The one-story wood framed building, located just a few blocks from the Rhode Island State House, used to be home to the Providence Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union headquarters. The first floor of the Smith Street building looked like a neglected bookstore—worn paperbacks lined the walls, along with a red banner reading “Providence Industrial Workers of the World. Fire the Boss.” A backdoor in the union hall’s kitchen led to the basement, which served an entirely different purpose than the floor above. A dominatrix—a type of sex worker who performs the dominant role in sadomasochistic sexual services—named Madeira Darling used the basement as a ‘dungeon’ where she saw clients. As the main organizer of the Providence IWW Sex Worker Union, she was also engaged in the fight to expand rights, build solidarity among the sex worker community, and work towards the eventual decriminalization of all forms of sex work in Rhode Island.
The dungeon was decorated sparsely: a single red light bulb dangled from the low-hanging ceiling, illuminating a persian rug with various pieces of equipment scattered across it. On one side there was a Saint Andrew’s Cross, an X-frame construction with restraining points for the ankles, wrists, and waist. On the other, a small cage and a spanking bench, which Madeira made herself, were hidden under a thick green cloth. A whip and a pair of handcuffs were strewn across the rug. On the farthest wall stood a wooden bureau with various wigs and masks adorning white styrofoam heads.
As of last summer, however, the Smith Street building is neither home to Madeira’s dungeon nor the Providence IWW union. After the union collapsed, members voted to give up the union hall, which resulted in Madeira losing her dungeon space. According to Madeira, the breakdown of the Providence IWW—which was also involved in organizing incarcerated workers, retail workers, and food workers—was due to a few members moving away and a storm of internal drama. Left without a ‘dungeon’ to see clients, Madeira is now forced to conduct most of her work over the phone or web. And stripped of a space to continue organizing for sex worker rights, she spends time with other “radical sex workers” and focuses her energy on reading and writing activist theory. The IWW’s failure, according to Madeira, was not inevitable: “We could have been effective if people just behaved themselves. Radical circles in America are just a goddamn mess.”
In 1980, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law to reduce the punishment for prostitution from a felony to a misdemeanor. The amendment also created a loophole which decriminalized all forms of indoor prostitution, and made street solicitation the only form of sex work that was a criminally punishable offense. In 2009, to close this loophole, Governor Donald Carcieri signed a bill making all exchanges of sex for money illegal. The sex industry was forced underground, like it is in the majority of other states, and as a result, the sex worker community, including the IWW Sex Worker Union, began to mobilize around the legislative battle to decriminalize prostitution and demand more labor rights.
Due to a widespread stigma against prostitution as a form of legitimate labor, this movement is an uphill battle. As Madeira said to the Independent, “Voting for legalization is a very bad look according to many legislators.” In January 2018, the New Hampshire House passed a law to establish a committee analyzing the benefits of decriminalizing prostitution in their state. The law, which has yet to pass in the New Hampshire Senate, hopes to open the conversation about sex work and seek to understand different models of legalization. This type of legislative action is what some sex workers in Rhode Island are advocating for, although the political climate seems less favorable than in nearby New Hampshire.
Despite some sex workers’ focus on decriminalization as their activist platform, Madeira believes that decriminalization should only be a small part of the activism agenda. In contrast to many other forms of sex work, Madeira’s job as a dominatrix is legal, due to the lack of actual sexual contact. According to her, there are many other unacknowledged barriers in the sex work field, including the pricing of sex work—due to the isolation inherent in a criminalized and stigmatized career, sex workers have not been able to collectively determine pricing. As a result, the hourly rate for the services of a dominatrix, for example, has remained stagnant since the '90s, according to Madeira. Without a collective agreement about raising pricing among the entire sex worker community, however, all sex workers will be forced to continue working for a relatively low wage. Working conditions also must be collectively agreed upon in order to bring about real change. Madeira hopes that sex workers will formulate basic demands about working conditions, and warns that without mutual demand for reform, no individual sex worker will be able to effectively work towards a safer and more supported professional space. Even if decriminalization is an unachievable goal, Madeira hopes that bringing sex workers together will create solidarity among an atomized community.
