Sex Workers Organizing in Philadelphia

By Veronica Miller

Sex workers should be included in any discussion about labor rights. Culturally we stigmatize sex work in a way that other physical, emotional, and sometimes dangerous professions are not. For example, a healthcare worker deals with similar threats to their health, a therapist or other service-industry worker deals in emotional labor, and an athlete or dancer might use their body to make money but they are not stigmatized in the same way.

Some sort of ancient morality is probably driving this extremely negative view of sex work, keeping it illegal in many countries and making it difficult to organize. In order to unionize, many in the industry feel they would have to be ‘out’ about what they do—and most are not. Most sexual service providers support decriminalization (meaning that people wouldn’t be arrested for it) but do not support making it fully legal and regulated. Their belief is that any official regulation would further marginalize the most vulnerable in the industry and drive them further underground. Despite these limiting factors, there are still efforts to organize in many countries.

In Philadelphia, two organizations fighting for the rights of sex workers are the Red Umbrella Alliance and Project SAFE. The Red Umbrella Alliance (RUA) is an “all volunteer collective dedicated to ending stigma and violence towards sex workers through labor organizing, advocacy, and decriminalization.” Project SAFE is a harm reduction organization that “aims to promote social justice and human rights among folks working in the street-based sex industry in Philadelphia.” Both have Facebook pages, and both have organized events and meetings in the last few months.

Project SAFE

Sex work is criminalized in Philadelphia. Because of this, workers don’t feel safe reporting violent attacks to the police. This is compounded for black, brown, and trans street-based sex workers, who are disproportionately targeted for arrest and incarceration. Project SAFE has a ‘bad date’ hotline where workers can report incidents without going to the police. Workers can also request a ‘bad date’ sheet, which includes physical descriptions of clients who should be avoided. Project SAFE also distributes supplies like condoms and provides referrals to welfare, detox/drug treatment, housing, shelter, medical care, public assistance, mental health care, and legal aid.

An anonymous Project SAFE collective member told the Partisan that the organization “….makes me feel like someone actually gives a shit about us as people—no one knows what it’s like to be out here and to do this work; people make you feel like you’re not even human. But the days I’m here gives me strength and hope.”

Another member and volunteer at Project SAFE told us, “It is possible to be opposed to sex trafficking and in favor of sex workers’ rights at the same time. These are not conflicting issues.” Human trafficking is forced transporting and harboring of people and often includes violence and a forced labor component. The workers don’t benefit from their labor and are forced to give their earnings to their captors. When this labor is sex work it is called sex trafficking. This is very much a part of the discussion on sex workers’ rights, as the general population realizes there is a big difference between a person being violently forced into sex work and choosing it as a job.

Red Umbrella Alliance

While Project SAFE’s mission is to help the most vulnerable in the industry, the Red Umbrella Alliance includes all aspects of sex work, from ‘high-end’ escorts to club dancers, in their organization. A member of the RUA says, “I think part of what is keeping sex work illegal are anti-trafficking groups who believe that decriminalizing prostitution will lead to an increase in trafficking. However, they ignore the fact that sex workers are often in the best position to identify trafficking victims, because they know their own industry and the people who work in it. Anti-trafficking groups are supposedly about ending trafficking, but really their goal is to abolish the entire sex industry, because they often back “end demand” campaigns in entire states.” An Amnesty International report from 2015 did indeed call for global decriminalization of sex work. (

Sexual service providers who don’t work from the street have access to ways of protecting themselves by using online date-checking services and other types of background checks. But those who don’t have internet access aren’t able to use these services.

People who have access to safer methods of running their sexual service business have very different experiences from those working on the street. Not all sexual service providers hate their jobs. But the idea of organizing in a culture that both consumes their services at staggering rates and simultaneously condemns them is daunting to many. Project SAFE and the Red Umbrella Alliance are out in front of the struggle.


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