Ariel Wolf is an artist and current stripper from New York City, with a degree in Fine Art from the School of Visual Art. She is also a community organizer with Red Umbrella Project, a peer led organization that aims to amplify the voices of people in the sex trades through storytelling, media, and advocacy workshops.


The RedUP gang at yet another conference. (Photo courtesy of Red Umbrella Project.)

The RedUP gang at yet another conference. (Photo courtesy of Red Umbrella Project.)

When I accepted the chance to go the International Human Trafficking, Prostitution, and Sex Work Conference in Toledo, Ohio, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The organization I work for, Red Umbrella Project, attended the conference to present our report on New York’s new Human Trafficking Intervention Courts. Just the fact that they accepted us—a sex worker-run organization—to speak threw me for a loop. When I saw that members of SWOP (Sex Worker Outreach Project) and Miriam Weeks (AKA Belle Knox) were also speaking, I wondered if this conference might prove an exception to the usual anti-sex work stance of the rescue industry. After all, “sex work” was right there in the title. Someone in charge must have understood the complex reasons people get into sex work better than to assume that everyone everywhere within the sex industry is being exploited and trafficked, right? But as a sex worker, I also knew what the rescue industry—and what seems like most of the world—thinks of me and my job.

Our organization has just completed an eight-month study on New York’s Prostitution Courts, now known as Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs). Now, in 11 jurisdictions within New York state, anyone charged with prostitution is assumed to be a victim of human trafficking and instead of being charged as a criminal can choose to do five to six sessions in a diversion program.

It felt to me like we were pretty well received. We didn’t deliver an impassioned speech about the plight of American sex workers, we instead explained the trafficking courts of our city, pointing out how they aren’t meeting the needs of the people they’d taken a seemingly more compassionate legal stance for. Our study found that the racially motivated arrest tactics of the NYPD were very visible within the courts, and that due to a shortage of capable interpreters, defendants who spoke English as a second language were progressing through the system at a third of the speed of native English speakers. We also suggested that the six weeks of therapy the diversion programs provided did little to address the needs of people doing sex work for survival. After a defendant charged with prostitution completes their mandated diversion program, they have an open record for six months, which can be a barrier when trying to find other work. They also cannot be re-arrested during this period or they have to start the process from the beginning again.There are more and more new court systems in the US that are similar to New York’s, and the idea of using “human trafficking” as a term that refers to all people in the sex trades is becoming more popular. And most of the time, the fight to end human trafficking is led by people who make no distinction between someone who is forced or coerced into the sex industry, someone who enters it by choice or curiosity, and the myriad scenarios in between the two. We saw a lot of this in the Toledo conference.

The best example might be the woman who, after finding out what Red Umbrella Project does, asked us, “But if your organization is made up of current and former sex workers, how do you keep the current ones from recruiting the former ones?” The member who she asked was floored as he tried to explain that that has never been a problem. How could you explain to someone with that view of sex work that no, our organization is not partially made up of unscrupulous hookers lurking around trying to sucker recovering trafficking victims back into a life of drug-addled degradation? We all tried to explain, taking varying tacks with forced cordiality. We explained that RedUP is made up of sex workers from all walks of life and varying circumstances, that our main goal is to give our members the tools to tell their own stories and advocate for themselves, and would you like to take a look at our literary journal of sex worker memoirs? It was exhausting, but it felt important for us to be there, no matter how much teeth-gritting it took.

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