Destigmatizing the Oldest Profession

Catherine Zhu

On a gloomy overcast Monday afternoon when the sunless cloudy sky still somehow made me squint, I drove to downtown Portland. I wasn’t heading for the delicious trademark food trucks, or the playful, people packed Pioneer Courthouse, or even the cute boutiques and luxurious shopping malls. No, I was heading towards an interview with a woman working to help sex workers and victims of sex trafficing. On the drive, I was having second thoughts, wondering if the building would be run down, shady, and unmanaged, except for a woman who’d be dressed in poor donated clothing, probably covered in tattoos. These aren’t stereotypes I’m proud of, but they are images I relied on given I had no prior contacts and education, much less conversations, with those in this mysterious industry. Walking to their building, I passed a homeless man on the sidewalk with a tangled gray bird nest of hair. He was holding a ragged, fraying brown blanket to his chest and dragging his feet, unsure of his destination. I remember feeling afraid, running past without meeting his eyes, and regretting letting my Dad drop me off so far from the building. 

Why was I interviewing this type of organization and what was I hoping to find there? The intriguing and complicated issue of sex work and worker rights piqued my interests when I examined the FOSTA SESTA bill while preparing for a policy debate tournament. It was a bill Trump signed in attempt to shut down the websites that facilitate sex trafficking. Beyond the fact that it was Trump who had gleefully and proudly signed the bill, I had no fundamental reason to be skeptical about the legislature. Stopping innocent children from being susceptible to abusive traffickers and disgusting exploiters? In my mind, there was no way the media and the country could turn this controversial too. Yet I was proven so very wrong.

FOSTA SESTA created an exception in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that had forbidden website publishers from being liable to the content third parties posted. After the bill, the exception was that if the third party content was ads for sex, the website publisher or provider would be held responsible. Immediately, websites banned platforms that had the possibility of advertising sex due to the fear of becoming liable if  advertisiements did pop up in the future. Reading this, I still had no idea why the pushback was so strong against this legislation. That was until I realized the vast, diverse, complicated industry of sex work. 

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Sex work is an industry that is very unkown to most people and it’s not something that people even want to dive into. Those who participate in the work aren’t always comfortable sharing and those who don’t know about it aren’t comfortable learning. Sex work can be considered the “oldest profession” yet is still the most stigmatized one. What contributes to the stigma is complicated. Historically, girls and women have been treated as commodities and property in western cultures; just as livestock and land is owned and transferred, so were females. For them, their bodies were their main worth. The double standards, contradictions, and patriarchal concepts that exist in Christianity and societal norms state that “sex is good for men, but off limits for women. Men are sexual pursuers and women are the pursued” (Deaderick 21). These traditions heavily impact modern society and take the form of modern purity culture based on the idea that the ownership of women by fathers and husbands mean women must behave in a certain way that pleases the other sex. To be independently making choices with their own body and profiting off of it is something unimaginable historically and looked down upon today. The main push back against FOSTA SESTA arose because sex workers were unable to advertise and lost a lot of their clients. People took to the streets and protested in with signs that said “sex work is work”, “slut life”, “criminalization has a body count”. Looking out into the sea of hand made poster boards, large vivid bubble letters, red lips shouting for change, it was clear that people not only wanted the FOSTA SESTA law to be removed, but also wanted sex work to be decriminalized (Locher 19). 

