Report-back: Calling the Cops on Sex Workers
We arrived at the Incarnation Church a little before 6:30pm on Wednesday, July 23rd. Already, there were three cop cars parked on both sides of the Church and three officers standing at the door. In the days preceding the event, we had sent out notices to sex workers and allies in our community to support us in canvassing outside the Church.
We held a community circle on the side steps of the Incarnation Church from 7pm to about 8:20pm. Five sex workers and two allies shared their stories, including Assemblymember Dan Quart and Aya Tasaki from Womankind. Among the sex workers who shared their stories were included black, Latina, migrant, trans, gender-nonconforming, and disabled sex workers, several of whom identified as survivors of human trafficking. Many told stories about their experiences with violence and exploitation, how sex work helped them survive circumstances of economic desperation and family abuse, but how criminalization contributed further to the violence that they experienced. Aya Tasaki, from WomanKind, shared a beautifully written statement about how decrim is ”most essentially about inclusion.”
We talked about how the “Equality Model” is actually built on deep prejudice against sex workers, and a sense of superiority that non-sex-workers feel; how this rhetoric uses fear-mongering tactics to raise unreasonable panic around the visibility of sex workers, especially of people of color and immigrants; how this manner of inciting hate against visible sex workers is part of what endangers sex workers daily. End Demand advocates seek to leverage their authority, privilege, and legitimacy to bully and discredit the sex worker rights movement, and “end” prostitution through methods of criminalization that simply do not work. Any kind of criminalization of sex work harms the most marginalized communities in sex trades, many of whom were represented in our group sharing stories outside.
Together, we read aloud Maya Angelou’s poem: “Still, I Rise.” We chanted together: “We’ll rise. We’ll rise. We’ll rise.” We affirmed each other in community with a sense of love and care. We also passed out factsheets about the Nordic Model to people who passed by. There were 26 of us present, and some pedestrians who stopped for a time to listen.
At around 8:20pm, a group of the sex workers who were gathering outside decided to go inside the Church, with the intention of asking questions to the people who had been speaking on the panel. When VOCAL-NY leader TS Candii entered to sit down, she was physically removed by officers inside, and told that she had not registered for the event. She was singled out as a black trans woman, while other white sex workers had been allowed to enter at the same time, and sit down. These sex workers, who had been prepared to politely ask questions to the panelists, protested the treatment that Candii received, and left the space in solidarity.
After these sex workers were pushed out of the Church, the event ended, and the rest of the audience began pouring out the front steps of the Church. A confrontation ensued between an older white woman and Jessica Raven, wherein the former questioned Jessica in angry tones as to why she did not speak on the panel. Jessica responded that the terms of the panel had been changed and reframed in a way that was not what had previously been agreed; that the Incarnation Church preemptively tweeted that she had pulled out when she asked about the changes that had been made. This quickly became a yelling match (all recorded on video camera), where the older white woman dismissed Jessica’s self-identification as a sex worker and told her: “I call you a survivor.”
Dorchen Leidholdt stepped out at one point onto the steps, with a condescending and disingenuous smile, speaking down at sex workers below, including Kate Zen. She insisted that she knew better than the sex workers outside because she has represented “hundreds of sex workers,” and also insisted to Kate that “sex work is not work.” She mocked Kate and asked “Do you think of yourself as a sex worker?” and then said, “I remember when the word ‘sex worker’ was invented in the 1970’s. I was fighting for women before the word ‘sex worker’ was invented.” Aya Tasaki witnessed the second part of this conversation, and came forward to witness and support. When Kate asked Dorchen why there were so many cops surrounding the area, Dorchen raised her hand to her forehead as if taking a moment to reflect, and said, “Oh yes, I called the cops. I was the one who called the cops.” She said something along the lines of -- I wanted to make sure we were prepared -- and then turned her back to Kate, and would not acknowledge her again, but instead had security guards push Kate and other sex workers down the stairs to close the gates of the Church, while she stepped back up the stairs inside the Church.
Many other conversations also occurred on the street outside the Church, between the event attendees and sex workers gathering outside. Sex workers were outnumbered 3 or 4 to 1, and at one point, the conversations got to be very tense and hateful. Some of the attendees of the conference were yelling at sex workers, calling sex workers “pimps” and angrily demanding of Jessica to answer to why she declined to be on the panel. Other conversations were more peaceful, notably between a black Church Committee member and TS Candii, who started out in disagreement, but ended in hugs and mutual affirmation.
We were also approached by multiple attendees who said they felt sympathy for our perspective, had wanted to hear both sides, and were disappointed by the one-sided nature of the event. We were given business cards by members of other Churches who said they would like for us to speak with their Congregation.
This event very clearly depicted the unfair and violent ways in which anti-sex-worker organizations and lawyers, in alliance with religion and law enforcement, exclude sex workers from public conversations and policy spaces that endanger our lives, while gas-
lighting us with passive-aggressive bullying tactics, and spreading misinformation to the public. Sex workers are forced to offer their own personal stories to beg for safety for the people in our community, while being pitted against selected “survivors”, who are primed to tell stories that confirm one ideological viewpoint, while never given leadership positions in these anti-sex-worker organizations. The community-led movement of sex workers who are also survivors of violence and exploitation, who demand real changes of unfair power dynamics in the sex industry from the inside, are literally shut out of the conversation by force of the police, and kept outside the gates of the Church.