all available terms," laments Laura Agustin in this December Jacobin review of The Pimping of Prostitution, the latest book from longtime anti-prostitution activist Julie Bindel.

Bindel's need to manifest indignation at the slightest deviance from a simplified ideology means readers get no distinctions between dastardly procurers, human rights groups, independent escorts, academic researchers, workers in massage parlors, and Hugh Hefner. We're all the same thing. It's the textbook definition of fundamentalism.

"ICE Is Using Prostitution Diversion Courts to Stalk Immigrants"

Melissa Gira Grant reports on how the Trump administration's persecution of immigrants has led to federal agents trolling "human-trafficking intervention courts" to stalk and intercept immigrant sex workers.

"City Attorney's Crackdown on Johns Has Dire Consequences for Immigrants"

The Stranger's Sydney Brownstone and Steven Hsieh explore yet another Seattle anti-prostitution effort that puts immigrant sex workers at greater risk—in the name of "helping" them, of course. (See also: "King County Cops Illegally Recorded Sex Stings.")

"How Working As An Escort Helped My PTSD" + "The Virtues of Unvirtuous Spaces"

"I am a trafficking survivor and a sex worker?—?both can and do exist in a single person at the very same time," writes Laura LeMoon in an essay on how working as an escort helped her deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and how online ads played a big role in this. "I had decided that this time I was going to engage in the sex industry by choice. It was a way for me to re-write my past trauma and reclaim my body for myself."

Far from the digital pimp it's often portrayed as, and the easy self-promotion opportunities it provided helped LeMoon take control of her work and her life after early abuse and exploitation in the sex trade.

Backpage gave me the ability to be contacted by clients and screen them in the ways that felt the most safe to me. Some sex workers I knew took client inquiries exclusively by email and demanded proof of employment and legal identification?—?demands that are all but impossible if you're hustling on the street to survive. BP was also extremely accessible—even for low income workers such as myself. Advertising prices were on a kind of sliding scale—$12 to see your ad regenerate at the top of the list for three days—that sort of thing. After I left BP, it was free for a while too. But more than anything, BP allowed me to have total control over my employment. Not being told what to do or forced to do anything I wasn't comfortable with was unprecedented and incredibly liberating considering the history I'd had in the sex industry.

For more on how online-ad forums help marginalized sex workers and sex-trafficking victims, check out Alex Levy's July Wake Forest Law Review paper, "The Virtues of Unvirtuous Spaces."

"Sex Workers Keep Beer Hall Flowing"

This story from African Independent magazine is notable not only for the sex-worker victory it describes but also the positive and respectful tone it takes in doing so.

After threatening "to stage a week-long naked vigil" at the entrance to Zimbabwe's Chigarapasi beer hall, area sex workers succeeded in convincing local authorities to re-open the hall, which had been shut down earlier in the year. "The beer hall was built in 1960," the paper reports, and "became so popular and famous it attracted ladies of the night from across the country," including two women who were honored by town elders by having streets named after them. The beer hall's recent reopening "has livened up the night life in the town where prostitution is rife."

"We regard prostitution as a profession and we believe that one can make a living out of it," Maria Gura, a 60-year-old former sex worker, told the paper. "I have four children and among them one is now a medical doctor while the other is lecturer at a local university. I managed to send all these children to school using the money that I got from clients in this beer hall."

"At Sessions Hearing, The Business of Government Is … Hysteria" + "Why a Mom's Facebook Warning About Human Traffickers Hurts Sex-Trafficked Kids"

The Los Angeles Times is just as likely to spread sex-trafficking hysteria as your next big-city paper. But at least two 2017 op-eds strove to question this hysteria, including one from Reason Editor-at-Large Matt Welch. In January, Welch noted that Sen. Dianne Feinstein started off her questioning of then-AG nominee Jeff Sessions by asking him about what she referred to as "the second largest criminal industry in this country": sex trafficking.

"In other words," wrote Welch, "the California senator wished to lead off her critical cross-examination of the nation's likely next top cop with a factually insane claim that will probably give him more power."

In an April op-ed, professional anti-trafficking activist Lara Powers cautioned that cartoonish, movie-villain ideas about traffickers—and the suburban-mom paranoia and social-media rumors they spawned—would work against victims.

I have encountered thousands of child sex-trafficking cases in the United States. I have never seen, read or heard about a real sex-trafficking situation in which a child was abducted by traffickers in broad daylight at a busy store under a mother's watchful eye. It's just not the way it works.