Fig. 1. Sex worker rights protest in Las Vegas

Prostitution is illegal in every state, and only in certain parts of Nevada has it been legalized. Different states punish differently and repeat offenses make punishments as heavy as 5 years in jail or 10,000 dollars in payments. Decriminalization is what sex workers are currently championing and I interviewed a woman who is a the forefront of this movement. Part of the Urban Justice Center, Mariah Grant is working with legislators in Oregon to make Oregon the first state to decriminalize sex work. Grant studied abroad in Cambodia and became aware of the human trafficking issues globally. She also did a lot of field work in Thailand with helping sex workers. Afterwards, she began looking in the US for anti-trafficking organizations, disappointed to find most were faith based organizations aiming to enforce their values onto victims. Now, she is aiding in legal immigration services for sex workers, granting T-visas, changing perceptions around sexuality, advocating for federal policy changes and more. Listening to her talk was like reading a passionately written wikipedia entry. Like a web page, our discussion was sprinkled with tangents and branched off discussions, from the impacts on migrants and different ethnic groups to successful and unsuccessful models in other nations. More importantly, I could tell this knowledge made her frustrated – she knew the problems existed but she couldn’t solve them all merely with that knowledge. I could feel the exasperation in her voice as she described how sex workers are always lumped together with sex trafficking victims and misunderstood. Anger even seeped in when I asked her why people think decriminalization would intensify trafficking. Sitting on the fence between trafficked victims and consensual sex workers, she could see clearly there was no correlation. It frustrated her that she couldn’t just pull society up onto that fence and have them see it clearly for themselves. She looks towards the New Zealand model in which sex work is decriminalized and trafficking hasn’t increased, where governement has very limited ability for regulation and sex workers can confidentially apply for collective dwellings. She argues that decriminalization is the only way to bring sex workers to the surface, and the surface is the only place where violence and harrassment and stigma can fade away. “Decriminalization is an anti trafficking approach”, Grant emphasized sternly. Hypocrisy is tightly woven into the status quo criminalized system. Law enforcement use their power to harrass sex workers, holding the threat of jail time like a knife to their throats. Tamika Spellman, a sex worker, told Vox, “this is something that you can find across the board with sex workers… Police take advantage of us” (North 19). Acording to Spellman, power abuse comes in the form of demands as simple as having sex workers buy police lunch, to acts as violent as physical rape. This power dynamic identically mirrors the patriarchal, self contradictory standards seen historically when the bodies of women were for men to use as they wished; men could always seek sexual pleasure openly but women couldn’t use that desire to become economically independent. Sex workers are told again and again they can’t charge for sex, but then those who are supposed to punish them for their “evils” seek out sex like any client would – just without paying.  Grant explains this is exactly why decriminalization must happen; it allows sex workers to bring up cases of sexual assault by police, violence they expierenced from clients, and even call out for help if they were unconsensually trafficked into the profession. She claims there’s no data on this supposed correlation because it is specifically the hidden nature of sex work that prevents organizations from getting good data around who has been trafficked and why. Ultimately, decriminalization is aiming to destigmatize this oldest profession. 

When I interviewed Alyssa Tolva, the Portland branch manager for the Cupcake Girls organization which provides support for sex workers and trafficking victims, she stated that the biggest problem facing sex workers is stereotypes and stigma. “It’s the number one profession that everyone has an opinion on. It’s criminalized so it’s assumed that it’s bad”, she stated with a light laugh as if the fact that society picked sex work out of the thousands of jobs in the world to look down up was ridiculous. Alyssa Tolva certainly struck me as an intensely compassionate and selfless person. I was surprised to hear that she left her corporate management job of 15 years in order to devote her full time to service work. It proved how deeply she cared about those in the sex industry. She had already been volunteering on the side while in her previous job, but she wanted to do even more. She loved that the Cupcakes Girls group worked closely and intimately with sex workers so as to provide ongoing care. What sets this organization apart from others is their continuous help and feedback for victims of violence and trafficking, whether that’s through therapy, dental help, money for groceries, even just getting nails done with their clients to boost their morale and spirit. Often times, Tolva explained, sex workers don’t even have their basic needs fulfilled, not to mention their emotional needs. I’m a bit of a pessimist so it was really hard for me to imagine someone giving up and changing her own steady source of income in order to spend so much time and effort improving the lives of others. It was only when Tolva and I finally met that her easy laugh and warm smile, which shined through even her mask, proved me wrong. She brought me up through the lobby, into the elevator and up a few floors, where she introduced me to the locker rooms and showers. She explained that a lot of their clients, whether they are sex workers or victims of trafficking, just need some self care time. Then, she brought me up to the yoga area which was a large room with a window near the top of the front wall that allowed the wavering afternoon sunlight to spill its warmth and glory onto the concrete floor. Even with the lack of decoration, furniture, and the ragged unfinished walls, there was an overwhelming sense of calmness that overcame me when I stepped inside because of the openness that the high celine created; closing my eyes, I could just feel my troubles floating up and out of me. Next, Tolva led me to the main office room where she and other volunteers met their clients. On the left wall, cubbies were filled with donated goods. A seating area was carved into the front wall to seemingly envelop whoever was inside with a big hug. Behind a curtain there was a comfy sofa and chair, which Tolva explained was where most of the counselors met with the sex workers or whomever needed help. I noticed a little stereo on the table and asked if they played music often. Tolva explained that actually it was used for generating white noise in order to give clients a greater feeling of confidentiality. I’d never heard white noise before, and when she turned it on to show me, I was surprised to realize the quiet monotone buzz easily washed a wave of serenity through me. Tolva also brought up that she did oil therapy using their signature smell- lavender lemon- to help create an even more relaxing, welcoming, peaceful environment for their clients. She explained that sensory details are very important in relating emotions to a particular setting; by creating a special smell during counseling sessions, victims of traumatic experiences can more easily recall that safe space when they feel anxious in the future. Before we left the room, Tolva showed me a sugar scrub that she often gives her clients as a take home gift. She truly wanted to give anything she could to make every aspect of her clients’ lives, even those times they aren’t with her, more relaxing and less stressful.

