Crowds poured into the creative arts hall on 9 West 8th Street in lower Manhattan for the first day of the much-anticipated and debated Sex Workers’ Pop-Up exhibition, which officially kicked off Tuesday night.
Multimedia projects were strewn on every wall from summery poetry and illustrations to music videos featuring transgender artists to a thigh-high box of customized condom packages.
The free exhibition invited people to enjoy artwork from around the world, and listen to sex workers from different countries that often feel “misunderstood, criminalized, and misrepresented.”
The week-long event will culminate in a town hall with prominent New York politician State Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Bushwick, Cypress Hills, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, East New York) and progressive Tiffany Cabán discussing sex industry reform legislation in New York State.
The Stop Violence in the Sex Trade Act, a package of bills that support the full decriminalization of the entire sex industry not just workers or victims, was first introduced in New York in 2019 by Salazar. It has yet to be passed into law.
Eventually, the attendees gathered under large red umbrellas, suspended from the ceiling, to listen to the panel moderated by Shareese Mone of the HIPS organization in Washington D.C. HIPS is a nonprofit that supports the LGBTQIA+ community engaged in sex work, sex trade, and drug use and empowers them to live healthy lives without stigma. “Most countries label sex workers as villains or victims,” said Mone.
The countries represented on the stage and throughout the exhibition were Guyana, France, Russia, Australia, US, Kenya, Ukraine, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Kyrgyzstan. Each country dealing with the controversial issue of sex work in their own way.
In many countries even if sex work or prostitution is not illegal, crimes like “loitering” or “trespassing” are.
According to a sex worker Legallife-Ukraine report, police often physically, emotionally, or financially abuse sex workers by raping, extorting them for crimes they didn’t commit, fabricating witnesses against them, and disclosing confidential information about their identities or HIV status.
“In Guyana, there’s not a law attached to sex work, but there are laws for everything around sex work. Everything around it is criminalized,” said Shaunna-May Trotman of the Guyana Sex Worker Coalition when asked about the policies in her country. Trotman’s organization belongs to a larger network of national coalitions, formed in 1999, designed to combat discrimination and health crises in Guyana, such as the HIV/Aids epidemic and transgender rights.
Trotman spoke about how access to medical care and supplies is limited, so much so that some sex workers in her country had to wash and reuse prophylactics. “They’re not readily available in the minor areas. It’s too far and more expensive, they’re not free. They’re $5 US. So we went into the minor areas to get people condoms. They might get a box. And you see people coming with different hair, clothes, they change their appearances and things to try and get another box,” said Trotman.
Leila Raven from DecrimNY, a New York-based sex workers rights organization that advocated The Stop Violence in the Sex Trade Act to be passed, said that the U.S sex work industry was tricky because so much of it is left open to interpretation and intricately linked with anti-trafficking laws. “If your roommate is a sex worker and you open the door for their date, you can be charged with a felony,” said Raven.
The general consensus among the women on stage was that even though some sex workers are victims of sex trafficking that’s not always the case. They insisted sex work was like any other job that some days you got up for, wipe the cold out your eyes, and trudged to begrudgingly.
In Kenya, a local organization pulled together to establish economic empowerment programs that helped sex workers “save for large purchases, cover emergency medical costs, set up pensions,” and generally raise their standards of living. Benefits that reflect any other city job in comparison.
“Sex work is a decision or a choice, trafficking is forced,” said Trotman, “All women. She should decide what she wants to do with her body, and that decision should be respected and treated with dignity at all times.” To which everyone on stage heartily applauded.
Here’s a look at the schedule for the rest of the week and weekend:
Why Sex Workers Want Decrim Around the World is slated for 6 p.m., Thursday, March 12 will discuss what sex work looks like in different countries. The panel will open with a performance by Lady Grew, who will perform “WhoreCore – A Musical Comedy.”
Unsung Stories of Sex Workers is slated for 6 p.m., Saturday, March 14 and will feature activists for trans rights and the decriminalization of sex work through a storytelling night.
Sex Workers’ Town Hall with State Senator Julia Salazar and Queens District Attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán is slated for 3 p.m., Sunday, March 15. The conversation will center on supporting the rights of sex workers and fighting for decriminalization in New York.