March 3rd is International Sex Worker Rights Day, and for the first time, Boston's saluting our local escorts and prostitutes, thanks to the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP). The national organization's Boston chapter debuts its first major act since its creation in November 2009 by hosting a week of events meant to increase awareness and foster a Bostonian sex-worker community.
It's legal to identify as a sex worker, but illegal to provide, pimp or practice sex work in Massachusetts (great job, legislative compromise). So what rights do people possess when they teeter on the line of legislative existence?
Currently in Massachusetts, prostitution earns you a one-year (max) sentence and/or a $500 fine. Pimping's more criminal than sexing, though ... that'll cost you five years in jail and $5,000 in fines. Two separate bills on this year's docket would amp up the punishment for prostitution, without affecting sex workers directly. One, proposed by Rep. Gloria Fox, D-Boston, would institute a sliding scale of fines for repeat-offender johns, while the other, from Rep. Mike Rush, D-Boston, would double the punishment for pimps' second offenses.
"At this point, we're not here to write or push laws. We don't even have our own lawyer," says Melora Marshall, SWOP Boston's founder. "We want to be able to respond as a community when crimes are committed against us, and do whatever we can to reduce the rates of violence and crimes we experience." According to Marshall, violence against sex workers often goes unpunished, fostering a fractured community that doesn't believe it has any rights. SWOP Boston's events for Sex Worker Rights Day look to fix these problems "all in a week," Marshall says with a laugh.
Seeing the overlap of injustice and sex work in her STI-prevention day job, SWOP Boston's events coordinator, Daunasia Yancey, was inspired to get involved. "There is a separation where sex workers work in isolation and don't often get to talk to somebody," says Yancey. SWOP will offer seminars, self-defense workshops and free HIV testing at events like the "Safe and Sexy Social," where Yancey hopes people will "have some conversation, get tested, have a muffin and just get comfortable."