Fig. 2. Counseling room 

Fig. 3. Meditation and self care room 

In the end, the people that Tolva works with are just regular people. Even now I vividly remember a comment she made that any person can have experiences with sex work, or sex trafficking and just choose not to make it known to you. The person sitting next to you on the subway, or the person serving you coffee could be a trafficking victim or a worker in the sex industry. 

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It was heartwarming to see people like Tolva and Grant who dedicate their lives to provide that reliable support to people who lack it most from society, employers, sometimes even family. But, though I was convinced sex work should be decriminalized and that people should be in control of their bodies, due to the interviews and likely also because of the more liberal Portland environment I’d grown up in, sex work wasn’t destigmatized at all in my head. I had still assumed sex work was only a profession for those to fall back on without alternatives. Perhaps it’s because my own family, and many others hardly ever talk about sex. I think about awkward classes teaching sex ed and the snickers, side ways glances, supressed murmurs around students in the crowd  Most kids dread getting “the talk” from their parents and, being part of a Chinese family, emotions, much less an intimate act like sex, are not often discussed. As my parents were born in China, a country that strictly illegalizes prostitution of any form, they stood on the side that decriminalization would be a terrible idea. When I mentioned sex work decriminalization possibly occurring in Oregon, they shook their heads in disappointment, pointing at the legalization of marijuana and the decriminalization of small amounts heroin, meth, and cocaine too as indicators of Portland spiraling out of control into what would become a fully liberal chaos. Perhaps the disparity between the perspectives of my family and the opinions of my Portland environment was the real contributor in my decision to delve into sex work as a topic and find out for myself the truth. As Portlanders are at the forefront of radical feminism, Black Lives Matter movements, LGBTQ+ pride parades, we as a Chinese immigrant family try our best to understand, and accept these liberal concepts too, no matter how foreign or different they are to traditional Chinese values. Sex work is the epitome of that liberal freedom Portlanders embrace. Since Chinese families really value education and formal degrees as key indicators of success, it’s the harsh reality that “selling your body” is seen as the most degrading act. It is evidence you must merely rely on the one thing that is given to everyone at birth- a body. In a family where getting a “respectable” job means working in a cubicle, having annual fixed salaries, going to Friday happy hours with coworkers, there was no universe where we could genuinely see sex work as truly equal even as we raced to keep up with rapidly changing times. When my Mom took me into her building at the Nike Headquarters where she works as an accountant, I strolled through clean white hallways, pristine desks with potted plants and bowls of mints, mini fridges in the office kitchen with colorful bottles of La Croix and thought to myself, “this is what a profession in the adult world should look like”. These little details of my family, my world, and my privilege, shaped my assumptions of what constitutes a job. Without realizing it, I had become trapped in the same web of societal assumptions and judgements that framed sex workers as criminals. 

