Interview with Mariah Grant about Decriminalizing Sex Work

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Answers by Mariah Grant, Director of Research and Advocacy at The Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center

How do you think the US government can best assist sex workers?

I would first emphasize that people who do sex work, as with most other jobs, come from varied backgrounds and identities. There are sex workers of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, sexualities, genders, religions, education levels, and incomes. There is also a great diversity in the types of labor sex workers engage in. Sex work includes legalized sectors, such as adult film and stripping, and criminalized sectors, such as full-service sex work, as well as other areas. People who do sex work may also use it to supplement their income in other labor sectors. Because of the diversity of the people doing sex work and the varied roles they undertake within the sex trades, the necessary actions of the US government is going to vary in the development and implementation of laws that either affirmatively protect or at the very least do not harm sex workers’ civil and human rights. 

To survive in the US, most people must have an income of some sort. However, many factors influence financial stability. There is racism, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, and other discriminatory practices sewn into the fabric of this country’s criminal and civil legal, immigration, schooling, housing, employment, and healthcare systems that disproportionately impact certain population’s ability to accrue wealth. Black people, migrants, Indigenous people, LGBTQ – particularly trans and gender nonconforming individuals – among others are included in these populations. This bias is both replicated and amplified for sex workers, with systemic and societal oppression targeting sex workers who represent one or many of those identifies.

The oppression perpetrated against certain groups is amplified for sex workers because of the stigma associated with their job as well as criminalization. Thus, policymakers within the government must address those biases when attempting to regulate the industry and consider sex workers when developing legislation to improve access to housing, employment, education, social services, and healthcare. There are both immediate and long-term actions lawmakers and law enforcement must take to better ensure sex workers and people who have experienced trafficking in the sex trades fully exercise their human rights; including decriminalization of prostitution. 

Do you have any advice for people looking to get involved in the decriminalization movement?

The advice I’d give depends on if you are approaching the decriminalization or broader sex workers’ rights movement from a place of lived experience or as someone seeking to work alongside those who do. If you are a current or past sex worker or have experienced trafficking in the sex trades, I would encourage you to get involved with a local or national organization. There are many formal and informal sources of information and support out there. 

If there isn’t a group that is representative of your experience or doesn’t resonate, there are other avenues by which to support decrim or other sex workers’ rights efforts. This includes developing original content supporting sex workers’ rights efforts and sharing it on your social media or other platforms. You want to take time to get more familiar with the history of the movement and the legislative campaigns various groups are working on to understand the landscape. The next question provides some resources to get started.

For individuals who don’t come to this work with lived experience in the sex trades, like myself, I’d recommend taking some time to reflect on why you want to get involved in this work. There is space for people with all different backgrounds, but it is critical that people with lived experience are guiding the goals and priorities of the movement. Once you have genuinely thought through how you would uplift the work of individuals most impacted by decriminalization, I would refer them to the same suggestions as those with lived experience. Get involved with local and national efforts, educate yourself on the history of the movement, learn about the current strategies for getting decriminalization and other sex worker rights’ affirming legislation passed, and share what you learn with your network.

Finally, everyone should have a self-care plan that is sustainable. This may include actions you take individually to foster joy and wellbeing or seeking help from a mental health or other care provider.

Is there any literature you recommend for those looking to learn more?

The resources shared here are not exhaustive. Sex workers have been instrumental in documenting the realities of the sex trades and contributing to critical discourse on policy, programming, and methods to defend the human rights of people involved in this industry. Thus, the resource list is a living document.

You can find the list here, with an emphasis on the critical role that Black transgender and cisgender women, nonbinary people, and LGBTQ sex workers have played in advocating on behalf of themselves and their communities: sex workers, people of color, queer people, migrants, and more. You will find current and past leaders of the modern sex workers’ rights movements. I must highlight Josephine Baker as she was the first entertainer and activist I learned about as a young child when I had the opportunity to do a report on her in school. I also celebrate the recent announcement that, “…46 years after her death…the remains of American-born entertainer-activist Josephine Baker would be reinterred at Paris’s Pantheon monument, making her the first Black woman to be granted the country’s greatest honor.”