Night Shifts Newsletter No. 12

SJN Newsletter #12: Are there good ways to protect people who have been criminalized as sex workers?

Kate D’Adamo says she works primarily “under the bright red umbrella of sex worker rights” in her Policy & Advocacy role for Reframe Health and Justice Counseling in Baltimore, Maryland. The organization of which she is a partner is a consulting collective that stands at the intersection of harm reduction, healing justice and criminal justice reform through strategic consulting, training and technical assistance and public education.

“A lot of what we do is racial equity work for marginalized populations that engage in some kind of criminalized survival,” D’Adamo says. “So we work a lot of interventions for substance users and folks that trade sex that are experiencing some form of victimization and are impacted by the legal system in some way.”

She emphasizes the direct relationship between policing, criminalization and health concerns for sex workers because they are afraid to seek help from police or medical facilities for fear of being arrested and prosecuted. For the December 2017 issue of Global Network of Sex Work Projects, which advocates for the health and human rights of sex workers, she wrote an article about that topic: “The Impact of Criminalization on Sex Workers’ Vulnerability to HIV and Violence.”

“We know that criminalization keeps people from accessing services and resources, it increases stigma, and the impact of policing is to compromise harm reduction and health interventions,” she says. “Criminalization of sex trade workers leads to increased violence and disparate health outcomes, especially for marginalized communities.”

That, she declares, is why her stance on the criminalization of the sex trade is in line with the World Health Organization and American Medical Association, which consider criminalization a structural determinant of health for minority and marginalized communities who deserve “quality medical care delivered without bias,” according to Jack Resneck, MD, president, AMA. Policing, she believes compromises the ways people stay safe and causes disparate health outcomes and directly leads to increases in violence and sizable disparities. 

“We’re directly intentional with all of the harm reduction methods that we researched and try to teach and that the relationship between policing, criminalization and health is pretty well-documented,” she says.

Criminalized populations are more likely to experience exploitation and less likely to seek support. That truth, she clarifies, is applicable for victims of human trafficking, intimate partner violence, and drug users. When populations are criminalized, they become target populations because they become “invisible” and thus significantly more exploitable than someone who feels comfortable seeking support and doesn’t have to actively hide from law enforcement.

“Decriminalizing isn’t going to solve trafficking,” Kate says. “Trafficking is the result of exploitation and capitalism, and it’s not a direct result of this individual form of criminalization, but criminalization does create incredible vulnerability among a very stigmatized and endangered population. Decriminalization would start to close that vulnerability and it would open up a lot more avenues for folks as well as people who are being exploited and trafficked into the sex trade that are still impacted by criminalization and still face the same severe health outcomes and often have less options and resources for addressing those harms.”

D’Adamo’s background is in community organizing and advocacy work with folks that trade sex. Currently, she pursues advocacy initiatives primarily at the federal level, as well as furnishing training and technical assistance for service providers such as healthcare professionals who seek to improve the ways they serve people in the sex trade and with community-based organizations that seek to build their capacity or infrastructure.

“Sex work organizing in terms of structure can be very difficult and challenging because, as with any criminalized population, just acknowledging that they exist is criminal,” she explains. “I have a lot of very specific experience with that as well as with community-base organizations that want to do community building.”

The day we spoke, Kate was preparing to co-chair a listener group of different advocates who connect regularly to do updates on legislative, administrative actions and support people that want to engage in that work. For example, they may be sex workers who find those activities impactful and benefit from having a group to discuss ideas or team up to pursue specific projects such as researching and compiling needed information.

Kate got into the whole world of community organizing, she tells me, when she was a young adult involved in different forms of transactional sex. She never talked about it and hadn’t found anyone to discuss it with, but had reached a point where she wanted to connect to a community.

“I was really isolated and alone, so I found a community group,” she relates. “I just started volunteering to do things and be in proximity to people who could understand what I had experienced, and then I became an organizer.”

She took a few jobs working as a program administrator, assistant and advocate, and then in May 2009, she became Lead Organizer for the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA, NYC Chapter. In 2014, she moved up to the role of National Policy Advocate for the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York. She then worked for more than a year as the Program Director for Give Way to Freedom, where she developed and provided training programs for diverse audiences on human trafficking, street-based economies and substance use.

By November of 2017, Kate and two friends and colleagues with similar experiences – Justice Rivera and Sasanka Jinadasa – were ready to create a more effective approach to their work, so they came together to found Reframe Health and Justice Consulting. Rivera recently collected a group of articles, interviews, worksheets and poems about erotic labor, the rights of people who use psychoactive substances, reproductive health, and carcerality and published a book entitled Towards Bodily Autonomy: A Healing Justice Anthology Decolonizing Sex Work & Drug Use

“We had all been working at different nonprofit organizations and were not necessarily finding the solutions and the interventions that felt right,” she says. “So now we get to work with a lot of organizations. We’re all BIPOC folks. We’re all queer people, and working in service organizations and balancing lived experience and trying to find something that felt really good was tricky, and we were not finding what we had hoped to find in those spaces.” 

Among the goals Kate has for the movement to protect “people who are impacted by laws about the sex trade, people who are participating in the sex trade, and people who who have experienced violence and exploitation in the sex trade,” is to help build a labor rights framework for people in that industry.

She and her organization also work assiduously to foster and facilitate opportunities for the stakeholders in the sex trade, service-providing organizations to some extent, and their allies and advocates to have safe conversations with each other.

“A lot of the conversations that have happened have been constructed by people with a political agenda first and no actual impact from the solution or the conversation as part of their experience,” Kate says. “The people who are impacted need to be centered in the conversation. Ultimately, the people who are going to live under this regime need to be able to talk to each other unfettered by the political drive of people who aren’t part of the sex trade.

“When those conversations happen, there are a lot of different perspectives, but for the most part people generally want more access to resources; they want responsive, living wage jobs if they can get them; they want unfettered access to housing that isn’t mired in a multi-stage application. They want the ability to remove criminal records. They don’t want to be afraid of law enforcement. They want a safe place to go, and they want access to justice, but people mainly just want to improve their circumstances and have access to resources and not be afraid to screen clients, for instance. Decriminalization is an important part of all of that, and a lot of people just want to better their circumstances and aren’t interested in something that can often feel like a charged political conversation. They want stuff and they want stuff that’s going to support them.” 

The trio opened their organization in November 2017 as a collective of individuals committed to examining and addressing current sociopolitical paradigms related to race, gender, bodily autonomy, and labor that contributes to poor public health and social injustice. The three partners’ work has continued to grow as they expanded their reach and refined their activities to provide a compassionate approach to individuals and communities that have suffered because their lives and means to survive are considered criminal.

“Honestly, we’re proud that we are part of a collective that’s lasted five years, AND we still like each other!” Kate says with a laugh.

Next Up: Ashley Chesney, a survivor of sex trafficking who works as a trainer, advocate and educator in the anti-trafficking movement for Set Free Monterey Bay in California. She is the author of From the Ashes.