It was not until Tolva rhetorically questioned, “how many people are in a career or a job that they f—ing hate… because it pays the bills?”  that I began coming around to finally seeing sex work in a truly new light. Grant pointed out that there is an overemphasis on the dangers of sex work even though exploitation in agriculture, factories, even restaurants have existed for centuries and continue to hurt millions. I think about the complaints my parents often bring up at the dinner table about how lousy and unfulfilling their job in corporate America is, how mean and borderline abusive their boss is, how they are working just because it pays the bills and they’ve got no other alternatives. Why does society assume white collar and other menial jobs like waiting tables and cleaning hotels are necessarily the better option?

7-11 was investigated for tricking 50 Pakistani immigrants to work 14 hour workdays, deducting paychecks for rent money in the employer owned boarding house, even stealing substantial cash from these workers. That’s not even the worst, because 7-11 was also accused of committing identity theft in order to give workers fake identities to prevent law enforcement from figuring out they had trafficked workers. Tomato picking farm workers for Wendy’s are constantly assaulted and abused and their wages of a mere 50 cents for 32 pounds of tomatoes haven’t been raised for 30 years (“US Companies Exploiting US Workers” 21). The list frighteningly goes on and on without end, which shows that abuse, exploitation, unfairness, even the power dynamic between employees and employers in sex work parallel every other job. The only difference between sex work and other jobs is that sex work is illegal. That means the exploitation workers in this industry experience goes completely unnoticed. When the public hears of wage exploitation in migrant farmworkers, they will sigh in sympathy and shake their heads in disappointment at the inequality of America. When the public hears of sex workers – which hardly ever happens in the first place – who are facing violence, they at best will change the subject and at worst say those workers were’t doing anything good for society anyways. Spellman told Vox, “[they] tell me that I was stupid, that whatever happened to me out there, I deserved it for being out there” (North 19). This is the sad reality of a criminalized profession.

This is how decriminalization will help those sex workers. Warehouse Workers for Justice helped make lawsuits against Walmart to recover 700,000 dollars of stolen wages for workers. On a larger scale, Fair Trade USA ensures factories, farms, and fishery workers are treated ethically with a rigorous certification process that can take 6-9 months for companies to receive the Fair Trade Certified status (Shoenthal 18). These organizations are able to exist and help those who are susceptible to exploitation because those jobs are fundamentally legal. Making sex work a profession that isn’t criminalized will allow more organizaitons like the Cupcake girls and the Urban Justice Center to help workers, and more importantly relieve workers of the fear of incarceration if they do speak up about exploitation. Ultimately, isn’t the biggest issue around sex work its dangers? Grant and Tolva strongly argue that sex work is not inherently dangerous. Rather, we as a society make it dangerous through excessive punishments, victim blaming, and brushing workers’ voices under the very large rug that is the American criminal justice system. FOSTA SESTA is an example; sex workers perform their vetting process online to prevent meeting dangerous clients. Ridding of their online platforms forced them onto the streets and into more dangerous situations, whether that’s meeting violent clients or being the target of abusive pimps. 

