In a cozy tavern in Glendale, California, a small group of sex workers, allies and advocates lit red candles and gathered to remember their dead.

They were marking the night of December 17th, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. The event was organized by the Los Angeles chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a grassroots social justice network whose mission is to end violence against people in the sex trade, through education and advocacy. On this winter evening, SWOP members shared beer and sandwiches, socialized, and at the end of the night, stood in a circle and read a list of 33 names out loud.

The names belong to sex workers murdered in the U.S. in the past year. The deaths of men and women in sex industry—strippers, escorts, porn performers and erotic massage providers—are often overlooked by the general public and the mainstream media. The December 17th designation, which was the brainchild of activist and former adult entertainer Annie Sprinkle in 2003, aims to change this.

IMG 4666

I spoke to several attendees about the future of sex work and the problem of criminalization, which they perceive as one of the biggest contributors to continuing violence.

While an earlier generation of radical feminists believed that violence against sex workers was due to johns and pimps, today’s activists argue that state and police-based violence represents an equally serious threat to workers. It does harm to the most vulnerable and marginalized sex workers—those who are transgender, disabled, homeless, immigrants, drug users or people of color. As Tessa, a trans advocate explains, “the dehumanization of sex workers aligns with the dehumanization of other communities that have no other way of providing income for themselves.” Furthermore, in places like the United States where selling sexual services remains illegal almost everywhere, workers are unable to report incidents of abuse to the police without facing incarceration.

In the past several years, a crusade against the elusive problem of sex trafficking has further complicated the issue, in part by conflating kidnapping and sexual slavery with consensual adult sex work. Writers like Melissa Gira Grant point out that religious conservatives, old-school feminists and the federal government have banded together in opposition to the sex trade, garnering public support for “raid and rescue” programs, which seldom meet the needs of victims. Instead, these programs often place sex workers in immigration detention centers or rehabilitation homes against their will without addressing the social factors, like poverty, transphobia and gender inequality, that push workers into the industry in the first place.

“On the streets, workers are forced into making split-second decisions about the safety of every interaction. Violence increases, as do our arrests.”

The current campaign has shut down online advertising venues that sex workers depend on to acquire and screen their clients. The FBI, the DOJ and Homeland Security launched the raids and closures of websites like Rentboy, Redbook and Backpage, which provided a client base and steady income for many sex workers trying to avoid the multitude of risks that can accompany street-based soliciting. The latest casualty appears to be the Eros Guide—its call center headquarters were raided in Youngstown, North Carolina in early November. Although Eros’ adult ads are still up and running, many sex workers report concern about the future of the site and the possibility that the government has seized users’ personal identifying information. “Everyone is terrified, in a panic,” Carrie, a Los Angeles based escort, shared with me. “Right now, I’m still getting clients, but it’s slower. I don’t know what’s gonna happen.”

These website crackdowns appear to be mere dress rehearsals for a wide-reaching, bipartisan piece of legislation now moving through Congress. The Senate bill, Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, and the House companion version, Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, both have feel-good titles, but activists argue that these proposed policy changes would have worrisome implications for free speech, and would actually worsen conditions for anyone in the sex trade. SESTA holds online platforms accountable for content created and posted by users, and punishes those intermediaries found guilty of “supporting, facilitating or assisting” sex trafficking. FOSTA operates similarly, but substitutes “prostitution” for trafficking, making clear that consenting adult workers are also targets.

The likely result is that adult advertisements will disappear from the web once and for all, after site hosts decide they do not want to be held legally liable—a form of censorship that could ultimately harm independent sex workers. Activists fear that the loss of online advertising would push sex work back underground and outdoors, where there are no tools for determining whether a client is safe to get into a car with, and fewer opportunities to negotiate sex acts with condoms. SWOP Sacramento founder, Kristen DiAngelo, says, “On the streets, workers are forced into making split-second decisions about the safety of every interaction. Violence increases, as do our arrests. Taking away options for online posting only migrates the problem [of trafficking], it does nothing to end it.”

Crucially, scrubbing all mentions of prostitution from the internet also means removing spaces that sex workers depend on for community and social support. Many advertising sites serve a dual purpose, hosting discussion boards and private chat forums where workers can share tips about clients, agencies and locations to avoid. As Lauren Kiley, a porn performer, says, “It’s really important that we be able to connect with each other. So much of it is pragmatic, safety-based.” She mentions benefitting from the “porn twitter” community that recently began a practice of daily “mental health check-ins” after a series of high-profile performer suicides. Vanessa Carlisle, a sex worker activist who recently completed her PhD, agrees. “Under the guise of rescuing us from trafficking, our safe spaces are being decimated,” she says. “We can prove that we are safer when we talk to each other, so let us talk to each other.” Perhaps equally as dangerous as the looming threats of SESTA and FOSTA is the end of net neutrality, which could also have the effect of shutting down online discussion of sex industry jobs. “It’s scary,” says Kiley. “I don’t know what the sex worker community on the internet is going to look like a year from now.”

And yet, there are reasons to remain hopeful. Sex workers have always demonstrated a tremendous level of creativity for developing new ways to survive, to connect with and protect each other. “We don’t have to be helpless in the face of it,” Carlisle assures the other women. They brainstormed solutions—self-defense training, in-person support groups, new apps, even a return to print advertising. “The industry has to keep adapting. When we build a clubhouse, and then they come stomp it down, then we just gotta build another one.”