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'They Think They Have a PhD in Whoreology:' How Lobbying for Sex Worker Rights Helps Educate Us All

Phoenix Calida

Sex worker and activist Phoenix Calida on how talking to politicians about her rights on Capitol Hill was a little scary, but well worth it.

Phoenix Calida is a Chicago-based Afro Latina loudmouth and local activist, with a passion for advocating for black women, the LGTBQ community and the sex worker community. When not buried in yarn and DIY projects, she can be found co-hosting The Black Podcast or on Twitter at @uppittynegress

Hi. My name is Phoenix, and I am an 18-year veteran of the sex work industry. In some ways, my history around the sex work industry is incredibly cliché: I got involved in the industry out of economic necessity. I was a teenager who also happened to be a single parent that really needed money.

Some of my experiences around the industry are a little less cliché: Someday I’ll tell you all about the guy who lived at a Trump property and paid me to burn his genitals. Life can be weird like that.

I have been in, out, and around the industry since I was 18. My best friends are sex workers, my former lovers have been sex workers. The sex work community is my community. And when you work in an industry that faces immense stigma and danger? Community becomes everything. Our community is how we stay sane(ish), it’s how we stay safe(ish), basically the community is our ish.

Let the average person watch a documentary about sex work, and suddenly they think they have a PhD in whoreology.

A lot of people think they know what sex work is, what sex workers look like, or what sex workers need. Let the average person watch a documentary about sex work, and suddenly they think they have a PhD in whoreology. This means that even well-meaning people end up hurting sex workers, and it needs to stop… which is how I ended up in DC taking part in the first-ever sex worker lobby day.

Read more: As a Trafficking Survivor, Lobbying for Sex Worker Rights Gave Me Hope

The goal of the day was to talk to staffers about SESTA/FOSTA, and how the bill had unintended, yet incredibly tragic, consequences for sex workers. If you’re unfamiliar with the bill, here’s the TLDR version: It was created to prevent sex trafficking online by holding websites accountable for any sexual service ads that were posted, and President Donald Trump signed it into law in April. It's what led to the shutdown of Backpage, and closing of the personals section on Craigslist. Problem is, now that sex workers can’t advertise online, they are going back to street work which is unsurprisingly, incredibly freaking dangerous. Trafficked people no longer have the same digital footprint and are actually harder to find. Meanwhile pimps and traffickers are sitting back and enjoying how the sudden panic and desperation has created a new group of people to exploit.

Basically, this bill was meant to help people and ended being a clusterfuck that is hurting everyone.

The law took effect only about a month ago, but the results have been catastrophic to the sex work community. Sex workers, particular trans, non-white, and street-based sex workers are the highest risk right now. Some people have died, others are missing. Some have died by suicide. The situation is frustrating and heartbreaking. So when I found out the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) was helping organize a lobbying day, I knew I had to get involved. I’ve been to marches and protests and spoken as an activist before, so I figured why not switch it up and try taking my voice to Capitol Hill?

SWOP gave us training and explained how we should handle the situation, field questions, approach topics (I have to give a shout out to Kate D’Adamo, who managed to organize this event and get people in from across the country to make their voices heard.) After training, we got matched up with some other folks and were sent off to lobby together.

Despite the training, the fact that I had partners with me, and their assurances that everything would be alright, I was actually scared. After all, I was going into a government building defending the rights of sex workers. Jokes about politicians and sex workers aside, many forms of sex work are still illegal and we had to try and convince people that sex workers—despite technically being criminals—deserve rights, dignity and safety. But, the work needed to be done, so off to work we went.

Some days, I do have a bit of faith in humanity, and this was definitely one of those days.

Our group was fortunate enough to meet with staffers from the offices of Tulsi Gabbard (HI), Linda Sanchez (CA) and Alan Lowenthal (CA). Everyone was incredibly kind, which was incredibly convenient for my nerves—after all, I wasn’t trying to have a panic attack on the floor of someone’s office. The staffer from Lowenthal’s office was amazing. She took notes and asked a lot of questions, the staffer from Gabbard’s office knew we were coming so he researched the bill before we got there. It was beautiful to know people actually cared and were listening to sex workers.

The best part of the day for me was educating people. We spoke about how these laws were directly impacting marginalized communities, how sex workers used the internet to stay safe. We talked about how sex workers used websites to screen clients, and now not only was that option gone, it was illegal to share our bad date lists with each other because of how broad and vague this bill is. Even the staffers who knew about the bill seemed shocked to learn that harm reduction practices like handing out condoms or emailing names of dangerous clients to other sex workers can be seen as criminal.

Read more: What it Was Like to Lobby on Capitol Hill as a Sex Worker

The ultimate goal of the day was to create relationships and open dialogue. Our message: If sex workers hadn’t been excluded when then this bill was written, we could have warned everyone about the unintended consequences that were coming. We could have told lawmakers that closing site where we screen will cause sex workers to be murdered. We could have told them that shutting down places where people are trafficked won’t stop traffickers, but losing the digital footprint makes it harder to find trafficked people. Despite the moral objections to sex work, I don’t think most people want to make things worse for sex workers, but people need to realize binging sex worker documentaries doesn’t make one an expert on harm reduction policy.

Some days, I do have a bit of faith in humanity, and this was definitely one of those days.

Getting people to realize the harm of SESTA/FOSTA is a primary focus I have right now, and I am here to work. I am incredibly grateful to swop, all the staffers who took the time to listen, and everyone else who donated time, money, and made this event happen. I’ll see everyone again next year, because this event is too important to only be a one-time thing.

“Nothing about us without us.”