The reason sex work should stand head to head with other jobs isn’t merely because it has the same problems and exploitations. More importantly, there are sex workers who are completely willing and happy in this profession. Ruby Rae who works in a legal brothel in Las Vegas defends, “we’re also not here because we’re desperate. I totally chose to do this. I researched it heavily and I knew what I was getting into” (Rae 18). She got into sex work as an undergraduate in her 20s because working her other full time job became too time consuming. Freedom and flexibility are two huge advantages to her job, Rae explains. And the money doesn’t hurt either, considering Rae believes she makes more as sex worker than in a corporate job. Furthermore, she feels empowered being able to command a certain price and sees herself as a business woman. Beyond the unique characteristics that benefit sex workers in the industry, there is comfort for the clients that lies not merely in physical pleasure. There’s a large misconception that sex work is only that: sex. Rebecca, who is a former non profit counselor that turned back to sex worker during COVID for the money, explains, “there’s some that want the feeling of intimacy and connection — the things that you would maybe talk to a partner about. They would want to talk about feeling stressed out or feeling sad. They wanted to feel understood” (VanDerWerff 20). During the pandemic especially, many felt lonely and needed a reliable confidant. Often, we forget that the privilege we have, whether that is through family, friends, or even coworkers, can shield us from one of the worst effects of the pandemic: isolation. Thus, the fact that the sex industry fulfills the needs of both workers and clients in ways that are irreplaceable should prove it does have a legitimate place in society. 

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A discussion around sex work certainly wouldn’t be complete without discussing the heightened discrimination around particular groups. As one volunteer quoted Flavia Dzodan on a wall in Alyssa Tolva’s office, “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit”. One of the largest groups that are especially disadvantaged is black sex workers as they are in a position where “racism and sexism intersect” (Nelson 93). The stigma around sex work makes their lives seemingly more dispensable. In 1992 Detroit, 11 black women were strangled, mutilated and dumped into trash piles while the public and the press stared onwards with no coverage and no outrage (Nelson 93). Merely because they were black, they were women, and they were prostitutes, the public had averted their attention and focused instead on the beating of a black man by four police officers. This vast disparity in treatment clearly displayed the suffocating blanket that seems to fall on all those who work in this profession, muting their sufferings. The lack of opportunities with higher education and careers for black women and girls often force them into the sex industry and, without alternatives, they really aren’t able to leave. Tolva stated straight out, “strip clubs in Portland are racist”, explaining that white folks get the best shifts and those who are colored are pushed to slow, unknown shifts and locations, denying them of the necessary income. Grant also pointed out owners of brothels are often white themselves, so they will only hire white sex workers. Even worse, the majority of strip joints and massage parlors are located in Black neighborhoods. As Vednita Nelson states, this “gives the message to white men that it is alright to solicit Black women and girls for sex – that we are all prostitutes”. She argues that the white middle class men driving around black neighborhoods today choosing girls to sleep with are the legacy of the white masters who went out into their plantations and did the exact same. It’s an eerie connection, but a true one because of the societal rules that have imposed prostitution onto a lot of black women. For instance, racism in courts creates higher fines and longer jail time for black women. Racism with probation officers and child protection workers creates barriers for black women to get custody of children. In fact, the racism and the culture barriers between black sex workers and white dominant service agencies make it hard for workers trying to leave abusive realtionships or violence to find solidarity with those counselors. These barriers can exist in the form of language, since the ghetto slang black communities use are seen as stupid and social workers can’t understand them. Barriers can also appear in the form of class causing the poorer client to feel misunderstood by the middle class service agent (Nelson 93). Ultimately, it’s systemic racism that generates the black underclass in which most black sex workers are a part of; they are born into it, lacking sufficient economic resourses at a young age. It’s unclear that mere decriminalization can resolve all of these disproportionate impacts – the zoning of brothels, the cultural disconnect with social workers, the public’s stigma- but it may at least stop the threat of jail time and prosecution for many black people.

