Sex workerswant to be treated with respectanddon’t want to be consideredas havingamental disorder.That was the message coming out of apanel discussionregarding sex workheld Thursday nightat the West Hollywood City Council chambers.
About 50 people attended the forumsponsored by the City of West Hollywoodwhere a panel of five sex workers shared their views and answered questions about their work and lives.The panel wasorganized by the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP)(swopla.org)
Councilmember John Duran introduced the forum saying it was time to “bring some of these issues out of the shadows into the light where we can talk about them in an open way that only happens in the city of West Hollywood.”Councilmembers Lauren Meister, Lindsey Horvath and John Heilman were also present.
The panelistsreported thatmental health workerstend to viewsex workersas having a mentalillness which causes them to choose sex work as their profession.They want to see that opinion changed and thesocialstigma surrounding sex work removed.
They compared their situation today to the way homosexuality was once considered a mental disorder. Thanks to lobbyingbygay activists in the early 1970s, the American Psychiatric Association changed itspositionand removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973.
Additionally,the panelists reportedsex workersdon’t necessarily want to be “rescued” and don’t always want help to get out of that line of work.As panelistTiffanyexplained, “We’re adults, we have the right to decide how to use our body.”
The panelists explained that mental health officials tend to automatically assume they need to be rescued upon learning they are sex workersand focus solely on that instead of other issues.
As a panelist named Andrew speculated,“If sex work is destigmatized, the rescueaspectwill diminish.”
Dr. Curley Bonds, the chief medical officer for Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, was among the people in the audience. During the question and answer period, Bonds stood up saying he agreed that mental health officials often view the sex work as the cause of all their problems.He offeredtohelp change that perception, saying that as a black gay man, he had first-hand understanding of discrimination.
While none of the panelists discussed how they got into sex work, they did explain they did it for the moneyorforsurvival needs such asfood ora place to live.Panelist Averyput it simply,saying, “I like to eat.” Meanwhile, Andrew explained, “rent is expensive.”
Panelist Lotus Lane explained she likes to have a flexible work schedule which sex work provides, which then allows her to spend time with her child.
By being a sex worker, Avery explained that she has learned to negotiate and set boundaries with her clients, skills she now uses in other parts of her life.Lotus commented that sex work has allowed her freedom from bad relationships.
However, the panelists saiddoing sex work has made getting housing or finding other employment difficult. Panelist Sam (who was not present but submitted is answers via email) explained he doesn’t have the proper pay stubs for the screening process of getting housing. Likewise,Andrew detailed how there is a “big gap” on his resume that is hard to explain to potential employers.
The panelists reported they are often reluctant to tell medical doctors what they do for a livingdue to the stigma associated with sex work. Lotus reported she has told doctors she got a sexually transmitted disease from a cheating boyfriend rather that admit she does sex work. Meanwhile, Avery said the only doctors she feels safe enough to disclose her profession to are the doctors at the LA LGBT Center.
The sex workersalsodon’t feel safe dealing with police and sheriff’s deputies and especially don’t feel protected by them. Sam detailed how deputies at the West Hollywood Sheriff’sStationknow who he is and what he does. Consequently, they will stopSamfor anynumber ofreasons, often arresting him without any justification.
PanelistTiffany, ablack/Latinotransgender woman, said the thought of interacting with police is a “scary thing,” while Andrew reported he would never go to the police for any issue related to sex work.
Bella of SWOP, who served asone of the forum’s moderators,emphasized that consensual sex is not sex trafficking. “No sex worker wants trafficking to continue,” she said.However, she noted thatunder the law,she could be charged with traffickingjust forgiving another sex worker a place to live or even giving him/hera ride to the doctor’s office.
As for the future, they want to see sex workers organize for their rights, something SWOP is already working toward.The long-term goal is to see sex work decriminalized. They note thathuman rights organizationAmnesty International already advocates fordecriminalizing sex work.
They are also against the “Nordic model”for sex trade,which makes it illegal to buy sex but does not penalize the person selling their body for the sex.As West Seegmiller, who also helped moderate the panel,put it, “We don’t want to see our clients criminalized.”
As forashort-term goal, they would like the City of West Hollywood to form a Sex Workers Advisory Board to provide input on formingpolicies and laws regarding sex work. They notedthe cityhas a Transgender Advisory Board to get input from transgender people and a Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board to get input from gays and lesbians, so why not a similar advisory board for sex workers.
“Talk to the people who you’re makingpolicyfor,” said Bella.
Severalpeopleon thepanelalso said they would like to see Ed Buck put on trial for his part in the death ofGemmel Moore andTimothy Dean Moore. Both were black men who died of drug overdoses in Buck’s West Hollywood apartment. Panelist Sam, a black man, reported he has been a client of Buck’s and has done drugs with him. Meanwhile Andrew saidhe knew several other black male sex workerswho Buck has hired. He said heconsidersBuck a serial killer who could kill again.