Metro Detroit individuals and organizations are spearheading efforts to decriminalize sex work, recognizing that it is not simply a matter of legality, but a crucial step toward safeguarding the well-being of the LGBTQ+ community.
The field of sex work — which encompasses dancers, escorts, online-only adult content creators, street-based sex workers and more — disproportionately affects queer people. In the interconnected landscape of oppression and economic insecurity, sex workers often find themselves at the crossroads of multiple marginalized identities. These individuals struggle not only with issues including poverty, homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse and sexual health but also face a heightened risk of violence.
For many in the LGBTQ+ community, sex work is a lifeline used for navigating the complexities of identity and self-expression. LGBTQ+ individuals, especially low-income queer people of color, experience higher rates of poverty, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Consequently, sex work, as well as decriminalization of it, is often a matter of survival.
Bree Rowe, a harm reductionist in Detroit and former sex worker, says that the conversation surrounding sex work and the queer community cannot be had without also discussing why people could have been brought to sex work in the first place.
“When we talk about survival sex work, we're looking at the largest portion of queer people because queer people are also the young folks getting kicked out of their houses, getting kicked out of school, getting fired from their jobs because they're queer — all of this pushing them to the outliers of society,” says Rowe, who is nonbinary. “When you're given two options that both suck, you're still in some way being put into a position that you might not have chosen had housing been an option, had you had access to food, had you had a family that supported your identity.”
Kevin Davis, a queer sex worker who actively works as an escort and on OnlyFans, agrees.
“Unfortunately, most of the queer community has done sex work at some point to survive, or as a form of therapy,” he says. “Sex work has always been a form of therapy for me because of things I went through as a child. It's been where I've channeled my trauma for most of my life, and it's saved my life because I've had that outlet because I couldn't afford therapy and I didn't have insurance because I'm a queer person.”
Aside from outward sex work advocacy, Davis works mainly with organizations that serve people living with HIV. He recently moved to Detroit from Dallas, Texas, currently attending Wayne State University in pursuit of a masters degree in public health. Davis found a more welcoming and accepting home in Detroit, and while the full-time move was made just weeks ago, he has been working with Detroiters to advocate for sex workers at a grassroots level for years.
One organization he has been involved with is Answer Detroit, a sex worker justice collective started by a group of sex workers in 2018 that provides mutual aid to the local sex work community. ANSWER is an acronym for A Network of Sex Workers to Excite Revolution. The mission of the organization is “to allow anyone involved in sex work to not only survive, but thrive,” and “eliminate the shame, stigma, and criminalization around sex work.”
Parker Westwood, a co-founder and working member at Answer Detroit, has been passionate about sex work advocacy from a young age, writing a paper in eighth grade about the censorship of porn. They became a sex worker at the age of 19, first as a stripper.
Westwood, who is genderqueer and uses any pronouns, says that at the start of the pandemic, Answer raised $30,000 in three months for mutual aid. For a group of people in an isolating career who often cannot ask for help, peer support is extremely important. Further resources that Answer provides include sex work safety protocols, harm reduction and clothing, as well as connecting people with housing opportunities and doing outreach to see what the community needs most.
In the future, Westwood says that Answer Detroit hopes local sex workers can share their stories more often, and do even more work specifically for the fight toward decriminalization.
While criminalization affects all sex workers, queer people can be faced with heightened hardships including compounded stigma and discrimination, increased internal struggle and higher risk of violence. With fear of being prosecuted themselves, queer sex workers cannot report the violence against them.
While Westwood has “seen some assholes,” they say they have been lucky to have not experienced violence, and when a client says something intolerant or displays toxic masculinity, they take the opportunity to dive into a conversation and talk to the person about how problematic it is.
“If you're voting, I would prefer that we talk about this right now. I've definitely lost clients to political talk, but I would rather do it than not do it,” they say. “I think I'm privileged in that I appear femme and cis, and I'm white, and that gives me a certain amount of privilege that [allows me] to take those opportunities to push those buttons.”
For Westwood, the experience of being a sex worker while queer has been mainly an internal struggle of balancing gender expression, facing the realization that the more feminine they presented, the more money they made.
Even within the sex work community, various degrees of privilege are prevalent, and Westwood feels that decriminalization would help to allow people with more privilege in the community to be able to better help others who are faced with challenges. “If we give sex workers as a group, humanity, autonomy and dignity, it's going to be a lot harder to manipulate people in that industry and it's also going to be easier for those of us who are not being manipulated to identify where something feels off and report it,” Westwood says. “It just makes the environment safer when we have the autonomy to say ‘something's not right’.”
