Last Saturday, I sat on the floor of a queer art space in Ridgewood, watching a Democratic congressional candidate make his case to an audience of two hundred people who were, for the most part, sex workers. It felt a bit like something historic was taking place.
I had been involved in sex-worker activism on and off for over a decade, starting back when I was a naked model inking illustrations for the dearly departed $pread Magazine, and I knew all the usual modes politicians usually used to address this community. At best, condescending pity. More often, sneers and condemnation. Yet here was Suraj Patel, running for New York’s Twelfth Congressional District, talking to a roomful of sex workers as if they had votes he had to win.
Patel’s pitch is a promise to fight SESTA and FOSTA, two bills that radically restrict online adult expression in the guise of stopping trafficking. These two acronyms blaze a trail of fear through the sex-worker community. The bills have shut down websites that sex workers used for safety and mutual aid. Workers who once found clients online have been forced to turn to the streets and all their accompanying violence. In the panel that began the event, Cecilia Gentili, a trans Latina activist, swallowed tears as she told the audience, “A girl was fucking stabbed five times. She couldn’t go to the hospital. This is what SESTA has done to our community.”
As crises so often do, SESTA and FOSTA provoked unprecedented activism: art shows, protests, performances, fund-raisers. There was powerful, beautiful work that made me proud to belong to this harlot mafia. (I had too many friends of too many years in that room, friends who I’ve drank with till too many bleary dawns, to fake some sterile sort of distance.) Gentili told me she’d always dreamed of seeing the community come together like this—that unity felt even more substantial than the frequency with which Patel said the right things. He didn’t, as people had hoped, promise the full decriminalization of sex work, but he talked like someone who had listened to sex workers, and who could try, in reformist ways, to chip away at stigma and police repression. With the exception of Chelsea Manning, he is the only Democratic candidate I know of who has offered this much.
After the panelists spoke, and after Patel took questions, the moderator, the sex-worker activist Lola Balcon, held her mic to the audience. “Repeat after me. Sex workers vote. And they’re voting for Suraj Patel.”
Molly Crabapple is an artist and author of the memoir Drawing Blood. Her most recent book, Brothers of the Gun, cowritten with the Syrian war journalist Marwan Hisham, was published in May 2018.