Informal, Criminalized, Precarious: Sex Workers Organizing Against Barriers

People in the sex trades organizing for labor and human rights face multiple and overlapping barriers. Sex worker and survivor organizers face categorical criminalization and stigmatization that dramatically impede access to funding, digital platforms, and physical space. Worker-survivor organizers often organize under surveillance by police, by clients and other members of the public, and by private corporations and institutions, making secrecy and identity-obscuring tactics a requirement of the work. These tactics in turn make base building and information-sharing difficult and sometimes even impossible. Added to that difficulty is the difficulty of organizing with a cohort that is chronically deprived of financial and social support, making precarity and trauma the norm. Nonetheless, sex workers persist, as they have for at least a century in the United States, in building movements, pursuing policy goals, and advocating against our own marginalization and exclusion. 

Informal, Criminalized, Precarious: Sex Workers Organizing Against Barriers brings organizers together in a space that simultaneously support their work and increase public understanding of a rarely-understood set of issues. Organizers will have the opportunities to share tactics with each other in both public-facing and closed community events, and will have access to an institutional platform that acknowledges the significance of their struggle, how it is interlocked with all struggles for social justice, and how sex worker movements have contributed to movement-building at large. We additionally aim to archive and publish a number of these talks and to make them accessible through closed captioning and transcription. An essential element of this acknowledgement will be financial remuneration, through the provision of honoraria, that is equitable in light of the expertise that sex worker organizers are being asked to share, expertise that has been acquired painstakingly and often at great cost. 

By necessity, sex worker organizers have instituted numerous resistance strategies in order to build movements while largely remaining unbanked, un-funded, excluded from communications and financial platforms, excluded from social services and social networks, excluded from most institutions, and unwelcome or actively policed in public spaces. Universities by contrast are understood as institutional arbiters of knowledge production and have a system for rewarding that knowledge production which is utterly distant from the system in which sex worker and survivor organizors labor.

Anti-whore stigma is deeply ingrained into society, and by extension, the Internet. It is readily found in policy, code, and automated decision-making. But a global movement of sex workers is striking back to resist the stigma-fueled ways that big tech understands and regulates sex and to imagine alternative ethical frameworks for sex, work, and sex work on the Internet. 

This webinar series will bring sex workers into conversation with designers, academics, policy-makers, regulators, media, and tech companies to draw attention to issues plaguing sex workers online, including: content moderation, deplatforming, algorithmic profiling, surveillance, discrimination, data security, access barriers, and design justice.  Because discussions of sex work always exist as part of broader conversations about criminalization and labour, this series developed out of a series of community learning circles and the cumulative knowledge and experiences of sex worker organizers. The broader conference focuses on both barriers and enablers to organizing grassroots movements for labor rights. 

Featured Speakers and facilitators include: Sinnamon Love, Daisy Ducati, Yin Q., Melissa Gira Grant, Chibundo Egwuatu, Gabriella Garcia, Zahra Stardust, Danielle Blunt, Lorelei Lee, Melissa Gira Grant, Milcah, Maitresse Madeline and femi babylon, and speakers from Whose Corner is It Anyway? More to come!

We have created an organizing toolkit that draws from collective learning during the conference.

Event Schedule (in EST):

  • Saturday, April 3, 4 – 5:30 pm: Sex Work as Work and Sex Work as Anti-Work
  • Tuesday, April 6, 12 – 1 pm : Sexual Gentrification: An Internet Sex Workers Built
  • Wednesday, April 7, 12 – 1 pm: Sex Worker Activism: Barriers, Exclusion, and Organising
  • Thursday, April 8, 12 – 1 pm: Decoding Stigma: Designing for Sex Worker Liberatory Futures
  • Thursday, April 8, 6 – 7:30 pm: Sex Work and Migration
  • Monday, April 12, 10 – 11:30 am: Sex Work in a Transnational Context
  • Thursday, April 15, 6 – 7:30pm: Decriminalization Campaigns in the U.S.

Live closed captioning and streaming to Youtube will be available during the event. Recording and transcripts will be available afterwards. If you have additional language translation, childcare, or access needs, please email for specific events you’re planning to attend and we will do our best to accommodate.

Only speakers cameras and microphones will be enabled, please use safety and security practices that work best for you.

The conference will be facilitated by:

  • The Disabled Sex Workers’ Coalition
  • Hacking//Hustling
  • Cornell Law School Gender Justice Clinic
  • Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society
  • Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

And is co-sponsored by: 

  • The Berger International Legal Studies Program
  • The Cornell Labor Law Clinic, 
  • The Dorothea S. Clarke Program in Feminist Jurisprudence,
  • Justice Catalyst,
  • the Cornell student chapters of Outlaw
  • National Lawyers Guild
  • Black Law Students Association,
  • Women’s Law Coalition
  • Asian American Feminist Collective

**** More details about each event forthcoming!

Panel 1: Sex Work as Work and Sex Work as Anti-Work

Saturday, April 3, 4 – 5:30 pm

Work and Anti-Work: What Are People in the Sex Trades Fighting For?

This panel begins from the question: Why “sex work?” rather than some other framing in fighting for the liberation of people in the sex trades? Why is trading sex called work and not, for example, anti-work? This panel will take a disability-centered approach and will feature members of the Disabled Sex Workers’ Coalition. Speakers include Maitresse Madeline and femi babylon, moderated by Lorelei Lee.

