‘A job is a job’ — Trafficking laws increase stigma for consensual sex workers
This story is part of a series from Texas Public Radio called “Running Red-Lights.” The podcast and additional reporting focuses on the history of sex work in San Antonio and the women who ran the industry, but who weren’t allowed to make history.
This article includes descriptions of sex and the violence sex workers face, as well as strong language.
Some states have stopped prosecuting sex workers, and other states, including Texas, are making it harder to buy and sell consensual sex. These laws, like HB 1540, are aimed at minimizing sex trafficking by targeting the demand — the clientele.
Though the goal is to minimize sex trafficking, these laws make it harder for consensual sex work to operate above ground safely.
These laws, like the recently signed HB 1540, are aimed at minimizing sex trafficking by targeting the demand — the clientele. But they also make it harder for consensual sex work to operate above ground safely.
There are no laws in the United States that explicitly protect sex workers from violence, from sexual misconduct or from predatory clients. Because of that, the industry remains dangerous.
Oliv, whose first name we’re using to protect her identity, said she first got into sex work to make a living.
Some friends helped set her up with her first clients in San Antonio, but then she decided to follow the money. She moved to New York, where she said she can set the prices she wants.
“They're almost used to it (in New York). In San Antonio, they'll haggle the f— out of me and like, you know, try to like, put a price on what I should be charging and stuff,” she said.
She offers full service — intercourse — and she said there’s a big difference between her work now and her experience working in Texas.
“I can actually charge prices that I'm comfortable with (in New York), and it's fine, like they're almost used to it,” she said. “In San Antonio, they'll haggle the f— out of me and like, you know, try to like, put a price on what I should be charging.”
But money isn’t the only difference. In New York, charges for prostitution have been dwindling for a decade. Just last April, the city formally decriminalized sex work for those selling sex, like Oliv. They’re not charging sex workers, but they are charging buyers. New York joined other recent cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Ann Arbor in showing leniency toward sex workers.
“If a client tries to get back (at me), I can call the police,” she said. “If I have to call the police, the client would be the one to get prosecuted and not me.”
Though technically, that makes Oliv feel safer, she’s not sure decriminalization actually makes sex work safer.
Professor Barbara Brents of the University of Nevada said law enforcement officers can also be a danger to sex workers.
“The research that has been done already on sex work finds that there's a significant proportion of violence that happens to sex workers that comes from police, which is unfortunate, but it's true and it shows up in a whole lot of research,” she said.
Because sex work is a crime in much of the country, sex workers may be reluctant to trust the police. Even Oliv said contacting the police is a last resort for her in New York, if she decides to call them at all.
Brents noted that even outside of sex work, women are hesitant to reach out to law enforcement for help.
“We have a very poor history of dealing with sexual violence that happens to the population generally. If this is tripled when it comes to sex workers and when you criminalize their only source of income — the majority of whom are not violent — this just makes it so much more difficult for those folks,” Brents said.
So, Oliv takes other precautions when it comes to meeting new clients and keeping herself protected.
“I typically do in-calls only until I see my clients for a specific amount of time. And if they’re regular and they come back and I trust them enough, then I'll start doing out-calls to their place,” Oliv said.
She also takes more physical precautions, like keeping a hammer or knife under her bed.
Evey — we’re using their first name to protect their privacy — is a sex worker who lives and works in both Austin and Queens, NY. They screen all of their clients. They take 20% of the deposit up front to secure the date. They ask for their LinkedIn account, and if a client doesn’t have LinkedIn, they ask for any social media. And they ask for an introduction: Why them? How long does a client want to see them?
When Evey first started out, they did full-service. They’ve also done cam work, stripping and pole dancing — all things that are considered sex work. They’re actually trying to open a pole studio in Queens, NY, where they live part-time. But, they prefer full-service because they’re able to keep more of their earnings.
“I guess call me lazy sex worker. I just really liked the instant cash, the instant gratification, not having to pay a house, not having to pay bartenders or pay a site a percentage. That’s not your money. That’s my money. I’m the one putting my face out there,” they said.
They went from seeing three to five clients a day, seven days a week, to an exclusive arrangement with one of their clients.
Both Oliv and Evey started sex work as a means for survival and had been homeless before or during their time as sex workers. Their experiences have given them agency and allowed them to build a life for themselves that they didn’t have before. Both consider themselves to be career sex workers now.
Evey found a network of sex workers with helpful advice on online boards like Reddit and began to build their business. The online community they found also helped them figure out how to stay safe.
“One thing about doing sex work is that it can be kind of alienating in the sense that, you know … there’s just certain things that you relate to and understand that civilian women won’t understand, or civilian people won’t understand,” Oliv said.
One of those things, Oliv said, is what it feels like to have to have sex with strangers to live a “stable life.” As a trans woman of color, Oliv says white cisgender women who are not in sex work don’t know the privilege they have.
“The only way to survive in America as a trans woman is if you’re f—ing us or we’re entertaining you. If we're not f—ing you or we're not entertaining you, you're killing us,” she said.
But Oliv said she has privilege, too, in her ability to choose to do sex work as a career and not just for survival.
“The major difference is whenever I was doing survivor survival sex work, I wasn't able to pick and choose. I didn't have the luxury to choose who my clients were. I didn't have the luxury to choose what I was getting paid. I didn't have the luxury of safety in a space that belonged to me. Whereas now that I'm doing career sex work, I have those luxuries. I can choose what I want to pay. I can choose who I want to see. You know, I can choose who I want to invite into a space that I'm in,” she said.
Oliv said her experiences interacting with and servicing men from all walks of life has shown her one thing for certain:
“Sex workers are a blessing to society because we have a tendency to do like the dirty work of handling men that like society doesn't do,” she said, noting that some of her former clients have had fixations on the infantilization of women or rape fantasies.
“Men just have these really sick fantasies, which is why I think that sex workers, you know, like, play a big part in like keeping people safe,” she said.
Who is keeping sex workers safe? Numbers vary, but somewhere between 45% and 75% of sex workers today have experienced workplace violence.
“We just take care of each other because society doesn’t take care of us,” Oliv said.
Sex work is often seen as a last resort, a job people only do when they’re in need of cash.
“At the end of the day, it’s all survival,” Evey said. “A job is a job and we have to do it to survive. You know, some people just have to take greater lengths than others.”