Sex workers want to be treated with respect and don’t want to be considered as having a mental disorder. That was the message coming out of a panel discussion regarding sex work held Thursday night at the West Hollywood City Council chambers.
About 50 people attended the forum sponsored by the City of West Hollywood where a panel of five sex workers shared their views and answered questions about their work and lives. The panel was organized 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 panelists reported that mental health workers tend to view sex workers as having a mental illness which causes them to choose sex work as their profession.They want to see that opinion changed and the social stigma surrounding sex work removed.
They compared their situation today to the way homosexuality was once considered a mental disorder. Thanks to lobbying by gay activists in the early 1970s, the American Psychiatric Association changed its position and removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973.
Additionally, the panelists reported sex workers don’t necessarily want to be “rescued” and don’t always want help to get out of that line of work. As panelist Tiffany explained, “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 workers and focus solely on that instead of other issues.
As a panelist named Andrew speculated, “If sex work is destigmatized, the rescue aspect will 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 offered to help 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 money or for survival needs such as food or a place to live. Panelist Avery put 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 said doing 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 living due 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 workers also don’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’s Station know who he is and what he does. Consequently, they will stop Sam for any number of reasons, often arresting him without any justification.
Panelist Tiffany, a black/Latino transgender 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 as one 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 that under the law, she could be charged with trafficking just for giving another sex worker a place to live or even giving him/her a 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 that human rights organization Amnesty International already advocates for decriminalizing 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 for a short-term goal, they would like the City of West Hollywood to form a Sex Workers Advisory Board to provide input on forming policies and laws regarding sex work. They noted the city has 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 making policy for,” said Bella.
Several people on the panel also said they would like to see Ed Buck put on trial for his part in the death of Gemmel Moore and Timothy 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 said he knew several other black male sex workers who Buck has hired. He said he considers Buck a serial killer who could kill again.