Panel 2: Sexual Gentrification: An Internet Sex Workers Built

Tuesday, April 6, 12 – 1 pm

Sexual Gentrification: An Internet Sex Workers Built

Sex workers were early adopters of new technologies, pioneering and spearheading the use of new advertising mechanisms and financial technologies, populating platforms and building up their commercial user bases. Despite the integral part sex workers played in constituting the Internet, sex workers are now being deliberately excluded from services, platforms, and economies as part of widescale digital gentrification, sexual sanitization, and displacement. This panel explores the proactive and unique role of sex workers as digital innovators and the grave consequences of sexual gentrification on sex worker safety and livelihood. Speakers include Sinnamon Love, Daisy Ducati, and Melissa Gira Grant, moderated by Danielle Blunt of Hacking//Hustling.

Panel 3: Sex Worker Activism: Barriers, Exclusion, and Organising 

Wednesday, April 7, 12 – 1 pm

Sex Worker Activism: Barriers, Exclusion and Organizing

Access to online space is a significant part of sex worker organizing, serving as an important site for community building, social support, and safety information. And yet sex workers face systemic exclusion from platforms and services through discriminatory Terms of Use, whorephobic community standards, algorithmic profiling, and the global impact of laws such as FOSTA/SESTA. Sex workers who work and organize online face risks like: stalking, doxxing, the sale of personally identifiable information,  and the misuse of data among law enforcement for the purposes of criminalization or deportation. This panel explores how sex worker activists navigate hostile tech policies and continue to fight for labor rights, decriminalization, and community survival. Speakers include Milcah, Whose Corner is it Anyway, and PLAPERTS Ecuador, moderated by Lorelei Lee.

Panel 4: Decoding Stigma: Designing for Sex Worker Liberatory Futures

Thursday, April 8, 12 – 1 pm

What would the Internet look like if it was designed by sex workers? Taking a sex worker lens to tech ethics envisions a radically different online space. Sex workers hold unique insights into the real world impacts of platform capitalism, carceral politics, digital surveillance, and sexual gentrification. Yet sex workers face significant structural barriers to inclusion in both tech and academic spaces. This panel elevates sex worker expertise and offers new ways for regulators, ethicists, policy-makers, and technologists to think about community standards, technologies of violence, data privacy, online safety, and virtual intimacies. We will explore  how we might code sex worker ethics into future design. Speakers include Chibundo Egwuatu, Yin Q, Gabriella Garcia, moderated by Zahra Stardust.

Panel 5: Sex Work and Migration

Thursday, April 8, 6 – 7:30 pm

Sex Work and Migration

A conversation about sex work and migration, the association of migrant sex work with human trafficking, the racialized tropes inherent in that association, and the increased likelihood of migrant sex work in the face of climate crisis. This panel features Elene Lam (Butterfly), Cecilia Gentili, Aneiry Zapata (BLMP), Karina Bravo (PLAPERTS), and will be moderated by TD Tso.

Panel 6: Sex Work in a Transnational Context

Monday, April 12, 10 – 11:30 am

Sex worker organizers from North America and the Global South will join in conversation across four different continents to discuss our separate and overlapping issues, and how our movement goals are and must be transnational. This panel includes speakers from India, Kenya, the Netherlands, and the U.S.: Bharati Dey (AINSW + DMSC), Grace Kamau (ASWA), Carolyne Njoroge (KESWA), and Alexis Briggs (Red Umbrella Fund). Moderated by TD Tso. 

Panel 7: Sex Work Decriminalization: Lessons from Decrim Campaigns Across the United States

Thursday, April 15, 6 – 7:30pm

This panel will be comprised of organizers from sex work decriminalization campaigns from across the country.  Speakers include representatives from Decrim MA, Women With a Vision (WWAV) New Orleans, Black Trans Nation, and more. Moderated by Lorelei Lee

Conference graphics made by Livia Foldes, with elements GIFCities and @InternetArchive.

Community agreements: 

Adapted from the Asian American Feminist Collective, Brave Space, Collective Sex, Alt*Div Hummingbirds, and BUFU By Us For Us Community Agreements.

Bring in your histories & speak from your own experience. We all come to this gathering with different lived and embodied experiences and knowledges. 

Be committed to each other’s collective learning and growing. Everyone has something to contribute to this space. While no one knows everything, together we know a lot! Be generous and kind with each other. Make room for each person’s feelings and perspectives while also understanding we are differently enmeshed in systems of power. We embrace imperfect language and stumbling through ideas, because we can’t be articulate all the time.

Be open to learning. Ask questions and be curious and humble. This is a space to speculate and imagine together. In our open-ness to learn from each other, this also means taking responsibility for ourselves and each other as we learn to account for harm and make genuine apologies.

To not share pirated work, including books, pornography, and any other art form.

To respect the diversity of our identities which, particularly for the purposes of this conference means not assuming the identities of organizers and activists for whom sharing every element of our lived experience is not always safe — which also means no deadnaming or doxxing (in other words do not share someone else’s personal information without consent)

Prioritize care for ourselves and each other. This includes taking care of our bodies when we’re thirsty and hungry; getting up to move if we need to; and/or laying and resting. 

Practice not using ableist language.

We are all on a journey towards liberation. Take care of yourself and each other.