See also: Sean Rife at Learn Liberty on why so many of these viral "sex traffickers at IKEA" type stories are cropping up right now; me on the Cato "Free Thoughts" podcast on why everyone is so willing to believe "fake news" about sex trafficking.

"Family, Former Attorney of Queens Woman Who Fell to Her Death in Vice Sting Say She Was Sexually Assaulted, Pressured to Become an Informant"

In November, a 38-year-old Queens sex worker fell four stories to her death, apparently in an effort to evade arrest by New York City cops. Emma Whitford, Melissa Gira Grant, and Rong Xiaoqing explore what was really going on with Yang Song, a Chinese immigrant who had told her family she was sexually assaulted by an undercover cop earlier in the year and was later pressured into becoming a confidential informant for them. She also faced charges for prostitution stemming from a vice sting where she worked.

Vice stings targeting so-called "massage parlors" exploded in recent years, primarily in Chinese immigrant neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn. According to a 2017 report from the Urban Institute and the Legal Aid Society, arrests of Asian-identified people in New York City charged with both unlicensed massage and prostitution increased by 2,700 percent between 2012 and 2016. Yang herself was arrested and charged with prostitution on September 27th, two months before her death, during a vice operation in the same building. That case was open when she fell, the next court date scheduled for December 1st.

For more on who NYPD targets for prostitution arrest, see this April 2017 paper from the Legal Aid Society's Exploitation Intervention Project (EIP), which "explores the background and needs of EIP clients, in addition to the challenges these clients face within the criminal legal system." Most "identified as cisgender female (93 percent) or transgender female (5 percent)", and clients were "overwhelmingly people of color," with 32 percent identifying Asian, predominantly of Chinese or Korean ethnicity. (For more on how federal agents are targeting Asian sex workers, see: "Deported for Giving a Handjob?" and "Feds Crack Down on New National Security Threat: Unliscened Massages.")

"The Indie Porn Stars Fighting for a Kinky Revolution"

"Progressive porn is taking off and it's proudly freaky, ethical, and queer," writes Alex King at Huck Magazine. But new U.K. legislation "threatens to whitewash the industry just as things are heating up." King's piece details how activists are fighting back.

See also: "Getting to the Truth of the Link Between Porn and Rape."

"The Work in Sex Work"

In "The Work in Sex Work," Hennessy Williams explains how she started in sex work at 17 "because I owed a debt: not to a pimp, but to my college." Williams was told she had to pay several thousand dollars if she wanted to start classes the upcoming semester.

I didn't enter the industry because I thought it would be fun or easy or because I wanted to make a feminist statement: I did it because I was desperate for money. But I've also never considered myself a victim of trafficking, even if I've had to work with a couple of managers or pimps. It was my choice to work with them and it was my decision to leave when I did. I only felt exploited because my rights as a worker were so lacking.

Sex trafficking is not a human rights issue. It is a labor issue. Elites refuse to see this because they refuse to recognize transactional sex as real work.

"Jon Ronson on Porn, Gender, and Sexual Humiliation"

Huck magazine's Megan Nolan interviews author Jon Ronson about "The Butterfly Effect," his podcast on the porn industry. It aims to investigate how Pornhub and other streaming sites changed the way people produce and consume porn, and the wide-ranging effects this has had.

"Tech people tend to be lionized and porn people tend to be dismissed," commented Ronson.

One way this is really evident is that if a porn star wants to take out a small business loan or even have a [checking] account, they'll get refused because they are porn stars – it's what banks call reputational risk. Whereas Fabian [Thyllman] wanted a loan to help him expand the empire that began with Pornhub, and because he was a male tech entrepreneur and not a porn star he got a 362 million dollar loan from a hedge fund.

One of the things we show is that maybe these rich tech guys shouldn't be quite so lionized, and the people in porn, who are lovely, caring, kind, idiosyncratic, delightful people, shouldn't be stigmatized."

"How Facebook Outs Sex Workers"

Kashmir Hill explores how Facebook's algorithms could be inadvetently putting sex workers at risk and the company's failure to address it adequately in the face of sex-worker complaints. Facebook told Hill that it would try "do better" going forward.

