Lindsay Roth is a service provider – she’s worked as a case manager at Philadelphia’s Mazzoni Center, helping those with HIV navigate the health care system; she serves as Secretary of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) USA and cofounded the Philadelphia chapter of SWOP, an international organization devoted to the human rights of sex workers; and she’s a year and a half away from earning a master’s in social work from Colombia University – she says social workers are especially poised to help sex workers navigate, and challenge, the criminal justice system. Roth also works part-time as a stripper, has firsthand experience in sex work, and hands out clean syringes to intravenous drug users throughout Philadelphia.
Roth distributes syringes, condoms, and “bad date sheets” via Project SAFE, a grassroots harm reduction organization that provides support and referrals for female sex workers. I joined her on an outreach walk in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington this winter – Roth distributed bad date sheets and clean syringes, or “works,” and I gave out condoms. It was 30 degrees outside but still a busy night. The supplies were gone within an hour and a half, and we trekked back to my car with numb feet.
I spoke with Roth for more than three hours about the 21st century sex industry on December 18 and 19 of 2013, the two days following SWOP’s International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, and fresh on Roth’s mind were the names of countless sex workers who have lost their lives due to violence. Though she agreed that most American sex workers share the burden of stigma and varying degrees of criminalization, marginalization, and violence, when I inquired about the self-esteem of sex workers, or how many sex workers use intravenous drugs, Roth was unable to generalize, explaining that like those in any other industry, sex workers have unique lives that aren’t necessarily defined by their profession. She told me that some of the women she works with in Kensington sleep in abandoned factories while others live in the suburbs with their unsuspecting husbands.
“You can’t pick sex workers or drug users out of a crowd,” she said. “People who are working in these industries come from so many different backgrounds and engage in these behaviors for so many different reasons, and identify with these behaviors in so many different ways. It’s such a diverse population that we talk about in such monolithic ways, for many fair reasons, but it’s so interesting – with outreach, I’m talking to people for only two reasons, and I meet such different people.”
Bloom: You have firsthand experience as a sex worker. Can you tell me about that and how it informs your current work?
Roth: So many people are afraid to talk about sex work, or they think so much of it is exploitation and scary and dirty and dangerous. While I’ve had some of those experiences and witnessed some pretty unsavory things, I’ve really found my experience in the sex industry to be a positive one. I care about a lot of the people I’ve met within that industry, not just the women I’ve worked with, but the clients I’ve had and the people I’ve worked for. I like to talk about my work and I want to make it safer and less stigmatized, less sensationalized, because I’ve experienced it as just a boring job sometimes, and that’s really what it comes down to. Sex work is a lot less exciting than the ways we talk about it as a society, or in popular media outlets.
There is a power dynamic that exists when I work with a group like SAFE – when I have supplies that I’m giving to someone. When the people I work with know that I have a shared experience with them – we’ve both worked as strippers, or we’ve both worked in this industry, we know what it’s like to try and pick up dates or to negotiate a price – there’s an empathy and mutual respect, just like any professional organization, really.
Bloom: What is the strip club environment like? Describe an evening at work.
Roth: It is very hard to generalize about the strip club environment. Even within this sector of the sex work industry, it is so diverse because of the way clubs are marketed based on region or state legislation, and certain clubs are different from day shift to night shift. I can only really speak to my own experience.
I work at a “gown club,” which literally means women wear long dresses or gowns to signify a more “upscale” club. There are certain perks to working here: they advertise, the food served isn’t so bad, the environment tends to be cleaner, and undercover cops seem to be much less of a presence. Besides that – I worked at more of a “dive” bar for the past five years – there isn’t much of a difference besides the fact that it costs more to work at the gown club because of the rules about our clothing, hair, and nails.
At work, I show up around nine, makeup and hair ready, change into my gown and check in to be called on stage. I focus on selling lap dances or champagne rooms – a longer, more private lap dance – or sitting with a customer who will simply pay for my time. I also focus on avoiding drama; I keep my distance from management, who fine us for being late, or they yell at me for not wearing my hair down – I prefer a French twist. I keep my distance from other dancers for the most part, but really it’s a time game: I only talk to someone who can pay me while I am in the building. And finally, I keep my distance from knuckleheads: guys who are drunk, guys who want more than just a dance. These men I have found are not worth the time, don’t really have money, and there is a likelihood that they are undercover cops.
I hightail it out of the club at two to get a few hours of sleep before work the next day. On weekends, I can catch up with some fellow employees there or at an after-hours spot, or just hang in the dressing room.
The customers I meet are so interesting, weird, funny, and so on, but looking back on several years of this, a typical night is work work work and stay out of trouble.
So often at work, clients ask what I am doing there and try to find some character flaw or tragedy that led me to dancing, sex work – though there are just as many who do not. Personally, I like to be able to commit so much of my time to activism I care about and so little to generating the amount of income I am comfortable with. I leave work and go home to a loving partner, and wake up to an exciting day of working with people I love. It tickles me that customers think I am “sad” or “troubled,” and that feminists think I am being exploited.
Bloom: Can you describe the kind of work you with SWOP and SAFE? What have been some of your happiest achievements and what have been some of your most challenging or painful experiences?
Roth: One of my favorite things to do and one of the most important things SWOP and SAFE do are workshops and presentations with other service providers in the area on how to better serve sex worker populations. I just did a training with abortion providers, and it was great to reconnect personally with that movement and realize how much we share, how laws and legislation really make the lives of women so challenging, and how in both of our fields as providers we can navigate that and support our clients in getting their needs met. It’s challenging for people to meet their own needs when some Republican senator thinks they know better.
Poor women who are working in the sex industry are interacting with case managers and DHS workers and various social workers in ways that middle class people just don’t have to, or get to, depending on how you think of it. We are training these people to be more competent and more accepting and to examine their own feelings about sex work in a way they don’t usually get a chance to. It helps people become better providers.
With SWOP, we’re trying to generate a list of providers who sign a contract stating that they’re willing to work with sex workers in a client-centered and affirming way. There are so many doctors, therapists, lawyers, and accountants who will exploit sex workers, knowing that their patient or client has exchanged things for sex in the past, and the provider thinks they are entitled to this exchange for their services. They become focused on the occupational needs of these people instead of seeing the whole person.
A specific challenge is working with law enforcement. We have a bad date sheet, which is one of the most powerful things we do with Project SAFE. These exist all over the world; sometimes they’re called “ugly mug lists” or “bad date lists.” Ours is just a piece of paper where women report identifying features of someone who has assaulted them or ripped them off or raped them so other women can watch out for them.
The police came across this document, and found it very useful – they were able to identify people they had in custody and see that there were other victims out there – they were able to lock offenders up. We’re worried about working with police because we’re an anti-criminalization organization to begin with; however, a lot of the women victimized by these assaults want some sort of justice, and want these men off the street. There’s a lot of repeat offenders.
We have started sharing this document with the SVU in the district where are a lot of these women are working, and I was hoping for some reciprocity. The police are really cocky. They think they know how to best handle working with sex workers. A detective and I have talked a lot about women who are working with pimps and trafficking, and they think it’s best if women are arrested and locked up so that they will give police information about pimps or other clients or other girls – to make some sort of a deal, which I think is traumatizing and harmful and unsustainable. There are so many other ways we can make these communities safer, and when we offer training and collaborations, the police are unwilling. It’s not because they can’t legally do it or morally they aren’t interested; it’s because they think they’re doing something right. The numbers show they aren’t.
We just applied for a grant to do more education in the community and hopefully put some pressure on the police. That’s a long-term goal of mine.
Bloom: Are you planning on working with SWOP and SAFE in New York?
Roth: There’s a New York SWOP chapter that I look forward to getting involved with locally. They’ve been around for a really long time and are one of the most active chapters. I’m a board member, and we have board members all over the country. It’s all done remotely through conference calls and Google documents. We could really do it from anywhere in the world, as hard as that may be sometimes.
My role has changed with Project SAFE to mainly doing community education and local trainings. As a director, it’s a lot more behind the scenes work – keeping track of our books and writing grants, emails, managing donors – and I could do that from anywhere as well. I do plan to travel to Philly when we have events and stay connected to our volunteer base, which is the most important thing in keeping the organization sustainable.
Bloom: In The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof called the term “sex worker” a “euphemism [for prostitute]…that tends to legitimize something that is usually closely linked to organized crime and violence.” How do you respond?
Roth: I want Nicholas Kristof to know how offensive that is, and how offensive he is. [Laughter.] I think he’s been told, but he’s still doing his thing. But framing sex work as work is so important, not only to affirm and validate the experience of those who are working in the industry by choice or circumstance – the way most of us work, because we need to make money – but for those who are being exploited. When we define sex work as work, we can better identify what is exploitation, as with any other industry, and respond to it appropriately.
“Something that’s usually linked to organized crime and violence” – there are studies that have shown that’s not true. What about the banking industry? Should that not exist because it’s linked to organized crime and violence? It’s amazing that people get away with justifying these things by saying “just because it is the sex industry.”
When we call sex workers prostitutes, we forget it’s work and claims like this can be made.
Bloom: It seems as though we rarely hear from actual sex workers in the media. Why is that?
Roth: I’m really amazed at how many journalists don’t go out of their way to find more sources than Nick Kristof and people from the Polaris Project, which is a religious anti-trafficking organization with bad research. It’s not that hard to find sex workers who are willing to talk to the media. It really isn’t. SWOP has hundreds of members all over the country in various stages of “outness.” But there are a lot of out sex workers who are happy to have the opportunity to talk about their experience. And not everyone is a “happy hooker;” they’re willing to talk about the industry and its whole dynamic existence.
It’s going to be easier to find a dentist willing to talk about their work than a sex worker. That is because of the criminalization of sex work, which isn’t just the fact that people think they’re going to get arrested for solicitation if they say they’re a sex worker; one of the things I think about is that I identify working with the Sex Workers Outreach Project, so what will happen if I’m ever the victim of a crime, and that comes up? That can be used against me, just identifying with this group of people. It’s amazing how identifying with the sex worker movement makes you vulnerable, just like how people frame the short skirt equals rape argument.