  The rise of asian hate and xenophobia as well as prolonged societal stereotypes have also created an equally toxic and unlivable environment for asian sex workers.  After the recent Atlanta shooting, the public’s stereotyping was laid out bare for everyone to see.  For instance, in the Boulder shooting just a week later, bios of victims were highlighted in the Times and the Washington Post. In contrast, the Atlanta shooting victims received little media coverage. Because of the stigma around sex work, there was instead a vivid debate on whether or not the victims were sex workers. Cathy Park Hong notes that whether or not they were sex workers is besides the point because the public assumed these asian women were and thus treated them worse. Historically, there has been an overly sexualized stereotype of asian women. During the Korean war, there was institutionalized prostitution through comfort women in Korea that the US military had access too. As more Asian countries were occupied, Americans got increased exposure to sex workers at camp towns, and a fetishized, compliant, submissive, exotic perception of Asian women was formed (Hong 21). The Hollywood movie industry has also supported and intensified these sexualized perceptions. Today, that stereotype is so pervasive that it works to harm asian women at several levels. It first allows the public to overly generalize so that asian women working in massage parlors are simply assumed to be sex workers. “If they were not Asian women, they probably wouldn’t be viewed as sexual objects of desire, and they wouldn’t be automatically assumed to be sex workers” (Bowman 21). It then allows sex work to become a reason why their lives mean less. Because sex work is still criminalized,  law enforcement targets these vulnerable sex workers really often. Since asian women immigrants have limited choices to make ends meet, they are often looking towards this profession for help. “They want the support and the resources… not be policed, to not be surveilled” (Bowman 21). Again, like with the pervasive anti-blackness that disproportionately impacts black women, decriminalization may not resolve all the issues around asian hate, as it is due to a multitude of structural factors. At the very least, however, it can be a start to lessen the threats of jail time and begin the transition towards a less stigmatized environment for these workers. 

Interestingly, though American society seems to fetishize and hypersexualize minorities, minority communities themselves view sex work as a taboo topic, seldom wanting anything to do with it- as my own family has shown. Thus this perception that is imposed on minorities like Asians and African Americans embodies many problematic themes in the U.S., like cultural misunderstanding and heavy stereotyping. It’s a dynamic that creates a vicious cycle, because as racism folds in to sexualize minorities, more minorities detest the idea of sex work and the reputation that comes with it, forcing sex workers into a limbo where they are further ostracized by even their own communities. Vednita Nelson displays this clearly by clarifying, “Many people have said that prostitution is tolerated in the Black community. They are wrong. We do not tolerate prostitution; it has been imposed upon us”.

Though race is certainly a place where the intersection with sex work makes a certain demographic more susceptible to violence, sexuality is yet another large, often undiscussed arena of discrimination and societal ostracization. Transgender people in the sex industry face a lot of pressure as well, especially since they also have very limited amount of livlihood options. Migrant workers are often fleeing transphobic countries of origin. Others are rejected by family, rejected by unwelcoming office workplace environments, placed into homelessness and need immediate money to survive. Once in sex work, it’s also increasingly difficult to seek help as they are especially targeted by police (Fedorko and Berredo 17). Still, transgender people find a lot of solidarity in the sex industry. Decriminalization may legitimize these communities and for the first time allow them to flourish out in the open. With transgender workers, it’s especially clear that the sex work community can be an inheretly welcoming diverse home for many who are seeking that sense of acceptance. 

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Becoming aware of the intersections with racism, sexism, incarceration, and stigmatization that create a seemingly unlivable environment for sex workers, I was convinced decriminalization had to happen now, and proud that Oregon may become the first of any state to do so. I was almost ready to make my own bright, bubble lettered sign and jump out into crowds of protesting sex workers to fight with them for their rights. Yet something kept bothering me at the back of my mind. If there were so many reasons decriminalization was good, why was there so much push back? Thus, I believed I wouldn’t be doing the topic justice if I chose to look over the arguments of neo-abolitionists, the group that wants to illegalize sex work completely. 

