Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the United States, and low-income women and trans people, especially those of color, have achingly high barriers in the way of their dignity and survival.
At our Project SAFE community house in Kensington, we support women and trans people who have chosen sex work as a survival strategy. Our participants help each other secure safer sex supplies, educate each other about buyers of sex who have a history of harming them (“bad dates”), and envision together the kind of support they need to keep themselves as safe and healthy as possible while they engage in sex work. For many of our workers, the trauma they experience comes from poverty, racial and gender injustice, and interactions with law enforcement — not from engaging in sex work as a means for survival.
Project SAFE is committed to helping people not only to stay safer while working in the sex industry, but also to supporting them when they want to change jobs or retire. We were thrilled when one of our members informed us that she had been offered a job on the books that would enable her to transition out of the sex industry, a change that she had been trying to make for some years. All she needed was to pass the background check. But then the call came — her offer was rescinded when her arrest record for prostitution came up. She has now returned to street-based sex work, kept from the on-the-books economy by the criminalization of her survival.
Sex workers and those who support them often have to contend with police and prosecutors promoting policies in their names, without workers’ voices. Many voices in law enforcement — including U.S. Attorney William McSwain, serving Pennsylvania’s Eastern District — push for increased prosecution of buyers of sex, also known as “johns.” But in the experience of Project SAFE’s members, prosecuting buyers means that the pool of safe clients gets far smaller, leaving mostly the violent and dangerous ones. It means that sex workers have to take more risks to find work, and makes it more difficult for sex workers to screen clients before a date.
When then-candidate Larry Krasner was running for district attorney, he reached out to us, to learn what sex workers needed to stay safe. When we told him that most sex workers in our experience were independent, not working with a “pimp,” he listened. The term “pimp” has historically been used to criminalize black men and to gloss over the complex relationships that workers have with their managers. Research shows that while these relationships can be exploitative at times, they can also offer much-needed support and safety for workers who cannot turn to the criminal justice system for help.
We designed multipage policy platforms for the DAO based on sex workers’ experiences that would lower workers’ risks of being trafficked, raped, assaulted, or abused. As members of the Coalition for a Just District Attorney, Project SAFE met many times with Krasner and his team and with others representing those for whom prosecution carries major risks, including immigration justice groups, to push for diversion and decriminalization policies that would lessen police and court interventions in workers’ lives.
As a result of that deep listening and partnership, Krasner and his attorneys have begun to decline many prostitution charges, especially if it’s a worker’s first arrest. Those with multiple arrests are sometimes referred to Dawn Court, a diversion program that mandates services for sex workers in exchange for eventually clearing their records of at least some of their prostitution charges. While many of our members have far more than three arrests under their belt, knowing that there’s an open conversation between sex workers and prosecutors means we can start to push for more policies that promote the human and labor rights of sex workers.
When police, prosecutors, and judges center sex workers’ needs, we have the power to protect ourselves from trafficking, abuse, and rape. In India, sex workers have organized with social workers and health-care and legal professionals to monitor their own industry for fraud and coercion. But when sex work as a whole is criminalized, women like Tennessee’s Cyntoia Brown are pushed to the shadows and brutally punished for defending themselves. In spite of anti-trafficking laws, women and youth of color continue to be treated as criminals by prosecutors.
Someone like William McSwain can say what he wants in the paper without fear of losing his job, family, or life. In comparison, sex workers have so much less freedom to speak, and if they do, they are at risk of harassment from the police. But Larry Krasner has built a space at his table for sex workers’ voices, to advocate for safer working conditions and a higher quality of life. It’s from that space that workers will fight for decriminalization of sex work, and to decriminalize so much else that helps people survive in Philadelphia and beyond.
Aisha Mohammed is a member of the Kensington Sex Workers’ Collective, with whom she collaborated on this piece.