I know a lot of sex workers are worried about life after the industry and the fact that being out and open about their work can really close some doors for them.
If it is the oldest profession, how are we so ill-equipped to deal with it? Why are we so afraid of sex workers, or talking about sex work?
Bloom: What is sex work? Are those working in pornography sex workers? Are escorts?
Roth: Sex work is a term that was developed by Carol Lee in the 1980s to legitimize that sex work is work. It applies to all aspects of the sex industry. It also has this workers’ rights connotation. So those working in pornography – those who are acting in the films are sex workers – but that doesn’t mean that Hugh Hefner is a sex worker. He’s been responsible for the production of many pornographic films, but he is management in the industry. Calling him a sex worker would miss the fact that this is a workers’ rights movement as much as it is a sex-positive movement and a feminist movement.
But absolutely, escorts are. It’s an umbrella term.
Bloom: Why does the sex industry exist?
Roth: It exists because every other industry exists. It’s a service that people realized they could make money from.
Bloom: Can you talk about the distinction between indoor and outdoor sex work?
Roth: It’s a very general and imperfect distinction because people move between these paradigms. Outdoor work quite simply applies to people who are working in an outdoor, unregulated space, people who are spontaneously picking up clients on the street. Indoor work is a broader field that can refer to a massage parlor, a strip club, work that’s set up online and happens in an in-call space or an out-call space, like a hotel room. With the internet it gets very confusing. People might meet outside and go inside, but it really refers to where people actually meet the client.
Bloom: What is the outdoor sex work environment and lifestyle like? Can you illustrate the experiences of the women you work with on Kensington Avenue?
Roth: It is important to note that there is a certain connotation when we talk about indoor and outdoor work. Even sex workers themselves tend to think that outdoor work is riskier than indoor work, and more accessible. For many places, to work indoors you need a license, or you need to be hired somewhere. Outdoor work can take place any time, any place, by anyone. So it makes it really hard to generalize about outdoor work.
I don’t think it’s necessarily riskier, because outdoor sex work usually happens in pockets, in places where there’s already people outside – “red-light districts” as people say, or strolls – which can actually be safer than some indoor spaces because there’s a sense of community. People can move about freely, and you can work at anytime.
In Kensington, where we do outreach, it’s a working class neighborhood under our elevated transit line with a big commercial corridor. So there’s not a lot of people out hustling during the day. But at night when the businesses are closed, a lot of predominantly cisgender women will walk up and down the street trying to make eye contact with the drivers of cars. They can also find clients who are walking or riding their bikes. You aren’t going to see anyone hanging on the corner looking directly at cars, because the police will recognize that as solicitation and arrest someone for loitering, or solicitation, or obstruction of highways – that’s another common charge.
Outdoor sex work is very subtle usually, though when walking through a neighborhood where it’s happening, people can usually identify it. But the objective is to connect with someone in a car and meet up with them. Usually people agree on a price for a certain sex act, unlike with indoor sex work, where you agree on a price per hour but also negotiate what’s going to happen within that hour. A lot of the women we work with are trying to get as many clients as possible in a small amount of time to maximize the time they’re out there. It’s busy all night; also it’s really busy in the very early hours of the morning, but we’ve never been able to get volunteers to do outreach at that time, so I can’t speak to that time. But a lot of the women we work there say that would be the best time to do outreach. [Laughter.]
Bloom: Who are the women working in the Kensington area, and what are their lives like?
Roth: It’s incredibly diverse. There are women who grew up in Kensington and have lived there for years. Some of them have other jobs, and when they need to make some extra money for bills or whatever, they’ll step out and make some money because they know they can – it’s a reliable place to make money – and go back in. So they might look for clients once every few months, or when they need to. There are other women who schedule regular hours, and that is their primary source of income. Women are local; some women travel in because they don’t want to work where they live.
Some women have been out there for thirty, forty years. There are also newer women. I’d say most women out there are working independently – they don’t have anyone managing their time or their money or helping them with security. We see a lot of women working in the buddy system or in groups – one person will wait while someone’s on a date, and they’ll alternate for the purpose of safety. It’s really quite varied, where people are coming from, why people are motivated to go out.
SAFE also does home delivery of supplies, and we see where people live. Some women are living in abandoned factories with twenty other people and carve out a little space for themselves; some people have homes in the suburbs; some people are living with three other sex workers; some people are living with their husband, who has no idea. It’s really hard to generalize.
Bloom: Give us a day in the life of Lindsay Roth, describing some of the people you might encounter and the events that might occur in your daily work.
Roth: I usually work my nine to five. My job at Mazzoni is managing a caseload of about thirty to thirty-five clients – checking in on them, making sure everyone has shelter, food, medication, medical needs met. When I get that and paperwork under control, I’ll start working on SWOP and SAFE during the day – answering emails from interested volunteers, catching up with current volunteers, scheduling events, updating our Facebook pages with interesting articles – I haven’t gotten on the Twitter game because that’s way too much for me [laughter] – ordering supplies, making sure we have enough money to order supplies, writing grants and finding relevant grants for us to apply to.
I personally only do outreach with SAFE twice a month, and we have a SWOP meeting once a month. With SWOP national, I get a few emails a day, things I might have to vote on – maybe a financial decision if a chapter has applied for funding. We had applied for 501(c)3 status four years ago, which we recently achieved, but we have to make sure we can keep that up. There’s a lot of accounting that we’re working on now. It’s mainly a lot of emails back and forth. That’s how we find consensus in both of those groups.
I work in a strip club three or four days a week. But I like that job because I can call out if I need to – if I have a grant I need to finish up, or if I just want to sleep. [Laughter.]
Bloom: What are some of the services that SAFE provides?
Roth: There are a few stable services that we always offer, and we have some ambitions for 2014. We always have safer sex and safer injection supplies available through outreach or home delivery. We’re also adding a drop-in space that will be open once a month, and that’s a women-identified only space. We have a hotline where people can report bad dates. They can also talk to a case manager, which is me. We get a lot of calls for people who are concerned about housing, about applying for welfare, about getting into treatment. Most of the calls are from people who are interested in drug and alcohol treatment, and we help them navigate that as it can be really complicated.
We update the bad date sheet and distribute that. We also do overdose response training and distribute Narcan – a treatment that reverses opiate overdose – to those who have prescriptions.
Bloom: How does SAFE’s needle exchange work? When distributing clean needles to sex workers or to madams, how are you able to ensure an exchange of used needles?
Roth: The technical and politically correct term is syringe access program. The women we work with are really invested in the exchange. They care about their neighborhood and their communities. They care about their health, which is why they want to access clean needles, and they want to make sure these dirty needles don’t end up on the ground. One of the things we do is we hand out sharps containers. One woman we deliver to – she hands syringes out to other girls within the community who we don’t reach – she’ll go around to shooting galleries and just collect needles. Unfortunately they all end up at my place.
What we’ll then do is exchange the needles we collect back with other needle exchanges in New York. These exchanges have more of a capacity, and Prevention Point just doesn’t have the flow that we need.
Bloom: Prevention Point is Philadelphia’s city-funded syringe access program. Why the need for SAFE’s exchange?
Roth: Prevention Point has a mobile unit that goes to a few different neighborhoods depending on the day of the week – but if you miss them, you miss them. The bottom line is that we need more providers in the city. It’s crazy that there’s one service for a proven way to reduce HIV and Hepatitis C transmission.
Also syringes are a great engagement tool in getting people to talk about their substance abuse – if it’s working for them, if it’s chaotic, or if they want to change it. Needles are really important in just keeping people healthy. I’m glad there’s someone else out there handing them out, but we only hand out to women. We get called sexist all the time by men, but Prevention Point is just a male-dominated space. The last stats we have from them are from 2010; their statistics are owned by UPenn and they’re really hard to get – 75 percent cis-male, 20 percent cis-female, and five percent trans-identified – so there’s an overwhelming number of men in that space and in the drug-using community. It’s usually men who are selling, so there’s this inherent power dynamic. SAFE was started to address the barrier that exists in connecting women to clean needles.
This is an unintended consequence, but these clean needles are often resold. They’re worth about a dollar, and sometimes our needles get resold – but it’s kind of like micro-finance – at least women are reselling in communities where so they don’t have access to as much money as men and are often responsible for kids, families. There’s a dual-reason for targeting women specifically.
I attended a workshop with a German sex worker, and she said that she doesn’t have to worry about the policeman, just the taxman. She felt there was a lot of unfair taxing of sex workers. What happens in those countries, where it’s more about workers’ rights issues, is the money it takes to get a license to practice sex work is very expensive and inaccessible.
It creates a sort of class warfare. People who can afford the license to practice legally are obviously safe and protected, but people who are doing spontaneous sex work because they need to continue to be criminalized. Illegal sex work still happens in those countries, with all the problems that carries.
Bloom: Are there other SAFE-like organizations?
Roth: There are SAFE-like organizations all over the country, some of which provide direct services just to sex workers, and some of which run a similar syringe access program to ours. Some do both or have partnerships. SWOP has chapters that do outreach in several U.S. cities, and I am wary on naming others given the nature of work that they do. I know for a while we made the choice not to be out [about the syringe access program] to news outlets.
In some states, however, syringe access is not as challenging. While there is a federal ban on syringe funding, New York still has state funding available and most syringe access programs are 501(c)3 non-profits ,or are funded through the city’s health department. Or it can be much worse, as there is not a single syringe exchange in all of Kentucky.
Bloom: How common is intravenous drug use among sex workers?
Roth: I don’t know the numbers on that. I’m sure there are some studies, but it’s so hard to generalize. I’d be wary of studies, and I don’t cite any studies because with most of the studies I see on both populations, I find the sampling problematic. They enroll people via incentives, which attracts people for different reasons – it doesn’t give a holistic look.
