In a moment marked by a failure of safety nets, social unrest, and public reactions to pervasive and escalating state violence, June 2 will mark International Whores Day (IWD), which began when sex workers took a stand against police violence to demand better. This year, organizers have fought to uplift those beginnings for the event and situate that message within the events shaping our lives right now.
Protests which began in Minneapolis in response to the murder of George Floyd on May 25 have spread to cities from coast to coast, and encompassed the names Ahmaud Arbery (murdered by former law enforcement February 23), Breanna Taylor (murdered by police May 13) and Tony McDade (murdered by police May 27). But instead of seeing this as a day which departs from that message, organizers have been clear to uplift that IWD is an addition to, but a departure from, that conversation. Red, an organizer with the IWDNYC2020 Coalition, described the centering of the event as one which is as much about revolution as it is celebration. “I love a rights-based holiday as much as the next person but what is the most pressing issue right now is the violent criminalization and erasure of people who are sex working, or perceived to be sex working, in public space.”
Remembering Radical Roots
The event is also committed to keeping its radical roots of anti-policing and anti-criminalization. This year will mark the 45th anniversary of the occupation of a church in Lyon, France, as well as five other churches, by thousands of sex workers. The march and occupation was in response to months of increased policing, which included the shutting down of hotels and targeting of partners and family members. The increase in police harassment, and increasing arrests had been pushing sex workers into further isolation and inhumane working conditions. To make the impact of policing clear, sex workers displayed a banner outside the church saying, “our children don’t want their mothers in jail.”
And support came in from allies across the globe. As one article from the New York Times covering the 1975 occupation described, “There have been telegrams of support from women's branches of France's two biggest labor organizations, from women activists elsewhere in Europe and the United States, and from homosexual militants in France. The Lyons women are also being helped by Le Nid—the nest—an organization formed by a Paris priest 30 years ago to encourage prostitutes to reintegrate into society.”
The 1975 catalysts are not too far off from the experiences sex workers are still fighting today. Says Red, “the sex worker organizations were citing police harassment, rampant sexual assault, the attacks on their families, on their lovers, on their managers – the hotels were being shut to them. The sex workers were having to work in precarious and hostile positions and they were fed up against this state-sponsored violence, and that is a clear through line to this current moment.”
While traditional policing of street-based sex work continues to persist despite decades of calls for an end to the surveillance, harassment and outright violence, increasingly there are attacks on online spaces such as the Federal legislation of FOSTA/SESTA, and an increase in the targeting of hotels themselves. All of these point to the same underlying need centered in the IWD protests: it is a radical and important act for sex workers to demand and take up space.
Yin Q, the Founder of KinkOut and Co-Director of Red Canary Song, put this history in further context. "Sex workers and other marginalized communities have been calling out/protesting this norm of systemic abuse and yet have been dismissed as unworthy of respectable voice. We have been the Cassandras of the feminist, queer, and race-equality movements. It is time to listen to sex workers."
New York City, in particular, has had a history of the complicated nature of sex worker visibility. The original planning of the event was one which would center on Times Square, a history epicenter of commercial sex. As Red notes, the organizers wanted to “talk about the devastation of Times Square– about the gentrification and the demolition of New York's porn districts full of sex shops and skin flick cinemas.” New York City has also been the focus of significant pushback on policing of the sex trade, namely a lawsuit which challenged the racist and gendered way police were enforcing laws against loitering for the purposes of prostitution, and a resulting bill which looked to strike down the loitering statute entirely.
And as happens every time the simmering hurt of oppression boils to the surface, organizers were “trying to channel the energy of anger of hustlers, sex workers, being erased from the landscape and history of New York.” Red best describes the ethos of the event as “joyful militancy.”
Responding to Changing Landscapes
And while it has been important to demand and keep presence in spaces, that has been made difficult while organizing in the city hardest hit by the Coronavirus. “How we were posed to present [this message] in a very public protest sort of way necessarily shifted because the pandemic happened. We had to creatively redirect, and do capacity check-ins and see what made the most sense for our people involved, many of whom were development new mutual aid efforts or were returning to fundraise for existing ones.”
The event is true to the spirit of sex worker organizing, which has always pivoted to meet constantly shifting needs and circumstances, the organizer of New York’s International Whore’s Days have also changed plans to make sure the event is still possible. The event, organized by a coalition of organizations, has moved from a physical to a digital rally. “Early on, we had to switch gears and brainstorm how to shift this into a virtual space,” noted Red. Not only has the event turned into a live stream on June 2, but other resources began to develop as well. “Our focus became creating an online platform for resources, partnered organizations, curating a digital zine, and building that into our event's site so people could access COVID-related mutual aid efforts and also the resistance art we were making.”
The rally, being held on June 2nd from 12 – 2 EST, will feature speakers from groups including the NYC Stripper Strike, Organización Latina Trans NY, Black Trans News and Red Canary Song, among others. The coalition, as well as the lineup for the day, has focused on uplifting queer/trans/gender non-forming folks and people from communities of color, and includes many of the organizations working towards full decriminalization of the sex industry. Yin points out, "The IWD coalition speakers come from a wide array of ethnic, economic, racial, gender, and sexual orientation background... The sex worker rights fight is a fight against racism, homophobia, and misogyny. There is no singular fight. Human rights and earth rights are inextricably entwined."
Red, who is also an organizer with SupportHo(s)e, notes that these are “movements towards police and prison abolition, towards the decriminalization of all survival.” And decriminalization of sex work is one part of that full decriminalization of survival.
And of course, New York is not the only place celebrating, revolting and resisting. Queensland, Australia is holding a digital rally, asking people to sharing selfies, memes and banners.
In Chicago, organizers are planning a digital rally, followed up an online dance party. In Denver, the Rocky Mountain Sex Worker collective is pairing up with their local Slutwalk for an evening variety show. And on June 3, MOMA and PS 1 will be talking to sex workers about art and creation.
No matter where you are, June 2 will offer many ways to engage, celebrate and remember the incredible resistance that has always shaped sex workers' rights. And for sex workers who may be feeling isolated in ways that are unparalleled, Yin hopes this event is an interruption of that, too. "I hope that sex workers take away a sense of camaraderie and affirmation for their own work and circumstance."
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