Nearly 200 sex workers and allies gathered in Brooklyn, NY on Saturday afternoon as part of the first ever sex workers rights town hall. At the center of the event was Democratic Congressional candidate Suraj Patel and a panel of sex work activists who discussed the effects of SESTA/FOSTA and police brutality on the sex work community.
SESTA/FOSTA intended to fight sex trafficking by holding websites liable for any third-party content that promotes sexual commerce. Many sex work activists say that the legislation further harms those it intended to help, citing the shut down of online harm reduction services and continued violence against sex workers as proof. Patel condemned the legislation and blames its passage on Congress's "herd mentality." Panelist and AIDS prevention and advocate, Cecilia Gentili, critiqued the heavy policing of those in the sex industry and blamed them for forcing sex workers into more dangerous conditions.
"There was this girl who was stabbed five time. Five fucking times, and she didn't go to the hospital,” said Gentili. “That's how bad it is. That's what FOSTA/SESTA doing to us."
Ceyenne Doroshow, an activist, author, and founder of GLITS, also emphasized the violent impact of FOSTA/SESTA on sex workers.
"I don't have the mental capacity to bury another motherfucking girl."
Though the entire room seemed to be in agreement that SESTA/FOSTA was harmful, opinions on the decriminalization of sex work varied. Patel was hesitant to declare a stance on decriminalization, but repeatedly stated his intention to be an advocate for the sex work community by fighting for SESTA/FOSTA's repeal and pushing for criminal justice reform. During the town hall portion, one woman who identified herself as a sex worker of 18 years, expressed both gratitude for Patel's support, but frustration with his reluctance to explicitly advocate for decriminalization.
"I am happy you're here. . . but I am tired of being grateful for so little."
Doroshow defended Patel, saying that it was more important to have him fighting for the community within the confines of the current political climate, than not at all.
“This is a hard fight and I think right now we need him in the doors so he can do it. If he speaks to the platform of decriminalization now, he’ll never make this,” she said. “If we can get him in office, then these are the things he can look forward to fighting for.”
Activists like Doroshow and Lola Balcon of Survivors Against SESTA, hope that the mostly positive media coverage surrounding Patel’s SESTA/FOSTA stance will encourage other politicians to follow his lead.
“As long as there’s a commitment to continue to listen to this community, we are confident that we can move everyone to the right place,” said Balcon.
Many in attendance seemed optimistic about achieving a new level of political organization that the sex workers rights movement has never seen before. Organizers of the event were encouraged to see record high attendance numbers in spite of various obstacles.
“It’s amazing because people do take a lot of risk coming to these events,” Balcon said. “You are at least outing your tie to the community, which is stigmatized even in and of itself. I think for every person who was here, there’s at least two people who would’ve wanted to come, but couldn’t.”
To learn more about sex worker rights activism and the fight against SESTA/FOSTA, please visit the following sites for more information:
To learn more about Suraj Patel and fight against SESTA/FOSTA, visit: https://www.surajpatel.nyc/