What Sex Workers Want

The founder of a new Boston group says it’s pretty simple: more safety and less stigma.

For a couple of years, Kitty Winter had been self-employed, with no coworkers, and she was feeling kind of isolated. After talking with her therapist, the 31-year-old, who was also pursuing a neuroscience grad degree, decided that what she needed was a community of people in her line of work—people to share tips with and lean on in times of need. But because Winter’s job is having sex for money, that was easier said than done.

“If you work independently, like I do, you don’t have the time to create community,” she said. “You’re too busy trying to find new clients and meet them.”

Winter said her parents don’t know about her sex work. Neither do the people she knows at her grad school. (Winter is her professional name, chosen partly for privacy reasons—a Google search will bring up lots of Sherlock Holmes references before you get to anything about her.) And, until recently, she didn’t know many other sex workers, who have good reason to be skittish about anything that could expose them in public. For many, there’s a real danger of being arrested, and some worry about being outed to family or friends.

So Winter last February reached out to the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), a national organization that now has 27 chapters across the country. SWOP has a two-part mission: to help sex workers support each other and stay out of danger, and to advocate for decriminalization of their jobs.

There had been a SWOP chapter in Boston years before, but by the time Winter went looking it was defunct. So she worked with the national group to start it up again. So far, she said, the local chapter is still small—about four members show up to meetings regularly—but many more follow its social media accounts.

Small and brand-new as it is, SWOP Boston has been active. When the federal Department of Homeland Security raided the New York City headquarters of gay escort service RentBoy.com in August, Winter got a lawyer friend to lead an information session for worried Boston-area escorts.

“That is something that comes under harm reduction,” Winter said, “Knowing what’s going on, how to keep people safe.”

Less than a month later, Chelsea police arrested 15 people in a sting operation they called “Deflate Date.” SWOP Boston leaders gathered all the information they could to share with their members.

Simply opposing the criminalization of buying and selling sex puts the group on one side of an active debate. In August, Amnesty International formally recommended decriminalization of all sex work by adults, raising the hackles of critics including Jimmy Carter, Lena Dunham, and Gloria Steinem. Demand Abolition, a Cambridge-based anti-sex trafficking group, also strongly opposed the Amnesty recommendation, arguing that many sex workers are victims of coercion or desperation. Demand Abolition has a wide national network, and has worked with the City of Boston to target men who buy sex.

Winter said she respects many anti-trafficking activists. Some of them are former sex workers who see themselves as survivors of an exploitative system, and many focus on stopping the abuse of children.

“Trying to get minors to sell sex, it’s coercion, and they’re often in abusive situations, so of course it’s not OK,” Winter said.

But SWOP argues that keeping adult sex work illegal contributes to trafficking—because it keeps the industry more secretive, and because sex workers and clients could risk arrest if they speak up about exploitation they witness. A fair amount of academic research also points to the downside of criminalization.

Winter is careful not to downplay the problems with sex work. Even beyond the exploitation of minors or physical coercion of adults, she said, many people take on sex work because they just don’t have other choices.

“People need some way to support themselves,” she said. “People need homes. People need jobs. People need support from abusive households. People need support in rehab, things like that.”

Yet the very idea that sex work is work—sometimes dangerous and unpleasant work, other times a pretty decent way to make a living—rankles many critics of the sex work industry. And that’s where Winter, and SWOP, have a radical perspective. Winter said it bothers her when people talk about men “buying women’s bodies.”

“People who argue that are objectifying us,” she said. “Sex is not just about a body but time spent together. I don’t want to romanticize it and say every single client we’re best friends. But you’re doing stuff. You’re not just having stuff being done to you.”

Winter compares paying for sex to hiring other service workers.

“If you go to, let’s say, a store, and someone’s super nice, for example like a personal shopper,” she said, “Does that relationship negate all your other intimate relationships? No. does seeing a sex worker negate all your other sexual relationships with other people? It doesn’t.”

Winter said she started doing sex work herself a couple of years ago, after a friend introduced her to a website where men pay women to go on dates with them. The dates don’t necessarily involve sex, but they can lead to sugar daddy/sugar baby relationships—paid sex work that’s relatively long-term and involves a lot of interaction besides sex. Today, Winter said, most of the sex work she does is “sugaring,” though she also sometimes works as an escort, a more straightforward exchange of money for sex.

“I could live without doing sex work, but it just makes my life easier,” she said. “And I’m good at what I do, so the money is—I don’t want to say easy, it’s still a job, it’s still working—but I can do it.”

Which isn’t to say there aren’t differences between sex work and other jobs. Even in the relatively high-end work that Winter does there are dangers, including the risk of arrest, and clients who push for unprotected sex. For sex workers who advertise more openly on sites like backpage.com, the risks tend to be higher.

The main point of SWOP, Winter said, is to help sex workers band together for safety and against social stigmatization.

“We want to be able to do our jobs safely and not be hunted down by the police, and not have stigma for us and for our clients too,” she said. “That’s basically all we want.”

Winter said SWOP’s membership is largely made up of “full service” sex workers—people who sometimes have intercourse with clients—but it also includes some who do “cam” work, interacting with clients via webcam, as well as kink workers, who often do BSDM activities but not standard sex acts. So far it hasn’t connected with workers who solicit on the streets, partly because they typically have limited access to the internet, while SWOP is heavily dependent on social media and electronic communications. But Winter said the chapter plans to start handing out flyers and set up a PO box to better reach out to that group.

The chapter is also helping to staff a “warm line” run by the national SWOP organization. It’s a number sex workers can call if they need help or advice. Winter said some sex workers who are worried about their safety call up to make sure someone knows where they’re going for an appointment and will know if they don’t call back and check in afterwards. SWOP Boston also hopes to set up its own local version of the line.

To Winter, sex work seems to be slowly losing its stigma: She sees more visibility for sex workers paving the way for people like her to lead safer, less isolated lives.

“The more people know that, ‘Oh, you’ve done sex work and you’re a normal person,’ the more accepting it becomes,” she said.“We’re slowly making friends. We’re getting to know each other.”