I found that though people like Tolva and Grant view prositution as a legitimate, consensual profession, neo abolitionists equate trafficking to prostitution. Their reason is that both make violence against women profitable. Of course the assumption there is that sex work itself is violence since women are at the mercy of men. It’s not a claim Tolva and Grant would agree with on any day, but it’s not an ungrounded claim either. In San Francisco, a studied showed 62% of women in sex work were beaten and in New Zealand, contrary to Tolva and Grant’s information, prostituted individuals stated they hadn’t experienced a decrease in violence after deciminalzation, displaying the possibility that prostiution can be “inherently violent” (“Why Prostitution Shouldn’t Be Legal” 18). Norma Ramos, a social justice attorney, argues that when we talk about prostiution and trafficking, “we are talking about pre praid rape, we are talking about male privelege, the self perceived entitlement that if a man wants gratification, he has the right to access the bodies of lesser privileged women and children” (“Why Prostitution Shouldn’t Be Legal” 18). She and many others consider prostitution as gender based violence and a human rights violation in itself. Neo abolitionists believe sex work awards predators, which creates and strengthens the demand for criminal operations. So they support the Nordic model, where sex buyers are punished but not sex workers, in hopes of decreasing the market and demand, rather than increasing the market in the case of decriminalization. On the topic of stigma, neo abolitionists also point to the fact that New Zealand decriminalized prostitution in 2003 yet continued to see harassment in sex work. People in the profession still didn’t disclose their profession to healthcare professionals. A Dutch study showed that sex workers still rely on cash transfers and secrecy which proves that even a decriminalized market operates criminally. Cherie Jimenez, who considers herself a survivor of prostitution, stated that 98% of women she met were under a pimp, under a coercive relationship, and wanted to leave their profession but just didn’t know how (“Why Prostitution Shouldn’t Be Legal” 18). She herself entered sex work at age 20 and spent two decades in the industry. With a starkly different experience compared to Ruby Rae and Rebecca, she explains, “I ended pimp involved and heroin addicted … I had to hide from the pimp I left and for most of us when we leave we leave with nothing- often with a criminal record, with no legal work history, poorer than when we went in” (Jimenez 16).  Jimenez’s deeply saddening story as well as the overwhelming amount evidence from neo abolitionists forced me to again reevaluate my outlook towards sex work. Just when I had thought I’d finished readjusting my perspectives, conflicting information made me honestly unsure of what to think. It now seemed to me that decriminalizing sex work not only encourages criminal sex trafficking, but also legitamizes and invigorates a profession geared towards an inherently abusive and violent market.

As I was flipping through my phone looking at the photos of my interview with Tolva, however, it dawned on me that there was a common ground between neo regulationists and neo-abolitionists.

Fig. 4. Wall of cubbies in Cupcake Girl’s main office 

No matter which side one was on and despite their different ideas, those involved had a genuine desire to help the workers in this stigmatized industry.  The walls of Tolva’s office were covered in encouraging, kind words of well wishes, love, and solidarity. Jimenez emphasized that “the biggest obstacle for many of us is a safe place to go and heal, access to viable options and the ability to recreate new support systems” (Jimenez 16). I couldn’t help but wonder how helpful it would have been if all those years ago, Jimenez got access to Tolva’s spacious yoga room, luxurious sugar scrubs, and confidential counseling sessions with lemon lavender oil therapy.

As I sit writing this paragraph, I still feel like I have to pick a side, and that my continuously wavering attitude is a disservice to either group. Do I want sex work to be abolished since so many seem to argue it’s a violent practice? But then Tolva and Grant’s urgent voices about how transparency brings safety reverberate in my head. Then do I want sex work to be decriminalized once and for all? But then the image of Jimenez strolling the streets penniless, and violated flashes before my eyes and my own experience walking alone down the poverty stricken downtown roads reminds me how potentially dangerous this profession in practice can be. I still don’t have an answer, but I do know the one thing I support hands down is granting workers in the sex industry as much love and support that I can. Opening discussion in the media, in the public, in society as a whole, is for certain the first step towards any improvement. 

Looking back on the car ride to the interview at the me who so easily resorted to stereotypes, I realize how much education can change a person and their world views. Alyssa Tolva is everything I hadn’t pictured; warm, open, confident, supported by loving coworkers and a tight knit community. Those in the sex industry are everything I hadn’t imagined; powerful, resilient, regular people who, like everyone else, does their best to put food on the table. If anything, my own personal growth through this period has dampened my pessimism and has given me hope that someday sex workers will be seen as a equally legitimate and invaluable members of our society.

Fig. 5. Alyssa Tolva at the Cupcake Girls local office in Portland 


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