Despite sex being used to sell just about everything in American media, and the porn industry grossing billions of dollars in total for decades, prostitution and other erotic services are illegal across the United States, barring a handful of Nevada counties.
In the first year-and-a-half since President Trump took office, a number of moves were made on the federal level that hit the sex worker community hard. Notably, the bills known as the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” and “Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” have disrupted networks of sex workers and clientele; Craigslist voluntarily shut down it’s famed “Personals” section due to new legal risks, and the classifieds site Backpage was shut down by the FBI before SESTA/FOSTA was even signed into law.
With smaller legislatures and law enforcement ordinances pushing similar measures, erotic service providers have organized like never before, fighting for the legitimization and decriminalization of their trade, and working to bring resources and care to their communities.
One peer-led group currently uniting for these ideals is the new Denver chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) USA.
“I grew up in a rural area in Oklahoma, and of course there were sex workers, and of course there were strip clubs and such, but we just didn’t talk about that so much,” said SWOP Denver Representative and sex worker Pasha Ripley. “Now people are feeling very comfortable with talking about it loudly and aggressively, so that’s been a shift.”
Unlike a lot of organizations attempting to support sex workers, SWOP puts emphasis on being community-driven, with no presumptions of superiority. All services are provided in comradery by current and former sex workers, rather than funneled through an institution looking to “save” people from the trade.
“Groups such as Street’s Hope, whose slogan is ‘Helping Women Escape Sex Trafficking,’ don’t see it as a labor rights issue; they see it as a rescuing and saving these ‘poor victims’ from themselves,” she continued.
SWOP Denver currently has a lot in the works. A monthly support group is being developed to spark cooperation and bonding within the sex worker community, and facilities are currently being offered by places such as the United Church of Christ to assist in such activities.
Since the enactment of SESTA/FOSTA, it is much harder for this community to congregate online. Formerly, online networks were a place where sex workers often used codes for aspects of their trade (i.e. ‘roses’ used as slang to refer to dollars on sites like Backpage).
Now that many folks are back on the street, SWOP Denver will partner with local health departments to distribute information on a weekly basis to on-the-ground sex workers about safety, dealing with various forms of confrontation, and how to navigate the streets. These advisory materials will circulate with condoms, dental dams, rubber gloves, and other necessary accoutrement.
“As SWOP, because we’re starting fresh, the most important thing we’re trying to get across to people is that we’re gonna have to agree to disagree in order to get our common goals achieved,” Ripley said. “We need basic human rights and labor rights, to be able to practice our business safely without arrest, and without our children being arrested. We can hash out details once people aren’t being killed.”
To learn more about upcoming events, resources, and appearances, follow @SWOPDenver on Twitter and Facebook, or visit the Sex Worker Outreach Project national blog, new.swopusa.org.