We keep our injection supplies and sex supplies separate. Some people take both bags; some people take one bag and not the other.
Bloom: Why is SAFE trying to increase access to Naloxone?
Roth: Naloxone is an antidote to any opiate. When people overdose and are administered Naloxone either though nasal spray or intramuscular injection, it will reverse the effects of overdose and literally bring people back to life. It’s legal, it’s not a classified drug, and there’s really no way to abuse it, because when you reverse someone’s overdose, it throws them into withdrawal. After you save someone’s life, they want to kill you right away – it’s a pretty miserable experience.
You can have Naloxone with a prescription, but there’s a lot of reluctance with providers to prescribe it. It’s because most doctors aren’t prescribing heroin, but it’s relevant for prescription pills as well, which is how most overdoses are happening – the use and abuse of prescription pain pills. SAFE is particularly interested in talking about overdose prevention, because currently first responders do carry Narcan, and they have it at hospitals. But if you are engaged in an illegal activity, you do not want to call 911.
We still encourage people to still call 911 even if they can to administer Naloxone to someone. I was doing outreach with another volunteer, and a woman came up to us, and we realized she was overdosing. Her breathing was getting more and more shallow, her eyes were widening, and she was losing faculties quickly. We called 911 from a poor neighborhood, and the police didn’t rush there. We’re losing minutes – seconds. Once they showed up and assessed her as a “junkie” – their words – Naloxone still wasn’t administered. It seemed like they wanted to teach her a lesson for using too many drugs. They made her wait in the emergency room, and this woman was getting closer to death. It was dangerous. Then she finally got the Narcan after we begged the nurses. I don’t know what would have happened if we weren’t there. She left as soon as she got it. She didn’t want to get in trouble, or she wasn’t interested in being at the hospital at that moment. This woman endured so much extra suffering when all she needed was this one medicine.
People need to be more empowered to know about overdose: that it can happen, that it’s preventable, that there’s a tool they can use – Narcan being only part of it. A lot of it is assessing and knowing your own limits, and knowing what it looks like when someone else overdoses. Less people would die.
Bloom: Are you able to distribute Narcan?
Roth: In the past we’ve hopped on with Prevention Point. They had a doctor who could write prescriptions for people who attended trainings. When people came to an overdose training, the provider would write a script, and the person could carry it on them. It is kind of silly – Narcan is written for the person, but if I overdose, you’re administering the Narcan, so technically you should have the Narcan, not me.
We’ve also done overdose trainings at private residences in the past. We have one coming up in January. Narcan is only part of it. Narcan only works when there are Good Samaritan laws in place – the concept that if you are with someone who is overdosing and you do call 911, you won’t be arrested. That makes people more willing to call 911 sooner and more likely to not leave someone alone. It’s just safer. People do get charged. I saw in Maryland a 19-year-old girl was charged with the death of her boyfriend because he overdosed on heroin. I don’t think [his death] was her intention.
When I’ve talked to providers, some of the less progressive doctors think that Naloxone will encourage people to use more. But a drug user’s goal is not to overdose. Overdose is not the same as getting high. It’s painful, you’re wasting your supply – it’s not pleasant. Those arguments don’t ring true to the drug user community. Both fatal and nonfatal overdoses happen because something went wrong – there’s a special circumstance. The fact that there’s something that could prevent overdose, and it’s being withheld, is ridiculous.
Bloom: How is SAFE’s bad date sheet created and distributed? How effective is it in preventing violence against sex workers?
Roth: It’s really simple. People call our hotline and leave a message, or we collect bad date information when we do deliveries or outreach – people tell us the details. We send it in to an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, which goes to a long-time volunteer who lives in Colombia. Then she’ll bounce it back, compile and update the list, format it, and we print it off and distribute it.
People read it before they go out as their pre-work ritual. When people see that light-skinned guy with the neck tattoo and the Ford Mustang, they’re going to wait for the next client because they saw that he was violent just that week.
There are some listings that are pretty vague, but what I hear from a lot of the women is “You know what? I’m not going to risk it. Because that guy will take his money back at gunpoint. He’s done that before, so why wouldn’t he do it again?”
I’ve also seen a lot of girls recognize men from the sheet and either publicly shame them or use it to humiliate them, or for other forms of justice. It really calls people out, and other people in the community read it. Kensington is a small, insular community where everyone does know each other, so if you are on that list, people are going to see what you did. It doesn’t let people get away with that behavior, and it shows that a lot of men think they can assault sex workers and get away with it – but you can’t. You might not get arrested, but everyone knows your business now. You look like a jerk, or a monster depending on what you did.
Bloom: Are sex workers especially vulnerable to violence? In your work in Philadelphia, how often do you encounter sex workers who have been victimized?
Roth: That question is challenging to answer. I would say overwhelmingly yes, when you consider direct violence and institutionalized violence. The bad date reports are particularly extreme examples of direct violence, and they do happen. A lot of it happens because people are being opportunistic – it’s less likely they’ll be caught because the victim is a sex worker. But I think almost every sex worker has experienced institutionalized violence, which I mentioned earlier: not having access to traditional forms of health care or justice, or even the simple inability to talk directly about the work you do among friends and colleagues.
Bloom: SWOP states that sex workers are subject to violence simply due to the fact that the trade is criminalized. Would violence against sex workers decrease if the trade was decriminalized?
Roth: I wholeheartedly agree with that. The criminal justice system isn’t the only way people can handle violent assaults. There are other forms of justice. The criminal justice system is a form that we trust and rely on as a whole in this country, and that is taken away from sex workers. The bad date sheet exists because these women do not feel they can go to the police. If sex work was decriminalized, more women would report crime, more crimes would be investigated, more arrests would be made. If that were to happen, more clients would realize that they can’t get away with their behavior.
Bloom: Does the same theory of decriminalization apply to drug use?
Roth: Yes, I think so too, for different reasons. With overdose, the fact that when lives are actually at stake, people are so afraid of criminalization that others die – that shows how scary it is to get arrested. The harms incurred by nonviolent offenders by the criminal justice system far outweigh the harms of drugs. It’s important to highlight that in the criminalization of both sex work and drug use, police and other law enforcement officers have power within these systems, and they have a history of using that power improperly. There’s a lot of money at stake.
Besides the particularly egregious violations of human rights that I’ve seen, such as police officers exploiting women for sexual favors, what’s worse is the whole structural movement where police officers and districts know that they will get more money for solicitation busts or drug busts than they will for solving a murder or finding that serial rapist. It’s ironic that in the United States there are more incentives for cops to seek out these petty, nonviolent criminals than there are to find people who are actually harming people, hurting people, and killing people.
Bloom: The argument could be made that sex work turns people into objects, thereby dehumanizing them, thereby increasing their risk to violence. What do you think?
Roth: Let’s break that down. I think a lot of work turns people into objects. I really only see my mailman as someone who brings me my mail. In a certain sense, I’m paid just to care about my clients at Mazzoni. In all work, people become objects for whatever we pay them to do for us. That’s just capitalism, and a lot of people think that sucks, but it is what it is. If you want to follow that line of logic, maybe sex workers are turned into objects, but I don’t think that matters. I think you’d have to talk to sex workers themselves. But also following that logic, just because my mailman’s only a mailman to me doesn’t mean I can murder him and not feel bad about it.
We do objectify people. We live in a society where people are distanced and used, and I don’t think violence should be excused because of that. I think we need to look more at the violent behaviors of people, not their victims. There’s victim-blaming inherent in that statement. It’s interesting how excuses are always made for the perpetrators of violence against sex workers.
As someone who’s worked in the industry, when people talk about objectification – that really doesn’t resonate with my experience, and it doesn’t resonate with my experience of being a woman in the United States. I don’t think sex work is any more objectifying than any other job.
Bloom: Are there other ways to prevent violence?
Roth: There are many ways to prevent violence, and I won’t give you an exhaustive list. There are a lot of micro-aggressions that happen, especially towards sex workers, which is maybe where this objectification occurs. Before it escalates to someone being murdered, there are these little jokes we make with our friends: when we say people look like hookers, or they’re acting like hookers. Or on television, when strippers are portrayed as dumb, or a working single mother is mocked as being “trashy” – which is a trope that I really don’t understand. Or we make fun of women for trying to support their family in any way they know how. When sex workers are portrayed in this one way, it creates this monolithic narrative.
When society thinks of one group as this thing with all these negative qualities, that makes it easier to “other” them and dislike them and discriminate against them. I still don’t think that causes violence, because I think violent people cause violence. But that’s just stigma, and I think breaking down stigma would prevent violence. Stigma also comes from a lack of knowledge. This could be wrapped up in a holistic and comprehensive education about sex and substance use and sex work. Young people need to know that it’s out there, and that should be a part of any curriculum.
SWOP and SAFE are small. We teach sex workers how to screen clients and keep themselves safe, but it would be great if that information was made more available, if these were normal conversations not considered as a promotion of sex work, but rather best practices in keeping yourself safe.
Bloom: What would the ideal sex-ed curriculum look like?
Roth: I believe a sex education curriculum should reflect the human experience. When we talk about consent, we need to talk about consent with and without mind-altering substances. I think this is also an appropriate time to talk about having sex in exchange for things. Young people aren’t posting ads online, per se, but in my work, I have seen young people engage in what we call survival sex work: sex to stay at someone’s home for a night or a week, sex for food, or even sex for drugs, alcohol, and goods. Keeping the target audience in mind and the subject matter appropriate to the age group, we need to name what sex work is and isn’t to help individuals set boundaries and avoid exploitation. And what consent is and isn’t, especially vis a vis intoxication.
From this we can address best practices for individuals who are in these situations, or may have questions about the situation they are in. At the very least, we can give them unbiased and shame-free language so that they may understand their situation.