Rowe's advocacy, which encompasses harm reduction initiatives and HIV prevention efforts, is normally tailored specifically to marginalized sex workers who use substances and are in poverty. Through needle exchange programs and sexual health advocacy, Rowe has been able to connect with sex workers who may be scared to ask for help otherwise.
“The sex workers that I work with are typically survival sex workers, sex workers using sex work as a means to an end. Most of my work is done outside of my 9 to 5 that pays me because the type of advocacy and clients that I serve are clients that don't typically have accessibility to resources,” Rowe says. “Criminalization harms those on the lower end of the spectrum, which are going to include queer people more so than the privileged sex workers simply because of the way that we're viewed as humans.”
While queer people as a whole are faced with challenges within the sex work community and due to the criminalization of sex work, trans people specifically, especially trans women of color, are faced with even more issues. In 2023, 320 transgender people were murdered, according to Forbes. Of this group, 94% were trans women, a majority of whom were Black. And many were sex workers.
Davis and Rowe emphasize that there are very few statistics about sex workers, and it is hard to trust that the number of deaths is accurate. Often, while reports of transgender people being killed don’t mention anything about sex work, people in the community know that it is often a missing piece of the story. Plus, when stories are written about sex workers, they often don’t include quotes from people who have been in the community themselves.
In the quest for sex worker rights, decriminalization is a critical step toward safety and autonomy for marginalized individuals. While fighting for decriminalization, people understanding the difference between sex work and sex trafficking is critical. The most important difference is the fact that sex trafficking is against someone’s will, while sex work is consensual. The differentiation between legalization and decriminalization is also important, as simply legalizing sex work would still create inaccessible barriers.
The path to decriminalization is filled with many obstacles though, from decades-old city ordinances to systemic biases within law enforcement.
Rowe's encounters with city officials underscore the need to align legislation with harm reduction principles. When Rowe had a syringe service van in Detroit, a client they were providing with medical attention and clean paraphernalia was arrested for possession of paraphernalia, even though the items were purchased with federal dollars. Rowe says they would often meet with the city’s chief of police at the time to urge him to alter city ordinances so issues like this could be prevented. “The money and the laws are not aligning at the same time,” Rowe says.
Westwood, Rowe and Davis emphasize the importance of federal protections for sex workers against discrimination and harassment in the workforce, advocating for policies that prioritize consent and human dignity.
Davis says he himself has been discriminated against in previous workplaces due to the fact that he is a sex worker and is publicly proud of it.
“As of right now, you can still be fired, unhoused, kicked out onto the streets with nothing, for simply claiming sex work as an identity factor, so the first step 100% would be federal protection under discrimination,” Rowe says. “It needs to be a protected status in Title V where it says that you cannot discriminate against age, race, sexuality, gender — sex work needs to be in there.”
Rowe highlights that although sex work is not necessarily an identity factor, the hardships that come along with it make it feel just as important. “I now hold ‘sex worker’ as an identity piece, not because it necessarily changes who I am in my character, but it does change my worldview; it has exposed me to a lot of things that the average person won't be exposed to,” they add. “I've been able to explore sex in ways that other people don't explore sex, which ultimately heightened my senses of sexuality and gender, which is why I'm a gender fluid person and a queer person because of the sex that I explored while I was a sex worker. That status needs to be protected federally, that you cannot discriminate employment, housing or social services like WIC and Medicaid, because of sex work.”
Organizations being public allies to sex workers is also important, Davis says, as well as including sex workers in policy-making and diving deeper into intersectionality.
“We could do better as far as including all types of sex workers and maybe not just street-based. We could use the allyship from people from OnlyFans, we could use the allyship from people that are in policy, starting to include more people into the conversation so that the conversation can expand past what it's looked like historically,” Davis says. “We need new people. We need mentorship, we need leadership and we need guidance.”
Westwood says people can help the sex work community in small ways first, such as by interrogating their own views around sex work and speaking up to eliminate stigma in their own communities.
“With sex workers, we've always been here, we've always been queer and we're not going anywhere,” Westwood says. “People can continue to fight who we are and continue to see us as inhuman, but there's so many of us and we're all so diverse and so human with our own beautiful stories. They're missing out. Anyone who wants to dehumanize us is just missing out on a whole lot of cool people who, in my view of the future, are just going to take over the world and it's going to be beautiful.”