Ten years ago today, about 25,000 sex workers in India took to the streets with their friends and families, protesting the violence and condemnation they often experienced. Their actions eventually lead to the creation of International Sex Workers Rights Day. To celebrate, New York advocacy groups have organized festivities all week – from potlucks to dramatic performances – capped tonight by a special “No justice, no piece” reading at Happy Ending.
We caught up with Sarah Jenny Bleviss, co-founder and community organizer of the city’s Sex Workers Outreach Project(SWOP), and chatted briefly about industry activists’ current concerns.
So what do SWOP and other partner organizations do, exactly?
Our goal is to improve the lives of current and former sex workers in the New York metropolitan area: to advocate for de-criminalization of prostitution, de-stigmatization, and work toward the general health and well being of sex workers – for those who do the work and no longer want to be sex workers. We also offer things like peer and court support, so if people show up and get arrested, we can show up and support them. Mainly, it’s a safe base, where people find community in what can be an otherwise stigmatized profession.
Are you and partner groups working on any specific issues right now?
The ‘No condoms for evidence’ bill. Currently, condoms are considered ‘evidence’ of prostitution. Police and courts say condoms prove that individuals engage in criminal activity. Sex workers are more likely to be arrested if they use condoms. I’m not sure of the exactly legal language, but basically, it’s really bad public health policy: punishing people for carrying condoms. So right now, we’re working on promoting the bill.
Safety – from clients, and safety from police. Sex workers are less likely to report crimes or violence that they’ve experienced, because they’re afraid of repercussions from police and not being taken seriously. It can be a de-humanizing experience to not be taken seriously.
There’s a sex worker storytelling session every month at Happy Endings. Anything special about tonight’s?
Yes! Some of the funds will go to a sex worker media training workshop, to help sex workers gain skills and speak with the media about their experiences.