"Sex Workers In Alaska Say Cops Are Abusing Their Power to Solicit Sex Acts" + "Alaska Cops Fight for the Right to Sexually Exploit Prostitution Suspects"

"All 50 states allow police to engage in sexual contact with suspects," reported HuffPost in August. "In Alaska, they're fighting back." An impressive investigation into their fight from Jenavieve Hatch.

See also: "Alaska Cops Fight for the Right to Sexually Exploit Prostitution Suspects," in which Maggie McNeill writes here about the fight to end this practice in other states.

Every time reformers get a toehold, coverage tends to treat a state's policy or practice as an standalone case. Even when it isn't—as in this report on a similar informal policy in Fort Smith, Arkansas—reporters routinely accept the word of police department mouthpieces that such policies are both unusual and well-intentioned, and that most cops would never think of using them for nefarious purposes because sex workers are exploited 'victims' that they're trying to 'rescue.' These are not isolated incidents.

"Kamala Harris' Whorephobia Is Sadly No Surprise"

Melissa Petro attempts to calm the hype on "liberal hero" Kamala Harris and explains how Harris—former California attorney general and now a U.S. senator—"was an active force behind a campaign that endangered the lives of sex workers," making "it understandably difficult for people with experiences in the sex trades to throw her our support."

See also: "Backpage Executives Escape Pimping Charges Kamala Harris Brought (Twice) Against Them."

"Why We Should Decriminalize Prostitution" + "Sex Work Criminalization Is Barking Up the Wrong Tree"

"Prostitution is not necessarily something you want to bring up at your local feminist meeting, unless you're trying to start a war," wrote Linda Tirado in at The Daily Beast earlier this year. Tirado draws on her days working at a strip club to explain the degrading and unsafe conditions that sex workers face under criminalization, and how the impact of criminalizing prostitution "goes well beyond the damage to the people who find themselves working in the sex trade," since "the arrest, detention, and charging of women for what amounts to a moral sin—if a sin indeed it is—is costing the country millions of dollars that we simply can't afford."

See also: "Sex Work Criminalization Is Barking Up the Wrong Tree," from the June 2017 issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior. Based on a presentation at the 2016 International Academy of Sex Research meeting, the paper pinpoints "a notable shift toward more repression and criminalization in sex work policies, in Europe and elsewhere."

This "so-called neo-abolitionism reduces sex work to trafficking, with increased policing and persecution as a result," author Ine Vanwesenbeek writes. But evidence shows that "criminalization is seriously at odds with human rights and public health principles," finds Vanwesenbeek.

It is concluded that sex work criminalization is barking up the wrong tree because it is fighting sex instead of crime and it is not offering any solution for the structural conditions that sex work (its ugly sides included) is rooted in. Sex work repression travels a dead-end street and holds no promises whatsoever for a better future. To fight poverty and gendered inequalities, the criminal justice system simply is not the right instrument.

"Funding Crunch Shuts Bank That Gave Hope to Mumbai's Sex Workers"

Australia's Sydney Morning Herald reports on the closing of Sangini, the first Indian bank set up to help sex workers save money. "The co-operative bank, which started in India's second largest red light district in 2007, offered fuss-free banking services to sex workers, collecting cash deposits from their doorsteps and even welcoming homeless girls to open savings accounts," notes the paper. The closure has left sex workers in a lurch and inhibited the bank workers' ability to intervene in cases of young girls being forced into brothels.

"Cracking Down on Craigslist Puts Sex Workers at Risk"

Daniel Pryor unpacks a new academic working paper finding that digital classified ads can help reduce violence against women and especially violence against female sex workers.

The paper—authored by Scott Cunningham, Gregory DeAngelo, and John Tripp—focuses on Craigslist: a similar platform to Backpage that included an 'Adult' ads section in the U.S. from 2002 until 2010, when it was also shut down due to mounting pressure from the government. By analyzing female homicide rates over time in U.S. cities after Craigslist introduced an 'Erotic Services' (ERS) section and comparing them to cities without such a section at the time, the researchers were able to estimate the effect of an ERS section on women's safety. They found that cities that got ERS saw their female homicide trend slide afterwards, averaging out to a rate 17.4% lower than control cities over the same period.

