Sex workers rallied in Oakland and San Francisco today in protest of recent federal legislation intended to curb sex trafficking that they said has reduced the rights of sex workers across the country.
The protesters also called for a boycott of celebrities who lobbied for the legislation and were set to perform at Comedy Central’s Clusterfest, held at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Center Plaza, this weekend.
In observance of International Sex Workers Day, more than 200 people rallied outside of Oakland’s City Hall against the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)— two controversial bills passed by congress in April to combat online sex trafficking by holding websites accountable for user content related to sex work and allowing survivors to sue websites that facilitated their victimization.
Near San Francisco’s City Hall, comedian Amy Schumer, who is set to perform tonight as part of Clusterfest’s star-studded weekend lineup that included Jon Stewart and members of the “Saturday Night Live” cast, came under fire by a smaller group of sex worker rights advocates who denounced Schumer’s involvement in lobbying for SESTA and making jokes at their expense.
Citing a 2015 “Inside Amy Schumer” sketch in which Schumer can be seen burying a dead stripper, the advocates called on the comedian to cut sex workers out of her acts.
“I don’t think that she recognizes the reality of sex workers and that we do get assaulted a lot,” said an advocate with the U.S. Prostitutes Collective, who gave her name as Franchesca. “We are targeted because of the policing and the criminalization of sex workers. We don’t go to the police when we are raped and we are attacked by people because we are afraid of prosecution.”
While the sketch, in which Schumer’s character aims to impress her male co-workers, intended to draw attention to gender pay inequality, the activists accused Schumer of perpetuating stigma against the sex worker profession while openly supporting “bad laws.”
“We want to address the stigma produced by comedians who use us as punchlines in their acts while these same comedians lobby for laws which further restrict our free speech and our right to associate on and offline, while reducing us to second class citizens,” said Maxine Doogan, founder of the nonprofit ESPLER Project, which provides legal support and advocacy for erotic service providers.
Rallies scheduled across the country today gave a voice to sex workers who said congress’ recent passage of SESTA-FOSTA has caused unnecessary harm to their community — many said they use the online websites as a safer way to do their work.
Hailed as a victory by supporters, the legislation has resulted in Craigslist dropping its “personals” section and the shutdown of the sex market website Backpage.com.
“The main issues about losing the advertisement sites is that it means that workers will have to rely on customers who were not their customers before,” Doogan said. “Now, I’m being solicited for unprotected services and low rates.”
The sex worker rights advocates said the laws conflate consensual sex work with human trafficking, and have resulted in far more dangerous working conditions for sex work professionals.
“It’s all mixed up,” said Rachel West, also with U.S. Prostitutes Collective. “We are talking about sex work, which is work that women do to survive, and that’s completely different than trafficking, which is holding somebody against their will — it’s transporting people, it’s forced coercion and fraud. Adult sex workers are really getting the brunt of the enforcement of this bill.”
Like many others in the profession, Doogan said the websites, among other things, helped sex workers screen clients and establish safe meeting locations. Now, many are forced onto the streets or to turn to pimps for for protection, she said, making many women more vulnerable to abuse.
“For people who have rent to pay, they have kids they have to feed, they might have to be forced to take those clients when otherwise they would have had choices about who they can see,” Doogan said.
The advocates said they hoped to educate Schumer and other celebrities on the impacts of the legislation, and called on them to donate the proceeds of their shows to the ESPLER Project.
Doogan said funds would be used to “address the negative stigma they themselves have caused and perpetuate.”
A spokesperson for Clusterfest did not immediately return a request for comment.
March for sex workers rights now headed toward Lake Merritt pic.twitter.com/Fso9pOMVYw
— Scott Morris (@OakMorr) June 2, 2018
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