Category: Media Analysis

Not your grandmother’s fringe movement: Decoding WaPo’s “An effort to decriminalize prostitution in D.C. faces unlikely opposition”

It is exciting to see that campaigns to end the criminalization of sex workers’ lives organized and sustained by those directly affected by the laws–that is trans people, people of color, immigrants and youth–are being recognized in major news outlets such as the Washington Post. The coverage of a statement released by D.C.’s Sex Worker Advocates Coalition (SWAC) and DecrimNow DC is needed and brings further national attention to one of the most important movements for change about these issues.

However, WaPo’s article is drenched in language that diminishes the importance of D.C.’s movement and the critical issues regarding race, class, gender, and immigrant status. The authors Narappil and Schmidt write that the “grass-roots effort to decriminalize D.C. sex work hit a major hurdle last fall, when the city council declined to vote on a bill that would make Washington the first U.S. city to eliminate penalties for prostitution” and state that the concerns raised by SWAC and DecrimNow DC “illustrate rifts in the nascent sex-work movement as it tries to move from the fringe to the mainstream.” WaPo must surely know after more than 140 years experience observing and publishing about social movements, that overturning unjust, racist, stigmatizing laws takes time. The debates in 2019 around the bill mark an uptick in interest in this change, a marker along the way in a long campaign, and not a “major hurdle.” If we observe global trends on this issue, change will come. Sex work will be recognized as work. There is nothing “nascent” about sex worker rights. In D.C. the current organizing stretches back directly more than 15 years to coalitions and actions addressing the D.C. Council in regards to the now repealed (due to activism) “prostitution free zone” legislation. The roots of activism in D.C. go much deeper than this with histories of activism that deserve more coverage and celebration in the mainstream press.

The term sex work was coined by California activist Carol Leigh in the 1970s and her work itself is predated by grassroots organizing by people of the stature of Miss Major Griffin-Gracey and many others. Internationally the current phase of sex worker rights organizing has been well respected for 40 years, with sex workers being at the forefront of intersectional struggles for change and working directly with multi-lateral agencies such as UNAIDS and the World Health Organization to develop global policy. Observing the development of a deeply rooted movement in D.C. and describing it as moving “from the fringe to the mainstream” relies on the outdated tropes of respectability politics and racism as to who gets to speak and be taken seriously. This is a sleight of hand to diminish what this movement actually is and the profound changes it is bringing.

The main issue of concern raised by SWAC and DecrimNow DC is in regards to the group Decriminalize Sex Work disrupting local long term organizing and plans. Narappil and Schmidt write that, “Decriminalize Sex Work is facing intense opposition from an unlikely source — the local sex-worker activists who were pushing for the bill in the first place.” There is nothing “unlikely” about SWAC’s and DecrimNow DC’s opposition to an attempted action that was not welcome or appropriate if led by a highly privileged out of town group. Once again, in the 140 years that WaPo has been around, it should be clear by now that people of power and privilege often attempt to hijack long term work done by local activists. And this hijacking results in out of towners reaping the benefits of further funding, recognition, awards and accolades, entrenching the disparities already wrought by criminalization. The years of work that community members have done to celebrate (and prevent the erasure/co-option of) the legacy of trailblazing transwomen at Stonewall should be instructive. Today, activists of color, transgender people and other groups of people who face the devastating impact of criminalization are fully aware of what can happen to a movement and leadership should they not proactively defend their organizing space and legacy.

It should come as no surprise at all that the strategies of SWAC and DecrimNow DC differ from groups such as Decriminalize Sex Work. The SWAC and DecrimNow DC statement is a carefully developed response. Erasing the history of this organizing and pigeonholing activists of color and trans experience as “fringe” is out of touch with how organizing is happening in 2020.

AIDS2018: Not Your Rescue Project Film Session

The Not Your Rescue Project film session–proposed by PJ Starr with Monica Jones and J Leigh Brantly–was accepted for the forthcoming International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam (July 23-27, 2018). This screening session will highlight videos celebrating the fierce activism of sex workers as they fight to defend their health, rights and address HIV/AIDS. Whether it is by taking to the streets in protest, delivering vital services to our fellow workers or simply reclaiming our stories and our lives, sex workers are transforming communities and having our voices heard in the struggle to address HIV/AIDS. The session will include 50 minutes of short films and then “meet the filmmaker” Q and A with local sex worker filmmakers and international attendees.

The advocates are looking for films to screen, to keep opening the way for sex worker made films and good films made by close allies to have a forum. In order to apply please send both PJ Starr ( and J Leigh ( a screener link. If you are able to attend the AIDS conference in Amsterdam and would like to be considered for the Q and A pls send them a few sentences about why you would like to speak about “films from the sex worker rights movement, reclaiming our stories, addressing HIV/AIDS.” Deadline to apply for consideration is May 27, 2018 Midnight European time at the latest.

FULL TITLE: Not Your Rescue Project: films from the sex worker rights movement, reclaiming our stories, addressing HIV/AIDS




This screening session highlights videos celebrating the fierce activism of sex workers as they fight to defend their health, rights and address HIV/AIDS. Whether it is by taking to the streets in protest, delivering vital services to our fellow workers or simply reclaiming our stories and our lives, sex workers are transforming communities and having our voices heard in the struggle to address HIV/AIDS. The session will include 50 minutes of short films and then “meet the filmmaker” Q and A with local sex worker filmmakers and international attendees.