"Meet the Woman Who Could Decriminalize Sex Work in California" + "I'm a Sex Worker Asking California's 9th Circuit Court to Decriminalize Prostitution"

The Bay City Beacon profiles Maxine Doogan, founder of the Erotic Service Providers Legal, Educational, and Research Project (ESPLERP), and her organization's legal battle to decriminalize prostitution in California. The case is currently before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The idea for a lawsuit came to Doogan while she was speaking with sex work activist Margo St. James… Doogan admits that the undertaking felt "huge and overwhelming," but began by looking into COYOTE v. Roberts, a lawsuit brought in Rhode Island to decriminalize sex work in that state. "Back then, the enforcement was primarily against women, not against men, so basically it was a gender discrimination lawsuit," said Doogan. The case was dismissed, but helped her understand what a lawsuit would look like in order to be considered."

See also "queer femme sex worker, mommy, podcaster, writer, and sex-education student" Elle Lynn Stanger at Medium urging the 9th Circuit to side with ESPLERP.

We don't have to look far back into history to recall what happens in America when you criminalize a vice. Prohibition did not stop people drinking, it just empowered organized crime and corrupt cops. Similarly, our War on Drugs targets already oppressed poor and racial minorities, without reducing the prevalence of crack on the streets or cocaine in night clubs. Keeping sex-for-pay illegal does not erase the natural, healthy biological need we all have for companionship, touch and arousal.

"Netflix Hot Girls Wanted Accused of Outing Sex Workers"

Tracy Clark Flory talked to web-cam and porn performers about how the Rashida Jones documentary Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On exploited the people it was claiming to represent and help.

See also: "Sexploitative Feminism—Hot Girls Wanted and How Not to Apologize for Mistreating Porn Stars."

"What You Don't Know About Sex Trafficking"

At the Above the Law blog, criminal lawyer Toni Messina explains why sex trafficking is what's known as a "spectrum crime" and how this, along with it being the "crime du jour," winds up meaning lot of unfair prosecutions and sentences, especially for sex workers or those that try to help them.

See also: "Husband Gets Human Trafficking Charge for Driving His Wife to a Motel."

"Police Sexual Abuse Isn't Just the Case of a Few 'Bad Apples' — It's Systemic"

Casey Quinlan explores how police sexual abuse comes down especially hard on "the most marginalized people," including poor, non-white, and undocumented sex workers.

See also: "Damning New Report Shows How Oakland Cops Covered Up Their Sexual Exploitation of a Minor" || "Prostitution-Ring-Running Cop Sees Court, But Police Who Extort Sex Often Go Unpunished" || "D.C. Cop Pays 15-Year-Old for Sex, Steals the Money Back at Gunpoint Afterward"

"Stigma Against Sex Workers Must End"

Tansy Breshears at The Root on Cyntoia Brown and stigma against sex workers in the black community.

"Sex Workers Victimized by Violence Remembered at Philadelphia Vigil"

The Inquirer recently covered a vigil commemorating the 2017 International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, in a piece that's surprisingly sex-work positive for a mainstream paper. "The vigil organizers were encouraged by the attendance of a surrogate for Philadelphia district attorney-elect Larry Krasner, T.J. Ghose, an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice," Inquirer writer Kathy Boccella notes.

Ghose said the incoming DA had pledged during his campaign to drastically reduce criminal prosecutions of sex workers as part of his goal to reduce the number of women of color behind bars.

"Sex work is a gateway," said Ghose, who has worked with a 70,000-member union of sex workers in India. "If we're going to end mass incarceration, prosecuting sex workers has to stop."

"Even as Ceases Production in the Armory, the Bay's Porn Scene Thrives"

"One dungeon gate closes; another opens for local porn producers," reports Cirrus Wood at The Bold Italic.

"The Woman Making Sex Work Photography True to Life"

Dazed magazine profiles Camille Melissa, founder of Whoretography, "a DIY platform and publishing house that's showcasing the power, art and politics of the movement."

"The Economics of Escorting"

A lot of the men grumbling on review boards about provider prices "pay no mind to the additional behind the scenes cost of escorting," writes Michigan escort Faith Lynn. "The assumption is that one hundred percent of our rate is profit, therefore a rate above a certain arbitrary threshold is deemed presumptuous. No one accounts for locations costs, photoshoots, advertising, beauty maintenance, etc."

"If any person is offended by the rates of providers rising in tandem with the cost of living, then I would suggest finding a new 'hobby,'" Lynn blogs.

"Free Porn Is Probably Not Feminist Porn—No Matter What It Looks Like"

Glamour magazine takes a look at short-lived "feminist porn site" Bellesa.

"How to Be an Ally to Sex Workers"

Longtime sex-worker rights group COYOTE Rhode Island offers some important tips.