Bloom: Both SAFE and SWOP operate on models of “harm reduction.” Some people might interpret what you see as harm reduction as enablement of illegal drug use and prostitution. How do you respond to such challenges?
Roth: There’s just this thing called free will that we all have. This question has been answered in so many ways by people who are far more experienced scholars in harm reduction than I am, but I would invite people to consider their own experience in learning about risky behaviors. I’ve handled needles for many years now and never once have decided that I want to inject. That’s not what motivates me to use. And when I do use drugs, it’s not because someone told me how to safety use cocaine and I finally decided that was a good idea.
It’s important to consider the motivations behind why people engage in drug use and why people might engage in sex work. It’s not usually because someone told them how to do it safely. The motivations are a lot deeper and complex and authentic than someone presenting information about it. Knowledge is power and people have free will, and they can take it or leave it. But we are disempowering people when we keep that knowledge away from them. Thinking that sex work and drug use will just go away if we don’t talk about it or we don’t talk about doing it safely is hurting people. It’s causing HIV transmission to continue; it’s causing sex workers to continue to put their lives at risk because they don’t know how to date safely. It’s causing young people to engage in drug use chaotically when there are measured and safe ways they can explore mind-altering substances.
Bloom: What if someone said that you’re making it easier for those using intravenous drugs to use since you are providing needles?
Roth: The thing about having an opiate addiction is that someone is going to do almost anything to use. Different drugs impact people differently, so I’m making a generalization here, but an opiate addiction is a physical dependency in regards to withdrawal. It’s very painful and very dangerous. When people are using injectable drugs, especially heroin, they’re going to get that fix whether or not a clean needle is there, because not getting that fix could be physically more dangerous due to withdrawal symptoms.
Drug users invented clean syringe access and these networks of needle exchanges. Drug users want to be safe. People are drawn to drugs for many different reasons, whether it’s self-medication or whether it’s pleasure – which I think people are completely entitled to. Whether a clean needle is there or not, they’re going to continue to try and access those things.
Bloom: Does the same theory apply to SAFE’s distribution of condoms?
Roth: This really reminds me of when I worked with Planned Parenthood and was teaching sex ed in high schools. For awhile in Pennsylvania, it was an abstinence-only sex education curriculum. The studies are out – young people have sex whether or not we talk about it, and in fact, not talking about it causes young people to have riskier sex; there are higher rates of unplanned pregnancies and STIs. That just goes to show that when we engage in real talk and supply people with what they need, they can make a decision about whether or not they want to use it, be it condoms, dental dams, or information. But most people want to maximize their pleasure and maximize their safety and their health. We should give that to them.
Bloom: Was the sex-ed program abstinence-only when you were teaching?
Roth: When I was employed at the school district, we weren’t allowed to talk about condoms. I would with my students after school, but when I was working with Planned Parenthood, a lot of school districts had abstinence-only policies so teachers couldn’t talk about sex or comprehensive sex-ed, so they would invite Planned Parenthood to come in and give the presentations as a way to get that information to students and not violate any policies.
As a teacher, some of my kids had questions, but mainly, they also don’t want to talk to their teachers about sex, so that’s why it’s important to have peer-led conversations and peer-driven movements.
Bloom: Have you ever faced an ethical dilemma in your work?
Roth: It was a real struggle when I started working at Mazzoni, which is a medical center and a traditional non-profit, 501(c)3 – there’s Medicaid contracts; we accept insurance – and coming from Project SAFE, where we don’t have ties to anyone. I had to figure out how to work with clients who are doing sex work. We do risk-reduction counseling, and I had to figure out if that included exit-strategies from the industry. Along with that, I wondered how much I could actually share with clients about the skills I have – screening clients, safer dating, sneaky ways to use condoms – things that they might not think me their medical case manager would know how to do. But being in the sex worker rights movement, I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve, and I’ve learned from some pretty savvy folks.
What felt like an ethical dilemma was unlearning the narrative that we have to be paternalistic and protect everyone from everything. It is a lot like the sex education debate: we don’t want to tell young people that the pull-out method is actually pretty effective because we’re afraid that they’ll use it, but I really think that’s their decision to make. What we need to do is be thorough and responsible and deliberate enough to have a longer conversation about what those statistics mean, and what the different risks are.
I’ve had these ethical dilemmas, and I hear those voices – am I enabling someone, am I telling them what they’re doing is okay when we have all these contracts saying they should be exiting the industry. But people don’t change behaviors because someone is telling them that what they’re doing is wrong, and withholding information as a provider is one of the least ethical things you can do.
Bloom: You’re saying that working at Mazzoni, you’ve had an ethical dilemma in giving information that you have from these other organizations, which you know will help your client, but the Mazzoni Center itself doesn’t really want you to do that?
Roth: I don’t know their stance. Institutional knowledge of risk reduction – here’s how you use a condom, and don’t do sex work if you don’t want to get HIV – not only is that not entirely true, but I do think harm reduction really works. I guess part of me was almost embarrassed in revealing that part of myself to my clients, but ethically, I had this knowledge base that I should share.
When I did finally have those conversations with clients, not only did they not really give a shit about what I was saying, they were excited to be able have the opportunity to converse and to really talk about safe sex in a way that was meaningful to them and the kind of sex they were having, which people don’t always get a chance to do.
Bloom: December 17 is SWOP’s International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, which was originally founded as a memorial to the victims of the Green River Killer in Seattle, who murdered 71 women, most of whom were sex workers, from 1982 to 1998. How have things changed since then, for better and/or for worse?
Roth: We still have several serial killers on the loose right now. There’s one in Long Island. We had one in Philly two years ago. He first raped two people, who then reported it on our bad date sheet, and then he escalated and murdered two more, and then a third before he was eventually caught. So he was known as a perpetrator within the community, and then he murdered, and then he did it again. But to the police, it was two women in this neighborhood doing this work with these charges. It was fortunate in a sense that one of the victims’ family really wanted to know who it was. They put a lot of pressure on the police and really advocated, so he was caught and stopped killing people. It seemed like he would have gone on like Gary Ridgway. In Long Island they still don’t know who it is, and there’s been I don’t even know how many bodies washed up on Gilgo Beach.
The same environment that allowed someone like Gary Ridgway to murder that many women still exists, and in fact, I think that things have gotten a little worse for sex workers with the anti-trafficking debate gaining such traction. I’m so happy people are taking about the fact that labor is being exploited. I wish they would talk about other industries where it’s happening more, like farm work and domestic work and food service. But it’s sexier when we talk about sex work, and there are some non-profits who’ve done a wonderful job raising public awareness. But what this has led to is similar to the feminist porn debates, and a desire to pass more laws to control women. These laws are more acutely felt in communities of color and poorer communities. For people engaged in the sex trade by choice or by circumstance, like a lot of the women Gary Ridgway killed, they see the criminal justice system as more of a threat and less of a protecting force.
Bloom: Who knew the identity of the Philadelphia killer first, the police or local sex workers?
Roth: We had a few sexual assaults on our bad date sheet that matched the description of the Philadelphia Strangler. A lot of women we spoke with seemed to think they had ran into someone who they thought was the Philadelphia Stranger and were solicited by him. It was not necessarily sex workers who knew, but members of the community in Kensington. Despite the police department’s decision to stop and swab every Hispanic man matching the description they had, it was drug users who called in a tip that led to the arrest.
Bloom: Do you think those seeking to do violence see an easier pool of victims in sex workers?
Roth: There are a few reasons why so many victims of serial killers are sex workers. For one, there are very few people who will get into a stranger’s car or go home with a stranger. Sex workers will do that; that’s how dates happen. There’s not very many other industries where you meet someone by the side of the road and they say “I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you come back to my house for an hour.” Sex workers will do that. That’s why we encourage people to look for signs. There are ways we try and protect ourselves, but that is the risk of the job.
So there’s that on the front end making sex workers vulnerable. That’s why people consider indoor work to be safer, but it’s hard to know. It’s hard to predict who’s going to be a violent client sometimes.
On the back end, the fact that sex work is criminalized has made the historical relationship of sex workers and law enforcement very fraught. If someone isn’t a sex worker and is raped or beaten or assaulted, they will typically call the police right away. If someone who is a sex worker were to call the police, they might encounter a police officer who has arrested them in the past, or the police might recognize them, or they know the police and are thought of as a a nuisance to their community. So why would you call them if you just experienced this traumatic event?
The final piece in the case of murders is that so many sex workers are forced to misrepresent what they do. They have to lie because of employability, or because they fear stigma and judgment from their intimate partners and family and friends. A lot of sex workers say they’re going one place when they’re going another, and it makes it so much harder to connect the dots. Fake names, and fake identities, protect them from stalkers and law enforcement, but what that can lead to is an unidentified body. These people are not where they said they were going to be, and without any ID. Someone who wants to murder someone and get away with it knows that.
Naloxone is an antidote to any opiate. When people overdose and are administered Naloxone either though nasal spray or intramuscular injection, it will reverse the effects of overdose and literally bring people back to life. It’s legal, it’s not a classified drug, and there’s really no way to abuse it, because when you reverse someone’s overdose, it throws them into withdrawal. After you save someone’s life, they want to kill you right away – it’s a pretty miserable experience.
You can have Naloxone with a prescription, but there’s a lot of reluctance with providers to prescribe it. It’s because most doctors aren’t prescribing heroin, but it’s relevant for prescription pills as well, which is how most overdoses are happening – the use and abuse of prescription pain pills.
Bloom: How does SWOP celebrate International Sex Worker Rights Day?
Roth: Chapters do it very differently. A lot of chapters try to do a public event for that day with marches, parties, and really try to engage the public in the rights aspect. December 17 more of a solemn event.
SWOP in the Bay area of San Francisco had a big picnic this year. Bigger chapters will try and do a public demonstration, but also a lot of it is taking the day just to do something for ourselves as sex workers. Other groups will have a nice brunch, enjoy each other’s company, and bitch about lack of rights, but also strategize for ways to move forward.
