Organizers of the Desiree Conference say they "cannot put our organization and our attendees at risk."
A protest sign made by the SWSU Sex Worker Student Union for a recent sex worker rights demonstration. Photo courtesy Courtney Trouble
Courtney Trouble is a queer sex worker, academic, and artist dancing on the cracks of queer life and the adult industry since the year 2000. Check out their work and writing at courtneytrouble.com.
Wednesday, organizers cancelled the biggest gathering for training sex workers and sex work advocates, citing a newly-passed law that endangers sex workers.
The Desiree Conference, a five-day event held every three years, provides empowerment and support to current and future sex worker rights activists. It’s held in various cities around the U.S., and is regarded as the most important gathering of its kind for sex workers and allies.
“Due to FOSTA/SESTA enactments, our leadership made the decision that we cannot put our organization and our attendees at risk,” Desiree Alliance announced on its website. “We hope you understand our grave concerns and continue to resist every law that exists to harm sex workers! Keep fighting!”
“We had our space and we are out and we are loud and we hold no shame,” Cris Sardina, director at the Desiree Alliance and a 58-year-old sex worker of color and prison reform activist, told me in a phone interview. “[Other people] see that, and say, ‘gosh, there is somebody out there.’” She paused, and cried. “How are we going to get our message out now,” she said through tears. “This is so heartbreaking for me.”
As a porn worker and former stripper myself, I am well aware that people only see what they want to see when they look at sex workers from the outside, and sometimes what they see is a person incapable of making her or his own choices. “What we do with our bodies is a choice,” Sardina said, and reproductive rights, queer rights, trans rights, POC rights, and poor people’s rights all concern sex work.FOSTA, a new law that makes it harder for sex workers to operate independently online, has only pushed sex workers further into the margins.
The conference, which was to be held in 2019 in Las Vegas, was called “Transcending Boundaries: Immigration, Migration, and Sex Work.” Sardina said she had been excited to discuss this track since she began as director in 2010. However, she is now is concerned about how to keep convention-goers safe at a convention about sex work and immigration in a post-FOSTA, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement-heavy environment have haunted the Desiree board of directors for months.
“Even something as simple as hotel hospitality potentially alerting local police to suspicious people or behavior could put a group of 500 activists and sex works at major risk,” Sardina told me, citing reports that hotel employees have worked with ICE. “Because hospitality [hotel staff] and ICE work together, there is no safety” at this time.
Sardina expects to hold the conference again in the future, when or if it becomes safe again to gather as sex workers “for five days with our heads held high” on American ground, she added.
“Stop being polite, come together, and fight this shit.”
Between 300 to 500 people attend the conference. It touts a scholarship program to help people attend, free food and childcare for attendees, and five days of planning, politicking, skill sharing, education, and self care for sex workers and their allies. Sardinas came to Desiree Alliance on a scholarship in 2006 as a prison reform activist who had done some sex work, and left as a loud, out, and proud sex worker who saw the intersections between race, class, and gender.
In the absence of a larger, public gathering, organizers told me they hope to hold smaller private meetings around the country. Summits and regularly scheduled meetings will still happen as planned, and they’ll continue efforts to organize new activism with other human rights groups.
Since the FOSTA became a law in April, the Desiree Alliance website has been redesigned and its social media strategy has been changed to protect the Alliance from pandering laws, which as an organisation that empowers sex workers, puts it at risk for pimping charges. Even a workshop on how to advertise online could be seen as an intention to traffic a sex worker, so even the most tame of the conference activities could be up for legal scrutiny.
Sardina said she is disappointed and feels guilty for taking the space away, but hopes that people will realize that sex workers are in a state of emergency.
The organisation plans to continue its activism work. Next week, it is hosting a meeting with people from the ACLU and others to discuss how to fight FOSTA-SESTA moving forward. Sardina encourages those who care to “stop being polite, come together,” and “fight this shit.”
Last year, Sardina travelled to Washington DC to protest on the floors on the Senate for health care rights, and is often brought in to discuss sex workers rights in the scope of HIV awareness and activism. “We need to be thousands strong and have our alliances with us. They can’t just support us in the dark anymore.” She looks to organisations like the Women’s March, which wavered on including sex workers in their official statement in 2017, to be even more inclusive and fight even harder for sex workers, after working with Sardina and trans activist Janet Mock to make their language more inclusive. Sardinas then spoke at the Vegas march. (Here is her speech.)
I asked Sardina why all women should care about sex workers, and about the cancellation of an event like the Desiree Conference. “The government needs to get the fuck out of our bedrooms,” she said.