Sex Workers at WeHo Forum Speak Out Against Stigma

Sex workers want to be treated with respect and don’t want to be considered as having a mental disorder. That was the message coming out of a panel discussion regarding sex work held Thursday night at the West Hollywood City Council chambers.

About 50 people attended the forum sponsored by the City of West Hollywood where a panel of five sex workers shared their views and answered questions about their work and lives. The panel was organized by the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) (swopla.org)

Councilmember John Duran introduced the forum saying it was time to “bring some of these issues out of the shadows into the light where we can talk about them in an open way that only happens in the city of West Hollywood.” Councilmembers Lauren Meister, Lindsey Horvath and John Heilman were also present.

The panelists reported that mental health workers tend to view sex workers as having a mental illness which causes them to choose sex work as their profession.They want to see that opinion changed and the social stigma surrounding sex work removed. 

They compared their situation today to the way homosexuality was once considered a mental disorder. Thanks to lobbying by gay activists in the early 1970s, the American Psychiatric Association changed its position and removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973.  

Additionally, the panelists reported sex workers don’t necessarily want to be “rescued” and don’t always want help to get out of that line of work. As panelist Tiffany explained, “We’re adults, we have the right to decide how to use our body.”

The panelists explained that mental health officials tend to automatically assume they need to be rescued upon learning they are sex workers and focus solely on that instead of other issues. 

As a panelist named Andrew speculated, “If sex work is destigmatized, the rescue aspect will diminish.”

Dr. Curley Bonds, the chief medical officer for Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, was among the people in the audience. During the question and answer period, Bonds stood up saying he agreed that mental health officials often view the sex work as the cause of all their problems. He offered to help change that perception, saying that as a black gay man, he had first-hand understanding of discrimination.  

While none of the panelists discussed how they got into sex work, they did explain they did it for the money or for survival needs such as food or a place to live. Panelist Avery put it simply, saying, “I like to eat.” Meanwhile, Andrew explained, “rent is expensive.” 

Panelist Lotus Lane explained she likes to have a flexible work schedule which sex work provides, which then allows her to spend time with her child. 

By being a sex worker, Avery explained that she has learned to negotiate and set boundaries with her clients, skills she now uses in other parts of her life. Lotus commented that sex work has allowed her freedom from bad relationships.

However, the panelists said doing sex work has made getting housing or finding other employment difficult. Panelist Sam (who was not present but submitted is answers via email) explained he doesn’t have the proper pay stubs for the screening process of getting housing. Likewise, Andrew detailed how there is a “big gap” on his resume that is hard to explain to potential employers.

The panelists reported they are often reluctant to tell medical doctors what they do for a living due to the stigma associated with sex work. Lotus reported she has told doctors she got a sexually transmitted disease from a cheating boyfriend rather that admit she does sex work. Meanwhile, Avery said the only doctors she feels safe enough to disclose her profession to are the doctors at the LA LGBT Center. 

The sex workers also don’t feel safe dealing with police and sheriff’s deputies and especially don’t feel protected by them. Sam detailed how deputies at the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station know who he is and what he does. Consequently, they will stop Sam for any number of reasons, often arresting him without any justification. 

Panelist Tiffany, a black/Latino transgender woman, said the thought of interacting with police is a “scary thing,” while Andrew reported he would never go to the police for any issue related to sex work. 

Bella of SWOP, who served as one of the forum’s moderators, emphasized that consensual sex is not sex trafficking. “No sex worker wants trafficking to continue,” she said. However, she noted that under the law, she could be charged with trafficking just for giving another sex worker a place to live or even giving him/her a ride to the doctor’s office.

As for the future, they want to see sex workers organize for their rights, something SWOP is already working toward. The long-term goal is to see sex work decriminalized. They note that human rights organization Amnesty International already advocates for decriminalizing sex work.

They are also against the “Nordic model” for sex trade, which makes it illegal to buy sex but does not penalize the person selling their body for the sex. As West Seegmiller, who also helped moderate the panel, put it, “We don’t want to see our clients criminalized.”

As for a short-term goal, they would like the City of West Hollywood to form a Sex Workers Advisory Board to provide input on forming policies and laws regarding sex work. They noted the city has a Transgender Advisory Board to get input from transgender people and a Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board to get input from gays and lesbians, so why not a similar advisory board for sex workers.

“Talk to the people who you’re making policy for,” said Bella. 

Several people on the panel also said they would like to see Ed Buck put on trial for his part in the death of Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean Moore. Both were black men who died of drug overdoses in Buck’s West Hollywood apartment. Panelist Sam, a black man, reported he has been a client of Buck’s and has done drugs with him. Meanwhile Andrew said he knew several other black male sex workers who Buck has hired. He said he considers Buck a serial killer who could kill again.

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Vigilant
Vigilant
2 years ago

Everyone wants to be respected but so few demonstrate respectable behavior.