Another thing we do is use those days to gain publicity – write letters to editors and try to get articles published.
Bloom: How does law enforcement handle violence against sex workers? Can sex workers find allies in the police, or the judicial system?
Roth: I’m sure it happens. [Laughter.] The one lieutenant I work with here, in his own way, cares about women. He doesn’t want women to get assaulted. He’s an SVU detective – he wants to lock up bad guys and stop crime. But he gets very frustrated when women won’t cooperate in investigations and won’t stand trial. That might be a challenge with any victim, especially of sexual assault. But there are so many reasons people get involved in the sex industry. Police are not trained to see the entire picture, and this makes police a troubling ally without the support of community advocates or social workers, because they only see black and white, legal and illegal – not the shades of grey, or the complexity of needs people in the industry have.
I’ve heard that in other states and districts the relationship between law enforcement and sex workers has been better, but I haven’t seen it. I’d like to imagine something here that works, but the goals of law enforcement are different than the goals of a victim sometimes. Police are looking for numbers.
Bloom: And the judicial system? Courts, judges, lawyers?
Roth: Sex workers are still criminals, so alliances can only be formed under the criminalized framework; therefore these alliances are not liberating or progressive or affirming of sex workers.
An interesting thing that’s happening here in Philly is Dawn’s Court, which was created by a feminist district attorney. She hated putting away sex workers, and she thinks all sex workers are victims forced into the occupation. That victim narrative doesn’t resonate with me, but what she did is create a diversionary court, which is an important option. It’s a lot like a diversionary drug treatment court, so instead of being incarcerated, people have the opportunity to go to classes and therapy and do community service – but let’s acknowledge this is all compulsory.
For Dawn’s Court, you do have to plead guilty, but the charge is expunged if you complete the one to two-year program of trauma-informed therapy, job search and job training, Sex Workers Anonymous, weekly meetings with your corrections officer, and you’re sober from drugs and alcohol. That’s only open to repeat offenders. It’s a start; it’s a better option than picking up charges and the exorbitant court costs that go along with them.
Dawn’s Court is named after the first person who graduated from that program. We’ve tried really hard to collaborate with them. It’s only open to cisgender women, and we’d like to see it open to transwomen. We’d like to see the program have a wider narrative for women to work with as opposed to this victim narrative. They have a new director who will be meeting with us.
Bloom: How does law enforcement handle rape cases involving sex workers?
Roth: Quite frankly, they should handle them exactly the same. Women Organized Against Rape, a rape crisis center in Philadelphia, has victim advocates to help women through the process, and they are an ally of ours. They train their victim advocates to be as competent as possible in working with sex workers.
I hear different stories from the women I know. The cop will say, “Let me search you before I bring you down to the station,” or “I don’t think that actually happened to you” – things that are so offensive that the women won’t be motivated to pursue it any further.
If these cases were appealed and pushed to a different officer, women would have their day in court. But after an experience like that, so many women I’ve talked to say, “Fuck it. I’m not going to do this if they’re not going to help me.”
Bloom: So they don’t even report it?
Roth: That’s been the collective mindset, because these stories of unhelpful police get shared. I’ve also worked with some women who have reported to the police. There was one guy on the bad date sheet who has three cases against him, and one of the girls said she did end up contacting the police after they had him in custody and just needed more witnesses. They got him locked up, and she felt good about it.
Bloom: Can you illustrate a few cases where you helped someone navigate the judicial and health care systems?
Roth: The health care needs of sex workers are pretty banal; they have the same needs as everyone else. A lot of women actually call SAFE on behalf of other family members – “I need to get my son on Medicaid” – and we help them with that. I had a client who was in an abusive relationship, and I helped her get a restraining order. I was worried that the partner would use her sex work against her in court, but that didn’t happen.
I will refer people to doctors who sex workers can be out too, especially with primary care providers. But if they have to go see a dermatologist, I don’t think their sex work has to be mentioned, unless they want to talk about it.
Bloom: Do acts of violence cause sex workers to rethink their occupation?
Roth: Certainly. It could be acts of direct violence, and these little micro-aggressions and indirect violence, or people might just be tired of dealing with rude customers and clients. The other thing about sex work is you can’t go complain to a manager; there isn’t that workplace structure. A lot of people rethink their occupation, but as I said, people will work by choice and they might have other options. I know some girls who eventually say, “You know, I’m done with this. I’m going to go back to working at Starbucks. I made less money, but I didn’t have to deal with this shit.”
Other people might rethink their occupation but they don’t have other options. I just worked with someone who had experienced a lot of violence – she had been doing sex work since she was thirteen years old – and she didn’t know how to transition from making so much money in such a small amount of time. She identified it as more of a money addiction. There’s so much that comes into choosing sex work. It is a truly unique job. She’s someone who did want to exit the industry, but after talking with her for awhile, she realized that while that was her goal, she needed to work on other things. She needed to address why she spent so much money, which was her primary addiction.
Bloom: How does the medical system handle violence, rape, and drug use among sex workers?
Roth: There’s a lot of pressure to report violence and rape to police, and because of that, some women will avoid going to hospitals. At Mazzoni, we want to affirm clients’ decisions. When it comes to violence, whether it’s intimate partner violence or occupational violence, we realize there are avenues for justice – reporting it to the police, or getting a restraining order – but also, people might feel just as vulnerable doing that. We try to present people with options. When they say, “I don’t want to do that right now,” we respect that. We’ll support then in either decision they make. When people do choose to work with the criminal justice system, we will support them and hook them up with lawyers, but it doesn’t happen very often.
I’ve never seen anyone fight a solicitation charge, which is a shame, because more people could. But their attitude is, “Slap me with a misdemeanor; I don’t give a shit.” So many of the charges are founded on pretty weak evidence.
With drug use, Mazzoni isn’t really a harm reduction organization, but we work with the “stages of change” model. It’s a way to conceptualize any behavior change, and it’s more of a cyclical idea than a linear one: you’re pre-contemplative and not ready to change, then you’re contemplative and you’re thinking about change but you don’t move on it, and with action you’re changing. And relapse is a part of that. Every time you relapse you start the cycle again. Good providers understand that.
Unfortunately, a lot of providers want to make an intervention and expect someone to change, and when they don’t change, they fail. So many providers talk about sex work and drug use as though they inform one another – and sometimes they do, but some providers think that people are doing sex work just to pay for a drug addiction, or they’re using drugs just to numb themselves from sex work. But in the conversations I’ve had, motivations for engaging in either or are typically far more complex than that. The providers could get past those stereotypes, but we don’t see that very often.
Bloom: Can you share some of your specific experiences at the Mazzoni Center?
Roth: The Mazzoni Center is great because when someone is engaged in sex work, it doesn’t change how we treat their medical or social services – unless they want to have that conversation. Violence, rape, and drug use does happen apart from sex work, and when people are engaged in sex work, others assume that’s their identity and it must inform everything else. Sometimes we don’t leave enough space to have conversations about sex work, which I mentioned before, just because a lot of providers aren’t prepared to have that conversation.
A big issue is drug use and narcotics being prescribed in clinics. We get a lot of people who are hoping they can get pain medication from us because they have a dependency, and/or they can sell it. There’s a lot of great reasons to get your hands on oxycodone or oxycontin or Percocets, and I’ve had clients threaten that if they don’t get what they want, they’ll start engaging in sex work to get it. But I don’t think that has anything to do with sex work; people only have so many skills to work the systems they’re faced with. When they use that to scare me as a case manager, I say, “Alright, let’s talk about that.” [Laughter.]
It’s interesting how sex work is used as a bargaining chip with providers. That’s a question I’ve gotten from other providers – what to do when people threaten to do sex work if they can’t get housing or other needs. I’ve had providers admit to me that it makes them work harder because they don’t want their client to engage in sex work. It’s a lot like when people threaten to hurt themselves if we can’t do something for them.
Bloom: In Louisiana, the Human Rights Watch reported that the AIDS death rate is more than double the national average due to enforcing the crime of “loitering for prostitution” and allowing condoms to be used as evidence of prostitution. Can you speak to other laws or policies that effect public health?
Roth: I was in New Orleans when they were filming that, and Tystero, a syringe access program featured in their report, was a syringe exchange a lot like SAFE’s. It was cool to see Human Rights Watch working on that and recognizing the work Trystero does.
Criminalization and all these little laws that fall under it directly impact public health. The criminal justice system in general is at odds with public health when you consider what happens in prisons. If we wanted to take a harm reduction approach to prisons, they could serve as a way to address issues, especially when it comes to HIV. There have been certain initiatives in Pennsylvania – they test every inmate, and it’s opt-out testing now, but they don’t do enough to treat people for HIV, or any other condition holistically – even unholistically.
The experience of moving in and out of jail causes such disruption within families and individual lives and communities, which makes it hard to build any sort of stability, which is necessary for a lot of health routines. And then there are these clear-cut policies where condom and clean syringe use is prevented, and the way that sex work is surveyed. There are ways that sex workers have learned to keep themselves safe, but law enforcement continues to shut them down. It makes it more dangerous for sex workers and their clients.
Bloom: You said that social workers can be either the best thing or the worst thing for sex workers. How do you plan to aid sex workers in your own career in social work?
Roth: I’m just a punk kid who’s been doing this for a few years, but I have a million ideas about how to do that. [Laughter.] Going back to the last question – there’s a better chance that the criminal justice system will touch someone’s life than the social work system. Unfortunately, the two work hand in hand sometimes, but there can and should be social workers who work apart and are critical of the criminal justice system, who can advocate on behalf of the needs of their clients, as their clients express them. It’s the responsibility of social workers to continue to be critical of the criminal justice system and how it’s come to encompass so much of our lives. It seems that no one is keeping that system in check.
Bloom: Can you give an example of how a good social worker would have helped someone you’ve worked with, or a time where you did work with a good social worker?