Madeira, however, is not the only face of Rhode Island’s movement for sex workers rights—Bella Robinson is also hoping to change the way the state handles this issue. Madeira is a 27-year-old, physically striking woman who wears leather jackets, spiky high heels, and cheetah-print skirts, while Robinson is a gregarious, raspy-voiced 53-year-old woman with a long career of sex work already behind her. Madeira and Robinson both used to be involved in the IWW Sex Worker Union, but differences in management style came between the two women. Robinson now runs another sex worker union in Rhode Island, the Erotic Service Providers Union (ESPU), a local chapter within a broader national organization. She also runs the Rhode Island chapter of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), a group working against the stigma associated with sex work to lobby for more favorable legislation, which exists within the AMOR network, a coalition of Providence activist organizations.
When Madeira and Robinson talk about their desire to unionize sex workers, they aren’t using the traditional definition of a union. Working in an industry that is mostly criminalized, sex worker unions have a different set of objectives than traditional labor organizations. While traditional unions protect the rights of workers who may be subject to disenfranchisement at the hands of their bosses, the particular group of people who sex workers are mobilizing against is more unclear. As Maxine Doogan, the founder of the national Erotic Service Providers Union, explained to the Indy, the police are the first tier of ‘bosses’ because they carry out the enforcement of prostitution laws. The city officials form the second tier, as they direct the police to enforce these laws. The members of the state legislature are the third tier, as they are responsible for the enactment of legislature. Because the policing of prostitution laws varies so much in any given municipality, organizing necessarily happens on the local level. ESPU leaves it up to individual sex workers in different states to collectivize and form local chapters. In addition, ESPU provides funds for sex workers to attend labor school hosted by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), where all types of workers develop the skills of self-organization and communication. Robinson attended labor school, with the support of ESPU, and she credits that experience with her transformation into an active organizer.
ESPU does have a few programs that work towards their goals on a national level. The non-profit organization Erotic Service Providers Legal and Educational Research Project (ESPLERP), which was created by ESPU, filed a court case challenging California’s anti-prostitution law. In this case, entitled ESPLERP v. Gascon, the ESPLERP maintained that the criminalization of prostitution is a violation of the right to privacy, the right to associate, and due process. Although they were hoping to set a national precedent with this case, the lawsuit was dismissed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in January 2018. However, the ESPLERP have not given up; following the dismissal, they filed a petition for a rehearing of the case.
Robinson and Madeira do not deny that sex workers are a vulnerable population, as they are subject to violence and social stigma while also lacking social service or legal support. However they do not attribute that precarity to the job itself, or the sexual nature of their occupation, but rather to the criminalization of the industry. They both moved to Rhode Island when indoor prostitution was decriminalized in search of a safer environment. The 2009 criminalization bill spurred them to become involved in advocacy work. “Something in me snapped. I realized that this wasn’t okay,” Robinson explained to the Indy. Robinson isn’t scared of being arrested, which makes her a good candidate to advocate publicly for sex workers’ rights. As she sees it, if she were to be arrested, she would be given an even bigger platform for her advocacy.
The rest of the Rhode Island sex worker community is not so lucky. Many of the sex workers that Robinson works with are fearful of even filling out a survey or attending a meeting due to their work’s criminal status. The reluctance of sex workers to come forward due to fear of arrest is one of the main barriers to labor organizing. This silence is isolating for sex workers, and it also makes it impossible to reach decisions regarding the community’s collective demands. Elena Shih, a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University researching sex workers, commends sex workers’ efforts to demand rights, but she says that without decriminalization, “It’s hard to think of unions as a salient global category that is going to change sex workers’ rights.” Due to that, Shih believes that the first effort must be to push for decriminalization, and subsequently make demands regarding pricing, work conditions, and benefits.
Despite the pessimism of others, Madeira still has faith in sex worker unions as an effective organizing technique. According to her, criminalization, and sex workers’ resulting reluctance to come forward, does not make labor organizing impossible. “Unions themselves used to be illegal,” Madeira adds, “We often forget that unions have a history of having extremely radical aims.” Despite her lofty aims, she seems stymied by the practical barriers to organizing in a criminalized industry. And while she bemoans the fact that radical circles are very unorganized, she does not seem willing to spearhead a new unionization effort since the IWW Sex Worker Union was disbanded.
The number of prostitution arrests in Rhode Island has steadily increased in the nine years since the criminalization of the industry. This trend pushes an already vulnerable population further to the margins of society, without any method to seek help in dangerous or life-threatening situations. According to the Rhode Island Judiciary’s most recent data, from 2009 to 2015, the number of prostitution arrests per year has increased from eight to 73. Given that states and localities are given discretion regarding sex work prosecution, these numbers prove Rhode Island’s continued commitment to penalizing prostitutes, and don’t paint an optimistic picture of the likelihood that statutes will be relaxed in the future.