DOJ Report on Baltimore Police Shows Harms of Criminalization of Commercial Sex


Jacqueline Robarge, Power Inside | jrobarge at (410) 889-8333
Darby Hickey, Best Practices Policy Project | darbyhickey at (202) 250-4869
Katherine M Koster, SWOP-USA | katherine at (877) 776-2004

DOJ Report on Baltimore Police Shows Harms of Criminalization of Commercial Sex

Statement from Power Inside, Best Practices Policy Project, and Sex Worker Outreach Project-National (SWOP-USA)

The August 10th U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigative findings on the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) reveals police abuse and misconduct that sex workers have documented for years. According to the DOJ findings, BPD officers “fail to meaningfully investigate reports of sexual assault, particularly for assaults involving women with additional vulnerabilities, such as those who are involved in the sex trade.” In addition to ignoring sexual assault reports, the DOJ reports, officers themselves targeted, raped, and sexually assaulted sex workers, noting that such conduct “is not only criminal, it is an abuse of power.”

The DOJ details the BPD’s sweeping racial bias and unconstitutional practices that include racial profiling, degrading strip searches, excessive force, abusive language, and erroneous arrests. According to the report, African American sex workers and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people are particularly impacted by biased policing and are repeatedly targeted for stops without cause. The DOJ noted that, “BPD’s application of city ordinances banning loitering, trespassing, and failing to obey an officer’s order violates the Fourteenth Amendment.” Once stopped, sex workers of color or those perceived as sex workers are treated with a magnified level of disrespect and abuse.

Unfortunately, this mistreatment is not unique to Baltimore. In 2014 at the United Nations review of the U.S. human rights record, sex worker groups presented documentation of widespread human rights abuses in the U.S. against sex workers and those profiled as engaging in commercial sex, including documentation from Baltimore. The documentation presented in 2014 was a follow-up to a 2010 U.S. human rights record review in 2010, when the U.S. Government agreed to address discrimination against sex workers

Despite this longstanding documentation of police abuse of individuals engaged in the sex trade, particularly African American cisgender and transgender women, the U.S. government has taken no steps to address these pervasive human rights violations. Just as the DOJ documented in Baltimore, throughout the country police officers assault and rape sex workers, ignore sexual assault claims brought by people involved in sex work and deliberately fail to investigate these abuses. Police officers also profile people, particularly transgender and cisgender women, as sex workers, stopping and arresting them on scant evidence. This profiling comes as part of the broader racial and gender profiling of African Americans and other people of color documented extensively by DOJ across the country.

These human rights violations are a direct result of criminalization of marginalized communities in general and the criminalization of sex work more specifically. To address them, states and municipalities should work against criminalization in general and towards the decriminalization of drug use and sex work. The federal government should issue guidance on racial and gender profiling, make state and local funding contingent on an end to such practices, and promote policies and practices which stop human rights abuses against people of color, transgender people, sex workers and those profiled as involved in commercial sex.

The crafting of the Baltimore’s DOJ consent decree, and those in other DOJ investigations, must meaningfully include sex workers, LGBT people, and marginalized survivors of violence that have been most impacted by neglectful and unconstitutional practices. Real reform must include robust reforms that are specific to marginalized communities.

Read the U.S. Department of Justice report:

Listen to women in Baltimore describe interactions with the police:­of­violence

Read reports submitted to the United Nations regarding human rights abuses of sex
workers by police:
2010 report to the Universal Periodic Review

2014 report to the Universal Periodic Review

For more recent documentation of police misconduct against sex workers, see:


Sex workers mobilize via social media against Prince George’s Police Department

Screen Shot 2014-05-12 at 10.12.46 PMOn May 1st, the Prince George’s Police Department (in Maryland, bordering D.C.) announced plans to “live tweet” prostitution stings in the coming week. The social media reaction from sex worker twitter was rapid and powerful, denouncing the department’s idea and taking over their proposed hashtag #PGPDVice. The announcement and the backlash resulted in a lot of media coverage, locally and nationally–almost all of it including a critical perspective advocating for sex worker rights and against criminalization.

In a cynical move to silence critics, the police department the next day said they had all along planned to target only clients, not sex workers themselves. This came despite the initial announcement’s accompaniment by a photo of a male cop leading away a woman in handcuffs, which was subsequently removed from the police department’s website.

Screen Shot 2014-05-12 at 10.02.44 PMSex workers and allies kept up the criticism on twitter through the weekend and into the week, when the police department released a statement that they had conducted the stings but not live tweeted. The decision to not live tweet was based in concerns about officer safety, the statement said:

Earlier today, the Prince George’s County Police Department’s Vice Intelligence Unit conducted a planned sting targeting johns. The event took place over several hours in the southern part of the county.  On average, the unit arrests five to 10 johns during similar operations.  Today, no johns were arrested.
“I’ve participated in hundreds of stings, and I’ve never seen what happened today. By advertising this days ago, we wanted to put johns on notice to not come to Prince George’s County. That message was heard loud and clear. We just put a dent in the human trafficking business without making one arrest,” said Sergeant Dave Coleman, the Officer in Charge of the Vice Intelligence Unit.

The department’s effort to spin the conflict was dismissed by most resulting media coverage. As with the recent #myNYPD attempted campaign in NYC, #PGPDVice is a reminder of how social media can be harnessed to highlight social problems.

Local groups like HIPS and DC Trans Coalition contributed to the effort, along with unexpected support from the National Center for Trans Equality and Freedom Network. Even Polaris Project condemned the move.

Twitter conversations and media coverage included not only a condemnation of the live tweet plans, but also of the stings themselves, as well as the regular practice of police publishing mug shots of clients and sex workers online or in other media as a “shaming” tactic. Here’s hoping the whole debacle helped chip away at misconceptions about sex work and policy.