Roth: I hear a lot about people in custody hearings, or people going through a divorce, and because they are engaged in sex work – even legal forms of sex work, like stripping – they are defeated in court. Social workers can serve as expert witnesses in many ways. They can conduct better research to demonstrate that sex workers aren’t de facto bad mothers, or bad partners, or bad people. They can also work one-on-one to help people through that process and ensure that they are not victimized by the system.
I’ve been able to do that in my work as a case manager at Mazzoni. It’s amazing how being a professional offers someone so much more credence and credit. It’s a shame, it’s unfortunate, but when I show up to court with my client, their sentences tend to be shorter, they tend to be offered alternatives. Sometimes judges have their own stigmas that sex workers are nuisances to society and act in this vacuum without any support or guidance. When they see someone on their side, they’re inclined to be more lenient. Social workers can do more to show that there’s a community around every sex worker, and really show up. I’d like to see social workers help sex workers feel more ready to confront the criminal justice system.
Bloom: Aside from violence, what are the most common challenges facing sex workers?
Roth: It’s really hard to generalize about the whole industry. There’s fear of arrest, and managing arrest if and when it does happen – we advise people to plan what they’re going to do if they get arrested.
The other part is managing privacy; I hear of that a lot across the industry. A lot of people are operating under different names and have public or online presences that are not necessarily how they identify in their leisure time. Sometimes those worlds intersect in ways that are embarrassing or weird or awkward or scary. And sometimes they don’t. When I get together with people in all-sex worker spaces, that’s something we talk about a lot – those parallel lives, the stigma that pervades both of them, the desire to be able to come out and let people into the private life you might lead as a sex worker.
All sex-worker spaces aren’t perfect – sex workers can be pretty cruel to one another as well. There’s so much internalized stigma – “I do this but I don’t do that; she does that, so I’m better than her.” It happens in strip clubs; it happens in the street; it happens everywhere.
Bloom: Is past sexual abuse a common occurrence among sex workers?
Roth: There’s been a lot of studies on this, mostly showing that there’s not any statistically significant difference between the sex worker population and the regular population. There are some other reports that state otherwise, which I don’t identify with. As a woman, I hear about more abuse from my non-sex worker friends than sex workers. But there’s also this narrative now where it’s assumed that sex workers much be trauma victims, and when sex workers are trauma victims, they aren’t allowed to talk about that.
I know sex workers who are survivors of abuse, especially earlier in their life, and they’ve found sex work to be incredibly healing and transformative.
I’m always interested as to why that question is asked. I’ve seen arguments made by psychiatrists about PTSD and how abuse leads to the sex industry. Some of it makes sense, but some of it doesn’t. People have such diverse experiences in the industry, it’s so unfair to generalize about that. I think trauma is just a human condition, really. [Laughter.]
Bloom: Does a male or transgender sex worker tend to face different experiences or risks than a female sex worker?
Roth: When we talk about any lived experience, we try to talk about intersectionality. When engaging in sex work as a female, you have to deal with misogyny in a very different way than a transwoman does – she has to deal with misogyny and transphobia, and whorophobia. There’s the simple business aspect of it – there’s a different market for different demographics. It’s something that sex workers don’t like to talk about. We like to think we all have so much in common. But it’s a capitalist industry, and people are fetishized. Sex workers market themselves in ways related to their gender and race that play with these historical forms of oppression and stereotypes – these things are uncomfortable, but they exist. It can be very lucrative for some people, too.
Bloom: Diamond Williams, a black transgender sex worker in Philly, was murdered this summer, supposedly after her killer, Charles Sargent, was tricked into thinking she was female. How did the sex worker community react?
Roth: One thing we talked about during the December 17th event was how the sex worker community and the trans community reacted separately, even though there is such a significant overlap. So many of us are friends and allies, and there are literally the same people involved in both communities. The trans community didn’t have the words to convey the fact that Diamond was also targeted as a sex worker but murdered because she was a transwoman. A lot of that has to do with the media coverage and the people whose voices the media amplified. It got national coverage because there’s been so many trans sex workers murdered, in Philadelphia especially, but all over the world.
It happened on the last day of the Desiree Alliance Conference, the biggest national conference we have for sex workers, and right after a Turkish transgender sex worker was also murdered. Her killer was found not guilty because the victim was transgender.
There’s an international convention of sex workers, so when these murders happen, they’re shared worldwide. There’s a sharing of sadness and anger. Especially with Diamond – another transwoman was murdered in 2012, and another was murdered several years before that. There was this collective memory of “not again.”
Not to detract from Diamond and her memory, but it really feels like an epidemic.
So often at work, clients ask what I am doing there and try to find some character flaw or tragedy that led me to dancing, sex work – though there are just as many who do not. Personally, I like to be able to commit so much of my time to activism I care about and so little to generating the amount of income I am comfortable with. I leave work and go home to a loving partner, and wake up to an exciting day of working with people I love. It tickles me that customers think I am “sad” or “troubled,” and that feminists think I am being exploited.
Bloom: SAFE primarily offers services to women and those who identify as women. Why not men?
Roth: We say that for several strategic reasons. We’re happy to work with men, especially men who are doing sex work. We do have a few cisgender men we know who are sex workers, and we give them the same supplies. But when we do outreach, again, we want to focus on the fact that we are an alternative to Prevention Point for women. We don’t have that many supplies and we want to make sure they get into the hands of women, and for that we’re a feminist organization – there’s a strategic essentialism there.
The only other reason our events are women-identified only is because we want to create a safe space where people can talk free of shame and stigma. Both of those things still exist – you get women in a room together and it’s still going to happen – but we don’t allow men, we don’t allow clients, and we don’t allow management. There are other programs where those people are included in the same spaces, especially management and partners of sex workers, but we want to specifically meet the needs of women. So many of these women are always working with or for or alongside other people. We want to give them some space by themselves.
Bloom: Do you find that sex workers are in the trade more often due to circumstances or by choice?
Roth: By circumstance, certainly. With jobs in general, if I didn’t have to work, I probably wouldn’t. [Laughter.] I’ve met very few people who love their job. Even the term “by circumstance” can mean so many different things; it means different things to different people.
Bloom: Some people think that sex work is a way for women to gain independence outside of prescribed roles. Others think that sex work turns women into commodities and perpetuates sexism and oppression. Where do you fall in this debate?
Roth: I feel that even that continuum is still too essentializing for the complexity of the industry, and it’s not fair to evaluate sex work with that lens. Why don’t we look at other industries with that lens? There’s a objectivity that’s lost when we look at that question.
Bloom: Are sex workers empowered in their careers?
Roth: I don’t think it’s fair to say all sex workers are empowered. Few workers are empowered in their careers. A lot of people work paycheck to paycheck or payday to payday. This is more about workers’ rights. I don’t think a lot of workers in this country or this world are empowered at all. But one thing that happens in the sex industry more than other industries is people are able to work free of management, for themselves, at a time that works for them. They can make time for their families or for other interests. So there is that source of empowerment that certain sex workers feel as workers. It’s so hard to generalize and say that people always feel empowered – because it’s work. It’s the opposite of leisure.
Bloom: Well, here’s another generalizing question. Could you talk about the self-esteem of the female sex workers you encounter in your work?
Roth: It’s hard to evaluate. Even when I’m doing outreach, or if I’m at work as a sex worker, it’s a performance. Any facet of sex work – whether you are doing street-based sex work, escorting, or phone sex – you are taking on a different persona and performing a role. It’s hard to know how much of the person you’re really getting. It’s part of the service you sell. It’s not just a sex act; it’s a whole act.
I like to change up my act and see what gets me the most money. Sometimes I like to pretend I have a lot of self-esteem, and sometimes I like to pretend I don’t. [Laughter.] When I talk to someone as a friend or a colleague or more intimately, it’s hard to evaluate the metrics for self-esteem. All these things that you’re asking about wax and wane. Some people might feel disempowered at times but then feel empowered. When we ask if sex work is empowering or about self-esteem, it doesn’t allow for the low points that people might feel, but also the high points that people might feel.
I’m not dodging your question, but it’s especially when we talk about sex work that we want a summarizing narrative. It’s so hard to get at because it’s like the rest of life. It’s so dynamic.
Bloom: In 2011, Wired magazine said that the sex trade “has grown less risky and more lucrative” and it “has attracted middle-class women seeking quick tax-free income.” Any thoughts on this based on your perspective?
Roth: I think I know which article you’re talking about. SWOP New York City wondered how the writer got that data without talking to a single person within that group. Maybe he was a client and was basing it on his perceptions. For all of history, there’s been sex workers coming from all classes. With the internet, middle-class sex workers just become more visible.
Sex work happens formally and casually. Wired magazine discovered sex work the way Columbus discovered America [laughter] – it’s always been there, it’s just that sex work is happening on their terms now. Sure, sex workers have Square credit card swipers and are doing sophisticated things with iPhones and iPads, but middle-class gals have always been looking to make a quick buck.
And sex workers pay their taxes. Strippers get business licenses and pay taxes; escorts do too. One of the services SWOP provides is a list of accountants for tax purposes. Most of us are liberals, so we feel that we should pay taxes. [Laughter.]
It was interesting to see the infographics in that article, but I don’t think he did the proper amount of research.
Bloom: Do you have any stories of female sex workers who have gotten out of the industry or were freed from harmful situations?
Roth: Yes, certainly. It’s something that we can talk about more. We talk about exit strategies a lot, but not in real ways. I know a lot people who are happy to do sex work, but probably end up doing it for a few more years than they’d like, which is problematic.
I have a dear friend who had a really traumatic experience doing sex work and now works in a different industry. She continues to be an activist for sex workers. She still believes that everyone should have the right to a safe, judgement-free work environment, but she is deeply troubled by her experiences. I can see her being emotionally triggered sometimes, and it’s really challenging to work with her because I can see how painful it is. I admire that she is still committed. I think she sees that there were ways that her bad experiences could have been avoided. She doesn’t think that getting rid of sex work would have made her life easier, there are just things that could have been made better, like if her experience in sex work had not been filled with stigma and shame.