The national political climate is also increasingly in favor of strict statutes and similarly hostile to any efforts to decriminalize sex work. The “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA),” which passed the House easily on February 27 and will be voted on by the Senate in the next few weeks, represents the type of legislative approach that many sex workers fear. The act would make websites liable for any sex trafficking that occurs on their pages, which would result in major online crackdowns on any activity related to sex work. Due to legislators’ and law enforcement officials’ inability to distinguish between sex trafficking and voluntary sex work, many sex workers believe that SESTA will force them onto less secure and less private web pages. A 2017 study conducted by Baylor University professor Scott Cunningham found that after Craigslist established an ‘erotic services’ section, homicides of sex workers decreased. Using online pages to post advertisements allows prostitutes to not work on the streets, which leads to more dangerous situations, and allows them to correspond with and screen their clients before meeting them. According to Madeira, Robinson, and many other sex workers across the country, SESTA will drastically reduce the number of online platforms for advertising erotic services, and will ultimately endanger members of the sex work community.
Falsely conflating sex trafficking and sex work is not a new phenomenon. Many activists and policy makers on both sides of the political spectrum assert that voluntarily entering the sex work industry is a rare path, and instead, most people are trafficked. While trafficking is undoubtedly a pressing issue, anti-traffickers often refuse to believe that doing sex work is a choice that some people willingly make. While Robinson and Madeira were both led to sex work by economic necessity and tough circumstances, both women maintain agency over their own career choices.
Robinson’s path to prostitution was a convoluted one. Because Robinson’s mother was a schizophrenic and an alcoholic, Robinson was moved into foster care when she was five. In order to escape her foster home in St. Petersburg, Florida, Robinson married an abusive 41 year-old man at the age of 17. Once she was a legal adult, she escaped the marriage, and ended up living on the street. Soon after, she was picked up by a policeman in St. Petersburg and charged with prostitution, even before she had engaged in any type of sex work. While still on parole, she became a sex worker as a means to support herself. In this way, her false charge of prostitution led to a life-long career as a prostitute, two stints in jail for crack cocaine use, and an often precarious life working in a criminalized industry.
Madeira is a high school dropout from Western Massachusetts who began doing sex work in a New York City strip club. As a stripper, she didn’t like being forced to acquiesce to the client’s every desire, so she tried out dominatrix work, which she has been doing ever since.
Class dynamics are also very present in the anti-trafficking movement; often, those who oppose sex work do not come from the working class background that many sex workers do, and thus do not understand that many people do sex work as a means to survive. Madeira explains her own economic considerations to the Indy, “I’m a high school drop out, and I’m good at this work. I don’t see myself getting a straight job. I wouldn’t be good at it.” While anti-traffickers refuse to acknowledge the fact that sex workers can make a decent living without high levels of education, Robinson and Shih reiterate the imperative to listen to sex workers’ voices rather than implementing policy without awareness of the community’s needs.
Prostitution has been a contested issue since its inception. Some argue for its legalization because sex workers should have agency over their own bodies. Others argue that legalization would codify an obvious vice into law. Both Madeira and Robinson speak about sex work less like the carnal employment that many imagine it to be, and more like a form of counseling. “The sex part usually only takes ten minutes,” Robinson says. “Mostly it’s about cuddling, talking, and counseling.” She has many older clients, even some in their '80s, who come to see her out of loneliness. “I have a serious responsibility, and I have to be very careful with that responsibility,” Madeira says regarding her counseling role. She puts her clients in a place of deep vulnerability, and her services provide individuals with a cathartic experience. Madeira and Robinson don’t want to imply that sex work should only be accepted because it mostly consists of non-sexual activities; rather, they say that it is important to acknowledge the actual experience of being a sex worker. “My job is to be a therapist in thigh high boots,” Madeira says.
While therapists have the right to collectively organize, sex workers are still struggling to create a cohesive community. Regardless of the complicated dynamics playing out on the national, local, and individual level, to Madeira, it is simple: “Sex work is labor. We are workers. We should organize. What else would we do?”
KATRINA NORTHROP B’19 thinks that workers are workers.