A Conversation on the Intersectional Barriers & Challenges Faced by Sex Workers in NYC

Sex work, as a form of labor, has long been stigmatized. Even in New York City, where progressivism is highly valued, the sex industry still faces barriers that jeopardize the safety of those who engage in this form of work. To better understand the challenges faced by sex workers, and in recognition of International Sex Worker’s Day on June 2nd, Sakhi Sexual Assault Program Manager Sue Malla spoke with JB, a sex worker who wishes to remain anonymous. In this interview, JB delves into the layered issues that affect her profession, including gender-based violence, sexual assault, and the patriarchal and governmental factors that continue to perpetuate the stigmatization of sex work.

Speaking with JB reveals the multiple challenges that sex workers must contend with daily. Her insights are a powerful reminder of the need for compassion and empathy towards those in the sex industry. By listening to sex workers, understanding the broader societal factors that perpetuate their marginalization, and honoring bodily autonomy, we can help shift our culture to destigmatize this work.


Sue Malla: What’s empowering to you, in your personal and professional life? 

JB: Giving love and being loved by chosen family is very empowering to me. One of the many stigmas that I grew up with about people like me is that the whole world will be against you. To have found that stigma to be completely false is very beautiful. I feel lucky to reflect on my loved ones, whether biological or chosen, and see how incredible they are and knowing that they reflect who I am as a person is empowering. 


SM: What is the most challenging narrative against the adult or sex industry that still exists in our community right now, keeping in mind we live in NYC, a fairly progressive city?

JB: Romantically: We want more than one partner or that we tend to want to be in more casual connections. It’s “incredible” how quick men assume we’re easy and down to do whatever, whenever. 

Socially: We continue to be targeted to make it more difficult to live and work safely. It’s difficult to obtain housing when your income comes from this industry. It’s difficult to find work if you do want to leave because of the gap in your resume. Jobs generally would prefer not to hire a sex worker so from my own experience I had to be creative on what I put in my resume. It feels very: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.


SM: Do those challenges amplify when you are a person of color or are a child of/yourself an immigrant?  

JB: I feel like being a person of color and being a child of an immigrant, you grow up feeling like you have to prove yourself to everyone. When you add sex work into the mix it definitely does amplify it. Because you add another layer of minority to yourself. On a personal level, it has helped me to not care to the extent of only connecting with kind and incredible people as well as opportunities. 


SM: Culturally speaking, do you find yourself with more barriers or challenges to navigate this area of work with family and friends compared to someone who is not a minority? If so, please explain.

JB: In a way, yes. I have to lie about my job and 99% of the time it’s not because I’m embarrassed of it but because I don’t want that information disclosed to just anyone for my safety. As mentioned above, you can connect with a guy romantically and then once you tell them your job (because it has reached that point in the bond you’re forming for you to be honest so you do), they can and majority do switch up on you on how they view you and treat you. And same goes with friends. Personally, I’ve had amazing people by my side that love me and don’t see me differently but I know sex workers that lost friends and family because of their friends/family feelings towards sex work. And it’s heartbreaking every time.


SM: Do you have access to physical and mental health care/support through your employers? Please describe your answer. 

JB: Whether online, or in person sex work you do not receive any of those benefits. Maybe in a very rare case a loyal client or sugar daddy would offer to pay but that is a rare thing. People in this community have to pay out of pocket if they can. 


SM: If you have access to physical or mental health care, are they trauma informed? How has your experience been gaining access to these resources?

JB: Pineapple Support is the only mental health care support for the industry that I know of. I had a personal experience with this. My mental health was not okay and I was low on my finances. Thankfully, PS accepts donations and helps connect sex workers with therapists. In a form that you fill out they ask how much you can contribute. You put how much you can, wait to be approved and then they connect you with a therapist! I had a great experience. 

As far as I know there is no physical health care. There will be moments where the community will contribute to helping someone out in the industry so they can help pay for any bills they need. We all tend to follow similar pages on IG such as SWOP_USA or DECRIMNOW where they will make posts of any gofundme’s (along with other pages). 


SM: What prevention strategies would you like to see implemented by the employers and the city to prevent harm towards adult and sex industry workers?

JB: The most important thing is for sex workers to feel safe to contact police to be protected. Unfortunately, if a sex worker feels endangered, they have to take matters into their own hands to protect themselves. Sex workers have never felt safe or protected by the police (along with other social minorities of course) The law in NYC now arrests the client if a full service sex worker and their client is caught. Which you would think is great for the sex worker but it is putting the client at risk to be jailed and also takes away clientele from the sex worker. They fail to ask sex workers what laws would be the best for them. Instead they continue to put them in danger. 


SM: What changes would you like to see in your community that could empower and protect workers in the industry?

JB: Free healthcare, unemployment benefits are the main ones. Those alone would bring some peace to the community.