Part of leaving the industry is not just problems with society, but problems we have struggling with the “straight” or “vanilla” job. When you go back to minimum wage work, it’s really insulting [laughter], or it’s such a set schedule. It’s a transition.
Bloom: Many women involved with SWOP and SAFE have had experience in sex work, and some of these women are focused on helping others get out of the trade. Why?
Roth: We focus on helping others get out of the trade because we have to. People who are not involved in sex work want to make sure we always offer that option. I also do believe that it’s an important option that should be there.
But quite frankly, there’s only so much we can do for someone. We can help someone understand their motivations for leaving and the changes they might have to make in their lives, but there are some serious structural changes that have to take place in society for women who are doing street-based sex work. So much of it is just housing – we need affordable housing [laughter]. So until we get that solution, it seems unfair to talk about exiting the industry sometimes.
Like I’ve said before, I really just try to present the people I work with with options and allow them to make their own decisions. Especially when people feel like they don’t have a lot of choices, it’s important for someone to show them that they do have choices. Something I talk about with people if they just can’t exit the industry is renegotiating what they want to do within the industry. You don’t have to do full service, you don’t have to get naked. As a sex worker, you really set your boundaries. I remind people that they can do that, that there are ways to review your boundaries and negotiate that.
Bloom: What political initiatives has SWOP sponsored? What are some of its legislative goals locally and nationally?
Roth: SWOP has sponsored a number. Right after we were founded, we had a ballot to decriminalize sex work in San Francisco, which lost, but since then we’ve partnered with a lot of like-minded individuals and organizations. 2013 was characterized by ending condoms as evidence in New York City, and that battle rages on down in New Orleans.
We do more community education work than political work. We don’t really have the capacity to work on political campaigns, and political work is not as central to our mission of ending violence and stigma at this point.
Bloom: In 2007, Judge Teresa Carr Deni determined that the only crime against a 20-year-old Philadelphia sex worker who was gang raped at gunpoint was “theft of services.” Deni was reelected this past November. Did that unfair ruling lead to any positive changes?
Roth: That’s often cited as an example of how bad things are for sex workers, and how rape culture uniquely touches the lives of sex workers. We had a brief attempt to thwart her reelection that was spearheaded by our local SlutWalk chapter – SlutWalk is a group that aims to end rape culture and victim blaming – they pointed out that coercion at gunpoint is not consent. There’s a message that’s generalizable to everyone.
I haven’t seen any political changes. These egregious moments happen with sex work, especially with the internet. There’s a lot of articles and a lot of outrage, and even people who don’t know sex workers get agitated and upset, and then they disappear and something else happens again. I don’t really see these sustainable movements. There’s such a string of horrible things, and it’s so hard to create structural change when we don’t have the capacity for the political organizing needed to prevent this woman from being reelected, or to work with the criminal justice system in the way we want to.
A man shot and killed a woman in Texas this year for not having sex with him. He was acquitted, because she was considered to have committed theft of services. He was entitled to kill her due to “theft in the night,” which is this old Texas law where you’re allowed to use gun force when someone is robbing you in the middle of the night.
Bloom: How was she robbing him?
Roth: She was an escort who had gone to his house and promised him sex. It’s amazing. It doesn’t makes sense. He must have had some kind of defense. And like a lot of sex workers, she probably didn’t have good representation. The Sex Workers Outreach Project in New York City does represent sex workers and has done amazing things for people in the sex industry, victims of sex trafficking, and other victims of exploitation. As long as these laws that exist and are still being used against people in the sex industry – this shit just keeps on happening.
Bloom: Is there a hierarchy within sex work, or notions that one type of sex work is better or more noble than another? I’ve heard people say that burlesque is “artful” while stripping is “trashy.”
Roth: Absolutely. It depends on who you ask, and those hierarchies shift depending on perspective. Strippers are very proud that they aren’t having sex for money, but I have a lot of escort friends who laugh at strippers, because they make so much more money in an hour than we do. [Laughter.]
The argument between stripping and burlesque – it’s all just a matter of perspective. It’s a shame, because these are narratives that are generated within the sex work community, but also from outside it, and it seeks to destroy solidarity. It’s quite a shame that these narratives do exist.
Sex workers market themselves in ways related to their gender and race that play with these historical forms of oppression and stereotypes – these things are uncomfortable, but they exist.
Bloom: Do you look to any specific countries or American cities as models for sex work policy?
Roth: New York and San Francisco have innovative sex work activists, not to discount things that are happening in Chicago as well. Looking worldwide, America likes to fancy itself this First World country that has all the answers. But we are lousy when it comes to sex work. Reading the list of names for December 17 – that list was compiled internationally, and the United States had the most names.
In Australia, there has only been a single case of occupational HIV transmission since sex work has been legalized. It’s not just HIV risk that we’re trying to reduce, but that just goes to show what happens when this industry is legalized. I personally think there are problems to legalization. New Zealand, and now Canada, have decriminalized sex work.
One thing I’m very skeptical of, and nervous about the proliferation of, is the so-called Swedish model, or Nordic model, which decriminalizes sex work, which is a good thing, but it criminalizes clients. It doesn’t address so many of the problems I’ve been talking about tonight, and it still makes it harder to date safely. It makes it easier for women to access social services in a sense, but the social services are set up for them within the lens of this victim narrative.
So many sex workers I work with have needs beyond the fact that they’re sex workers. Again, just housing – we really need to talk about that.
Bloom: What about countries like Germany, or systems such as the red-light district in Amsterdam?
Roth: Those are countries that have legalized sex work. I attended a workshop with a German sex worker, and she said that she doesn’t have to worry about the policeman, just the taxman. She felt there was a lot of unfair taxing of sex workers. What happens in those countries, where it’s more about workers’ rights issues, is the money it takes to get a license to practice sex work is very expensive and inaccessible.
It creates a sort of class warfare. People who can afford the license to practice legally are obviously safe and protected, but people who are doing spontaneous sex work because they need to continue to be criminalized. Illegal sex work still happens in those countries, with all the problems that carries.
People say that legalization increases sex trafficking. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it does allow a model similar to a strip club. I rent a stage space from my manager at my club. When licenses can be obtained, people become indebted to those who provide that license. It does provide a potentially exploitative work environment.
There’s a host of other issues that occur when you ask sex workers to get licenses. We have to acknowledge this is a difference job than being a hair dresser or a massage therapist. I understand we do regulate certain industries, but this is a unique industry that deserves a different approach.
Bloom: Which cities and countries face the biggest challenges?
Roth: Every city has sex work and sex workers. It’s an industry that exists everywhere. I know there’s a lot of money focused on cities where there are airports or tourist attractions – New York City, or Paris, or Philly, because we have so many corridors to other places – but sex work is happening everywhere.
I respect the fact that people who aren’t sex workers are concerned about what’s going on in their community, but if we make things safer for sex workers, we’ll make things safer for everyone. Every person should be concerned about this.
Bloom: Ideally, how would sex work be treated in America, both legally and culturally?
Roth: To truly address sex work culturally, we would have to do so much work on the stigma we have around sex in America. It’s not just sex workers who live with this stigma; it’s anyone who expresses anything sexual in this country outside of the narrative given to us. There are ways to be appropriately sexual and inappropriately sexual, and that line is so confusing. I do think if sex work is considered work, and respected as work, and sex workers are considered as workers who are contributing to the economy and their community, things will get better culturally.
There are so many legal forms of sex work. If we decriminalize sex for money, we can make sure people aren’t being exploited within those legal models. I’m thinking particularly about strip clubs here, where women feel they can’t speak out about what’s going on. Sexual harassment and exploitation does at times go on, but because of the nature of the industry, workers are blamed for their own victimization. License to Pimp is a documentary coming out about that.
Changing the legal designation of sex work will make work better and other services more accessible to people who are doing street-based sex work or survival sex work, where there’s more of an issue with safety or public health. I don’t think it will encourage people to do more sex work.
Bloom: Are there any potential drawbacks to legalizing and regulating the sex trade?
Roth: I do think there are potential drawbacks to legalizing as opposed to decriminalizing. There are interesting models, and it’s important that we look critically at each model. A lot of people think the model of the Nevada brothels is a great one – they take a health-based model – but the girls who work at those brothels get tested for STDs, and they can’t leave the brothel once they’re tested, or if they have to get retested. So you see women staying in these brothels for two weeks on end because of how slow the STD processing is. We need to take reality into account. We can look toward that model, and the Nordic model, to be really critical and find what is going to be best for sex workers and their communities and their families.
Bloom: In December, California officials voted to allow prostitutes to receive money from a universal victim-compensation fund if they are raped or beaten. Critics say that the government shouldn’t be giving money to people engaged in illegal activities. Your thoughts?
Roth: I understand that when doing this advocacy, it comes down to the fact that yeah, sex work is illegal; however, the government gives money to a lot of people doing illegal things. It’s interesting which laws governments choose to enforce. There are laws that govern all aspects of our existence. This act doesn’t give money to criminals; it just doesn’t focus on that on aspect of a victim’s life.
There are illegal things happening around us all the time, and there’s this fixation on prostitution. So that statement isn’t wrong, but it’s not fair to say that.
Bloom: Some might say that as long as there’s a paid sex industry, sex trafficking will exist. How do you respond?
Roth: As long as there’s capitalism, exploitation is going to exist. That goes for all industries. People are going to continue to find a way to have free labor. This happens with farm workers and kitchen workers and domestic workers, and getting rid of the banana industry isn’t going to get rid of the exploited labor within it.