Jono
Jono
2 years ago

I have to say that the majority of the responses to this article are embarrassing for a city that embraces progressive ideas and was founded by an oppressed minority. Your stated (and ignorant) biases regarding sex workers are shameful. And Trumpian in their shortsightedness. Sex work will, eventually, be legal and protected. (Assuming we make it through the current political climate.) And, dearies, this is not about John Duran regardless of how you feel or try to make it about him. This is about eliminating trafficking, protecting our vulnerable brothers and sisters, establishing communication and shedding the yoke of Puritanical… Read more »

Majority Rules
Majority Rules
2 years ago
Reply to  Jono

It may be embarrassing to you, but it is the response of the majority.

Jono
Jono
2 years ago
Reply to  Majority Rules

The day an issue is justified by it simply being held by a majority is the day we continue not learning from history. Majority opinion is not justification. See: slavery, witch-burning, the Inquisition, oppression of women, gay as mental illness… etc.

Michael Grace
Michael Grace
2 years ago

Amazing that West Hollywood sponsored this considering that the sex workers don’t pay taxes! Then if sex for sale were legalized West Hollywood could gouge the John’s at 15 percent tax like greedy WEHO does for buying weed.

I say legalize sex for sale! The only people objecting are what Madalyn Murray O’Hair called “the Christers” or organized religion which should be taxed ASAP! .

Christopher Winters
Christopher Winters
2 years ago

Education is key? Well I have an Ivy League education, how about you? Half of my “clients” turn out to be clients for my other businesses including the construction company I own. That on average is another 30k each, I’d say that makes me pretty business savvy 😉. I own two properties free and clear, travel half the year and I’m a city commissioner, thanks but I don’t need rescuing from your nimbyism. If I was In town I would have given the panel another needed voice. I’ll take advantage of the opportunity of this free advertising though. Liberals like… Read more »

Jim Nasium
Jim Nasium
2 years ago

Too much information.

Ham
Ham
2 years ago

big yawn. TMI.

Ham
Ham
2 years ago

sex worker……is NOT a profession. trying to normalize the activities of desperate people is sad.

Jim Nasium
Jim Nasium
2 years ago

Insert dumbfounded and bewildered meme here.

Vigilant
Vigilant
2 years ago

It’s hard to imagine that people would be born without integrity. Apparently some choose to give away self respect or allow it to be taken from them. An intervention seems more appropriate than a forum or as some suggest an advisory board.

What’s next, an advisory board for pedophiles because they claim to be victims of the ills of society?

Ham
Ham
2 years ago

sex workers????? are you serious?

Kate on Havenhurst
Kate on Havenhurst
2 years ago

John Diran is an embarrassment to West Hollywood. He’s nothing but a grandstander for John Duran. He’s a politically corrupt politician who should be investigated by the FBI. Along with all the developers and corporate money who use him as there street walker. The city should be spending much more time on why businesses are struggling along Sunset Boulevard. And more concerned about the residents who live here. instead of being preoccupied with everything else except running a city that is not controlled by big money. I’m sure there were more people at this event than the Mueller Report. Which… Read more »

Eric Jon Schmidt
Eric Jon Schmidt
2 years ago

No matter how the discussion started, it’s a good thing. There should be an advisory board for sex workers. Remember, for ever sex worker in West Hollywood, there are many Clients. It’s called supply and demand. Sex workers deserve the same rights and protection as any other group in West Hollywood. Let’s give this serious thought and not allow the haters to use this as an opportunity to bash John Duran, no matter what you think of him, this is not about him. All of the other Council Members where there and I respect them for that. The only one… Read more »

Rising to the absurd?
Rising to the absurd?
2 years ago

Where, then, are the advisory boards for certified public accountants, or teachers, or restaurant servers, or any other profession?

WALTER BOWLES
WALTER BOWLES
2 years ago

Those groups aren’t historically discriminated, targeted, and vulnerable because of their profession.

Eric Jon schmidt
Eric Jon schmidt
2 years ago
Reply to  WALTER BOWLES

Thank you!

Alan Strasburg
Alan Strasburg
2 years ago

This got 50 attendees, that’s 47 more than the average audience count for the reading of the Mueller Report, a/k/a WeHo Bedtime Stories. At least this one was worth the carbon cost of lighting and air conditioning the throne room.

Larry Block
Larry Block
2 years ago

Sadly this is all tainted by the fact that council member John Duran brought this item forward while he was having sex w the organizer, a sex worker, who was not paid. This is well known around the council and told to me directly by the organizer – and in turn I called Duran to explain why I was signing the petition by Elyse Eisenberg calling for his resignation. For this very reason. He uses the office for his personal benefit – he could have just paid the guy and brought the item forward without compromise.

Alan Strasburg
Alan Strasburg
2 years ago
Reply to  Larry Block

Oh, but quid pro quo is so much more fun than principled governance. Save for one who does her homework, is prepared, and makes rational decisions, I think the majority of the council are in it for something other than the magnanimity of public service. Ego, favors, political career building seem to be higher priorities than the good of the residents of West Hollywood. It’s long past time for new blood, new ideas, and a fresh start on the West Hollywood Student Council.

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