Charlie, a 24-year-old attendee at Oakland’s International Whores Day march.
Image: Tracy Clark-Flory

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA—“STIGMA KILLS,” “MY BODY, NOT YOUR CHOICE,” “SEX WORK ≠ TRAFFICKING”—those were just a few of the signs pumped in the air as over 300 sex workers and allies gathered Saturday in downtown Oakland for International Whores Day, a global celebration of sex workers’ rights. This long-standing annual event was injected with renewed intensity this year thanks to outrage over FOSTA, the country’s new “anti-trafficking” law. Several marchers with years of activist experience said the turnout was unprecedented for a sex worker rally.

“This is more sex workers than I’ve ever seen in one place ever,” said Pele, a 42-year-old dominatrix who has been a sex worker for more than 20 years. “We’re out in the street and loud and proud—I’ve never seen this.”

Large crowds converged at several related events across the country—including in Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C.—where attendees wore the designated color of red and called for the decriminalization of sex work. But, at least in Oakland—where several marchers wore glittery red triangles of fabric over their noses and mouths to conceal their identities, given the risks to sex workers who publicly out themselves—anti-FOSTA sentiments took center stage.

FOSTA—known in full as the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and sometimes referred to as SESTA or FOSTA-SESTA—broadly holds online platforms responsible for any content deemed to be related to sex trafficking. The bill, which was signed by President Donald Trump in April and conflates sex work and sex trafficking, has led to the shutdown of several online platforms that sex workers formerly used to screen clients, safely advertise from their own homes, and communicate with each other. The law—along with the separate shutdown of Backpage—is already having a devastating impact by damaging sex workers’ ability to make a living and exposing them to greater risk. In some cases, it’s pushing people to do riskier street-based work.

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At the beginning of the rally at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, a handful of speakers—including an Oakland mayoral candidate and a representative from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights non-profit that opposed FOSTA—climbed onto the back of a parked pickup truck outfitted with speakers and railed against the law. Later, the crowd marched through the streets chanting “FOSTA won’t fix shit” and holding signs reading “END SESTA” and “#FUCK FOSTA,” all while local store owners poked their heads out of doorways to gawk.

Charlie, a 24-year-old who started out doing street-based sex work before going online, spoke directly to the protection the internet used to offer. “My personal experience before I used the internet as a platform for sex work was getting assaulted constantly, getting kidnapped, getting raped, getting drugged,” said Charlie. Those dangers were “almost eliminated completely” by moving online.

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Now FOSTA has changed all that and Charlie, whose rent just went up, is wondering whether a return to street-based work will be necessary: “What’s going to happen to me, to us?”

Pele, who was joined by both her 4-year-old and squirming 15-month-old strapped in a carrier to her chest, said she is in the privileged position of having enough regular clients that she can rely on those connections without having to advertise—at least for now. She went so far as to take down her dominatrix website for fear that she might be targeted under FOSTA. “What I could not afford to do was stick my neck out when I have two kids,” she said.

But, while FOSTA was the topic of the day, there were also more traditional arguments about sex work on display. “I was born in this body, I will live in this body until I die in this body,” said Lorrett, a woman in her 70s who has been a sex worker for more than 50 years. “It is my goddamn body.” She added, “Sex work yielded me many friends, yielded me a spectacularly wonderful husband who stands behind me, yielded me a sense of myself as someone who has value and worth, and ain’t no so-and-so going to take that away from me.” Then her gray-haired husband, whom she met decades ago when he was a client of hers at a local massage parlor, came up and gave her a big hug and kiss.

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The rally’s focus on FOSTA shows just how dramatically the legislation has shifted the sex work debate. “Before, we were fighting for decriminalization—and that would have made things better,” said Hunter Leight, a 32-year-old who uses they/them pronouns and has done sex work organizing for a decade. “But now people are feeling an immediate impact to their finances.” The upshot is that the rally mobilized hundreds of sex workers—in the past, they said, events like this might have drawn only 15 people. “People are hungry, people have lost their screening tools,” said Hunter. “They’re coming out because they’re desperate, they’re stressed, and they’re under attack.”