We can do other things to end sex trafficking and the trafficking of people for other exploitation – immigration reform, and looking towards other country’s human rights violations, looking towards our own country’s human rights violations; making sure that social safety nets don’t get dissolved, continuing to raise minimum wage to a living wage, offering amnesty to people who need it. Those kinds of things will end sex trafficking, and trafficking in other industries. We can’t just get rid of these industries, because they’re industries where the majority of people are working and making money and supporting their families.
Bloom: Which anti-trafficking laws does SWOP take issue with?
Roth: So much of sex trafficking has already been illegal for years and years and years. It’s illegal to kidnap someone; it’s illegal to force someone to work; it’s illegal to forcibly have sex with someone; it’s illegal to hold someone captive. So sex trafficking has already been illegal and enforced with very harsh penalties. We don’t think there needs to be anymore laws against that. When someone has been trafficked, the perpetrator is going to go to jail for a long time on those charges alone – not to mention money laundering and racketeering and other things that usually go along with that.
What we’re seeing is the laws that criminalize people traveling together, especially when it’s someone who is over eighteen and under eighteen – I understand what that law is trying to address, but we advise the buddy system and want to encourage people to work together and to reach out within a community. Say there’s two young women, one who’s 17 and one who’s 18, and the 18-year-old gets arrested for pimping and/or trafficking while the 17-year-old gets a solicitation violation. That 18-year-old is now a registered sex offender and is going to be in jail for the next t25 years. Those laws are backfiring when you see that they’re both young people engaged in the sex trade. We need to examine why that’s happening instead of criminalizing that 18-year-old even further.
A lot of those laws have also re-appropriated the funds that would go towards victim compensation and given them to the FBI and local police departments to find traffickers and/or pimps. Especially with underage workers, a lot of sex workers are working without management; they are working independently. We need to acknowledge that there are people who are enterprising and trying to make money. We need to address why there are so many young people who are trying to make money right now. We shouldn’t try to criminalize them as a community.
Bloom: What would ideal anti-trafficking legislation look like?
Roth: It’s all already illegal.
Bloom: Have you ever been in a position to help someone who had been trafficked?
Roth: Trafficking is the forcible movement of a person from one place to another. I’ve not encountered that. When we talk about coerced labor, trafficking is sometimes used as a catch-all term for that. When I’ve talked to women who are working and it seems like they aren’t in charge of their own money, they don’t get to choose their clients – these are not ideal working conditions. This is not what I would consider fair management; I’d consider that exploitative working conditions. Someone might call that a pimp, but I don’t want to make that assumption.
It’s usually an extension of intimate partner violence instead of some stranger forcing someone to work for them. Whether it’s a same-sex couple or a man and a woman, typically the woman is dating and they have the partner there for security or to help them hold their cash while they’re on dates. The tension could have existed in the relationship before, but it’s compounded when there’s sex work going on and someone is managing the money and the other is doing the work. I see that happen, and what that requires is a conversation about intimate partner violence. I’ve had an incredibly hard time having those conversations because the resources for anyone involved in gendered violence or intimate partner violence are so scarce. Sometimes I can’t believe we talk about human trafficking when this problem is still so prevalent and touches so many more lives. Both issues are important, but I haven’t seen strangers kidnapping young girls; it’s usually happening in a relationship that’s already existed and people don’t feel they can get out of it.
With sex work, what you do is you actually unlearn a lot about sexuality and relationships. We’re taught so much about where it’s supposed to happen and how it’s supposed to happen and what’s right and what’s wrong – this heteronormative, capitalist framework. With the lens of sex work, you are forced to step outside that and look at that framework critically, to examine what sex looks like outside of a marriage, and why it looks the way it does to you and why it looks different to someone else.
Bloom: In an attempt to reduce sex trafficking in France, new legislation is set to be approved that would fine the purchase of sex acts, similarly to the Nordic model you mentioned before. The law will also provide protections and training for those looking to leave the sex trade, as well as short-term residence permits for foreign sex workers. How do you think these laws will impact sex workers and victims of sex trafficking?
Roth: Melissa Gira Grant wrote a criticism in response to Kristof’s praise for this in The Times that’s probably far better than what I could say. There are parts of that legislation that are really exciting to me, but I’m always suspicious about how they’re going to backfire. While I appreciate these nods, for sex workers who are engaged in sex work, there could be legislation that’s more comprehensive and less of a deterrent. Most sex workers are going to continue working – it’s not as though everyone’s going to leave the industry now that these laws exist. It’s a little idealistic.
I’m happy to hear that there’s housing. That’s so often left out of these plans, along with asylum. I don’t know what the quality of that housing is going to look like or if these services are going to offer these people a better quality of life than when they were working. I also don’t know what they determine as sex trafficking in France. In America it can be very challenging for people who aren’t citizens to prove they were trafficked. There are all these questions about accessibility and reality.
I know a lot of sex workers find these laws offensive and limiting – a part of this victim narrative. The criminalization of clients will make sex workers’ lives a lot harder.
Bloom: Is there other legislation that your organizations view as harmful to sex workers, or to people in general?
Roth: Mostly all legislation. [Laughter.] I’d like to see legislation that would protect sex workers and people in the sex industry. It’s hard to organize because not everyone within the industry identifies as a sex worker, and hate crimes are committed against different identity groups.
Bloom: People often refer to prostitution as the world’s oldest profession. Do you think sex work is inherent to society?
Roth: It’s so interesting that we ask these questions. There’s plenty of documentation, and I don’t know why we have to keep on legitimizing sex work. Do I think so? I don’t know; I was an anthropology student – I don’t know if anything is inherent to society [laughter.] But I know it’s been a part of many, many societies in many different ways, especially in capitalist society. People exchange pretty much everything for money, so sex is going to be one of them.
I don’t know if having that history makes sex work any more legitimate. I don’t know what people need to hear to finally be comfortable with it. I’ve always found that term troubling – it’s kind of flip. If it is the oldest profession, how are we so ill-equipped to deal with it? Why are we so afraid of sex workers, or talking about sex work?
Bloom: What is the nature of consent and communication in sex work?
Roth: There’s a lot that non-sex workers can learn from sex work. I’ve found sex work very therapeutic and healing, because it’s very explicit. Sex work is a negotiation.
One of the things I don’t like about the trafficking movement is they say women sell themselves or sell their bodies. You don’t – you sell specific acts, or you might sell you time. But certain things might be off-limits in that time, or you might say, “If I’m going to do that, it’s going to cost more.” It’s all very itemized.
Bloom: Does the way we treat sex work reflect our values about human sexuality as a society?
Roth: These are just my musings, but I think it certainly does, but there’s so much more, especially in the work I do with female sex workers – it reflects the misogyny of society. Going back to violence and serial killers – that’s not about sex; that’s about hatred of women, and people who hate women know that sex workers are easy targets. There are other aspects of sex work that people are just really not comfortable with – sex outside or marriage, sex in non-normative ways.
Back to intersectionality and the hierarchies – there’s so much sex work that’s okay because it isn’t this, and so much more that is not okay because it also involves a transperson or homosexuality or non-normative sex acts, or it doesn’t happen in this home, or it happens in this community. It’s interesting how we manage those feelings, or fail to manage those feelings.
Bloom: What can we learn anything about our own sexuality and relationships from sex work?
Roth: I really like this question, and I could talk about it forever, but I’ll spare you [laughter]. With sex work, what you do is you actually unlearn a lot about sexuality and relationships. We’re taught so much about where it’s supposed to happen and how it’s supposed to happen and what’s right and what’s wrong – this heteronormative, capitalist framework. With the lens of sex work, you are forced to step outside that and look at that framework critically, to examine what sex looks like outside of a marriage, and why it looks the way it does to you and why it looks different to someone else. Why does marriage exist then? It allows us to ask these critical questions about how sex and relationships happen in our society, and what they do for us.
Bloom: What or who keeps you going when you have a hard day at work?
Roth: I’m in therapy [laughter], and my therapist always warns me that Project SAFE and SWOP are my “fun time,” which is dangerous, because it’s very close to what I get paid to do. The one thing I do love about the social work movement, and the sex work movement – those two movements overlap sometimes – is this notion of self-care, and realizing that I’m allowed to take time off and take a break, that it’s more important to do that thing tomorrow – attempt to write another grant, do more outreach, plan another presentation – than to burn myself out.
When I was first getting started, I remember reading something in Spread magazine: especially with sex work, where you’re pushing your boundaries so much sometimes – don’t force yourself to work. Not everyone has the luxury to do that. But I try to take that to heart and make sure whatever I’m doing feels good. It’s a luxury I recognize I have. I work really hard to make sure I allow myself that.
Bloom: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Roth: Reflecting on this, I’m really overwhelmed by how much fucked-up shit is going on. I was shaken up by the event last night [the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers] and how little is being done. I’m new to SWOP, and I admire the sophistication that some activists there have been able to bring to their work. But at SAFE, we are a rudimentary organization working with almost nothing, meeting such huge needs. Sometimes it feels so overwhelming and unfair. It’s unbelievable to me, when you’re asking have these things changed in regards to Gary Ridgeway or Teresa Carr Deni, and I just say, “Nope.”
People talk about sex trafficking, but the shit that’s happening for sex workers are achieved by a bunch of feminists going out in the middle of the night on their own dime, such as Project SAFE. It makes the work I do feel so silly sometimes. So much of it is running around and making copies, seeing where I can steal copies, seeing where we can get condoms for free. We’re hustlers; we’re professional hustlers. And we’re doing real public health work that no one else is doing. We’re parking an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff. I’d like to do more before it comes to this. This is why I’m going back to school.
I get angry, but then part of me likes that there aren’t any NGOs taking over – it’s just women helping women. We’re women, and we have these supplies because of things that have happened in our lives, and you don’t, so let me just give this to you, and we can have a conversation about it or not. That’s why outreach energizes me. Most people don’t have interactions like that, that are just so free of bullshit. We’re exchanging drug paraphernalia, and it’s the first time I feel like I’m actually helping someone.