Facing SESTA and Political Threats, Sex Worker Organizations Brace for Fallout  


The Sacramento chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), an organization that provides critical resources to both sex workers and trafficking victims, is suspending its direct outreach programs amid a sense of growing legal risk. The group will be shuttering its safe-house, ceasing distribution of both condoms and “bad client” lists, discontinuing classes around sex worker safety, and dramatically reducing the availability of its hotline.

While other California-based organizations that provide direct services to sex workers have not taken such an extreme step, they are still bracing for the potential impact of escalating political threats. A new proposed bill in the state, SB 1204, would expand criminal definitions around the facilitation of sex work and could potentially apply to outreach efforts. It follows the Senate’s recent passage of Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), a bill ostensibly meant to help trafficking victims, but that instead puts sex workers at greater risk. Taken together, these legislative developments have left SWOP Sacramento’s executive director, Kristen DiAngelo, feeling that it is simply too risky for her volunteers to continue to provide many of its vital services. Meanwhile, other organizations are continuing their services while anxiously waiting to see what happens with the California bill.

With neither bill signed, Sacramento SWOP’s decision to preemptively end direct services is a drastic one, but DiAngelo felt it was necessary. “The whole political environment makes me feel really protective of [our volunteers],” she says. “The last thing I want to do is put them at risk. If we have to pull back our direct services until we know what the political climate looks like in California, that’s what we have to do.”

SWOP Sacramento’s decision, according to Diangelo, was primarily triggered by the introduction of SB 1204, which seeks to expand California’s criminal definition of “pandering” to include “arranging, causing, encouraging, inducing, persuading, or procuring another person to be a prostitute, with the intent that the other person engage in an act of prostitution.” This new definition, says DiAngelo, could theoretically apply to much of the work done by SWOP. “There’s some words in there that are very ambiguous—there’s no way to know whether you’re breaking the law or not,” she explains. “If they changed that law, we would be at huge liability.”

Meg Vallée, founder of Abeni, an organization serving sex workers and trafficking victims in Orange County, is also concerned about SB 1204, but she’s holding off on any major changes to the group’s outreach programs. “At this point, we haven’t pulled back on any of our services because, number one, nothing is law yet and, number two, we like to make sure we maximize any opportunity that we have until any changes in the law actually occur.” If the bill does pass, she will be consulting with legal experts, because Vallee believes it could apply to much of the direct services that Abeni provides. That includes one-on-one coaching for sex workers to develop personal safety plans. “Under this law, it would easily be considered the promotion of prostitution,” she says.

Similarly, St. James Infirmary, a San Francisco-based health and safety clinic for sex workers, opposes the proposed law but will not be changing its outreach programs. In fact, its staff feel that, given the political climate, its services are more essential than ever. “We have an obligation to not only our participants, but also to our funders, government contractors, and community stakeholders to continue and strengthen all of our services,” says Dee Wollstonecraft Michel, the organization’s programs director. That is especially true, she says, of the organization’s outreach and harm-reduction services, which include everything from peer counseling to STI testing.

A representative from a third California-based organization that provides direct services to sex workers says the group will continue its outreach. “We are worried,” she says of the proposed bill, “but we are not going to let it change our direction.” That said, she requested anonymity for herself and the organization out of fear of targeting by law enforcement.

DiAngelo’s concern stems from her belief that the current political backdrop will embolden police officers and prosecutors to target her organization’s work. This is the case for the California bill, she says, and SESTA, which broadly holds online platforms criminally responsible for hosting any content deemed related to sex trafficking and, as a result of what internet freedom and sex worker rights advocates say will likely be sweeping filters to flag that content, threatens to shutter online venues that sex workers use to advertise and vet clients from the safety of their own homes. (The bill has yet to be signed by the president, but it’s already had a chilling impact on speech.) SESTA does not directly apply to the outreach work done by SWOP Sacramento, most of which happens offline, but she says it nonetheless adds to a climate.

Kate D’Adamo, a sex worker advocate and a partner with the organization Reframe Health and Justice, says there is a “desert of resources” north of the San Francisco Bay Area. “SWOP Sacramento has been one of the few consistent, non-judgmental spaces for sex workers and trafficking victims,” she says, adding that the end of its direct services could be “devastating for hundreds of miles around.”

For nearly three years now, SWOP Sacramento has run its safe-house, which can house anywhere from three to six women at a time. DiAngelo estimates that at least 100 women have slept under its roof over the years. The inhabitants come not just from Sacramento, but are also often referred from many miles away—including from Las Vegas, Reno, and the Bay Area—because, as she puts it, “There aren’t enough beds anywhere.”

DiAngelo worries that even providing a safe-house could run afoul of the proposed pandering law and attract unwanted attention in the current political moment. That’s in part because SWOP Sacramento has allowed residents to come and go as they please. “We don’t know where they go when they leave the house,” she says, suggesting that residents could choose to do sex work. Under the pandering law, she says, “That becomes our liability.”

Previously, volunteers from SWOP Sacramento made weekly outings to distribute what DiAngelo calls “hygiene kits,” which include lube and condoms, to street-based sex workers. They also handed out “bad client” lists, which warned sex workers about local clients who might pose a threat of violence, and “Know Your Rights” cards, which detail sex workers’ legal protections if they are stopped by police. The organization often provided food and clothing to sex workers and trafficking victims, setting up a service table at urban tent encampments and taking women to a thrift store to pick out clothes. The group also offered classes on how to stay safe while working on the street. (It’s worth noting that sex worker advocates have argued that SESTA, and the resulting closure of online advertising platforms, will push a growing number of sex workers to turn to more dangerous street-based work.)

Now these things feel all too risky to DiAngelo, because any one of them could be potentially construed as “arranging, causing, encouraging, inducing… another person to be a prostitute,” as the proposed pandering law puts it.

SWOP Sacramento will continue to offer a range of services, including legal support—but direct outreach has been halted indefinitely. The group announced the news over the weekend via Twitter to an outcry from sex workers and allies. “A lot of people are mad at us for stopping, but I’m mad too. I’m devastated,” says DiAngelo. “I’m a walking sieve—like, I’ll be walking and all of a sudden it’ll hit me and tears will just come streaming down my face,” she says. “And I’ll think, ‘This is real. This is really, real.’ We have people hurting every day and nobody in the outside world even sees it—it’s like we don’t exist.”

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