This February, Ricci Joy Levy celebrated 20 years as one of the founders of Woodhull Freedom Foundation in Spring Hill, MD.
The focus of the organization’s mission includes “fighting censorship, eliminating discrimination based on gender or sexual identity or family form, and protecting the right to engage in consensual sexual activity and expression. We do this through advocacy, education, and coalition building.”
“It is my passion and my pleasure to work on the issues that we address at Woodhull,” states Levy, who initially served as Executive Director but became President and CEO several years ago.
Back in 2003, the founders were responding to the contentious dialogue arising around identity politics in the U.S. Those battles, of course, have only continued and sharpened.
“We believe that all of the identity politics and the related issues were all human rights issues and that was the voice that was largely absent in the national dialogue,” Levy says. “So we founded Woodhull as a human rights organization, and we focus on sexual freedom, so our work is all of the intersection of sexual and human rights.”
For Levy and Woodhull, sexual rights are not simply the right to have sex. They mean everything that has to do with an individual’s personal autonomy.
“I’m talking about your right to make all of the decisions about your life, your body, your relationships,” she explains. “That includes all the accompanying rights: the right to education, learning what your choices are, access to resources, to healthcare. That was the inspiration for Woodhull.”
At that time, she had been working in corporate America, with no idea what “nonprofit” actually meant but took it literally. She was also volunteering for The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.
“They had a more narrow focus, and it was totally about identity and community-based,” she recalls. “The people I was involved with there approached me with the idea of starting a new organization, and that really resonated with me.”
Since then, Levy and her team have been involved in a variety of initiatives. In Florida, they testified against a practice in the state correctional institutions that would shackle incarcerated women in labor, violating their human rights. The law changed in 2012 when Florida banned shackling pregnant inmates. However, Levy says, the practice did not.
“You’re still at the mercy of whoever is running the prison, and it’s Florida, so that says it all,” Levy comments. “But that’s the same across the country. You have to be safe enough to report a violation, and if you are incarcerated, you’re not safe.”
A couple of years later, Woodhull testified against “Prostitution Free Zones” in Washington, D.C. On October 7, 2014, the District of Columbia Council voted on a bill to repeal the District’s ban on these zones. Police were no longer using the law due to the concerns about its constitutionality as well as lack of evidence that the PFZs were effective in reducing street-based sex work in areas where the zones were declared.
Regarding another of Woodhull’s DC initiatives, Levy informs: “When same sex-marriage or marriage equality was on the ballot, DC was going to remove domestic partnerships in the misguided belief that if same-sex couples could get married, then everyone would want to get married. Our testimony and our work with the DC Council member who was proposing it assured that domestic partnerships remained an opportunity in DC.”
Since 2018, Woodhull has stood at the heart of the intense legal skirmishing over two highly controversial, harmful, and misleading bills: the House Bill named the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Senate bill named the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). Woodhull and its allies filed a lawsuit to overturn the act, believing SESTA/FOSTA, which Congress passed and President Trump signed into law in 2018, “represents the most broadly-based censorship of Internet speech in the last 20 years.”
According to Woodhull, “The law created an exemption to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for both criminal and civil complaints involving the promotion or facilitation of prostitution. Free speech and internet rights advocates and sex worker rights groups have all protested the law, which has since resulted in widespread censorship of sex-related speech.”
Last April, Woodhull along with Human Rights Watch, the Internet Archive, Alex Andrews, and Eric Koszyk filed an appeal “in its suit challenging the constitutionality of FOSTA, the controversial anti-trafficking law which devastated the sex worker community and damaged free speech more broadly.”
“We’re in the fight for the long haul,” Levy said at the time. “In the hours after its passage, we saw the dramatic chilling effect FOSTA would have on legally protected speech, as platforms, forums and resources used sex workers and others were taken offline. In the years since, through both the data and lived experiences, we’ve seen how FOSTA has endangered the lives of sex workers. With this law, the government has encouraged censorship that is otherwise prohibited by the First Amendment.”
To pass the bills, Congressional supporters had leveraged the dubious proposition that these laws would stop human trafficking and protect children.
“Because our legislators, unfortunately, are more about staying in office, nobody was going to risk voting against it, except Rand Paul and I think one other person,” Levy says.
She adds that opponents also find the laws unconstitutional because they contain a retroactive liability. That means that even though certain platforms that hosted illegal sex-work related content were shut down, the government could still pursue them for actions they took before the law passed.
Throughout, Woodhull has continued to raise awareness about the lawsuit to keep the public well informed about the issue. “SESTA/FOSTA is the reason for a lot of the censorship that you hear about now on all of the social media platforms, so that makes it pretty easy to keep this issue front and center,” Levy says.
Moreover, several years after the law was signed, a government report in June 2021 indicated that FOSTA/SESTA is rarely used.
Throughout the year, Woodhull offers a series of programs and speaker events pertaining to its key issues. One of the main programs is the Woodhull Human Rights Commissions built around a specific human rights violation. On February 18, for example, the topic was The Entrapment and Harassment of LGBTQ People, and it took place at the Creating Change Conference in San Francisco. The events feature testimony from people who have been directly impacted by the human rights violation. The recorded event is now being edited and will soon be available for viewing.
When considering all of the people and organizations involved in the movement to decriminalize and destigmatize sex work, Levy believes the sex-worker led community and organizations are doing an amazing job of raising public awareness and pushing the issue beyond the closed circles of advocates. While there is still a long way to go, she believes sex workers will eventually experience more freedom to operate.
“This community has some incredibly bright, articulate, passionate leaders,” Levy says. “There are more opportunities to move toward full decriminalization. It’s state by state, which always makes it tedious, but I’m very optimistic about that. Do I think it will happen tomorrow? I don’t. We’ll see how things move forward into 2024.”
Next Up: Russell G. Wilson, a researcher, trainer and motivational speaker in the “Transcending Surviving to Thriving” space to help people recover from and prevent human trafficking and exploitation. The Californian refuses to be defined by the sexual abuse and trauma he experienced as a child; instead, he embraces those experiences as a lens by which to view the world, a place he sees filled with hope, opportunity and possibility.