Las Vegas sex workers say progress is lacking

Sex workers in Las Vegas want a voice.

While thousands of men, women and children gathered at the Women’s March Power to the Polls rally Jan. 21 at Sam Boyd Stadium, about 50 sex workers and their advocates gathered to show solidarity, inform the public about their work and claim their place among the marchers.

Sex workers like Alex Empire (her working name) carried red umbrellas in solidarity. They held signs with phrases like “Sex workers rights are human rights” and “We’re sex workers and we vote.”

They’re part of a growing and vocal group that says sex workers should have more rights and more support in Las Vegas, including the right to work without legal retribution and the right to protection from sexual assault.

While prostitution is legal in Nevada, it is illegal in four counties, including Clark. It is legal only in counties with populations under 700,000 and must be conducted in a licensed brothel.

Advocates and workers have been meeting more frequently and organizing chapters across the city, said Emily Coombes, a co-organizer of the sex worker contingent at the march. The nonprofit Gender Justice Nevada offers several support groups across the city, and another support group meets Tuesdays at UNLV.

A Las Vegas chapter of SWOP (Sex Workers Outreach Project) Behind Bars is coming together, too, Coombes said. The Behind Bars project provides a monthly newsletter, books, study materials and sex worker pen pals for incarcerated sex workers, as well as support upon release from jail or prison.

While the Women’s March has provided much of the momentum for advocates, sex workers have a complicated relationship with the event and organizers, Coombes said.

Last year’s Women’s March released a mission statement that included the line, “we stand in solidarity with sex workers’ rights movements.” About a week afterward, that statement was retracted and rereleased as, “We stand in solidarity with all those exploited for sex and labor.”

“After that there was a very large, vocal response from sex workers who were totally enraged,” Coombes said. The issue, she said, was that the change didn’t take into account those who choose to work in the sex industry.

“The sex workers movement believes we have our own bodily autonomy and our own agency, and we should have the right to choose (to do sex work) whenever we want to,” said Empire. “So last year our ideals were kind of (at odds).”

Only a small contingent of sex workers attended last year’s march in Washington, D.C., Coombes said. Even though the mission statement was retracted once more and more “inclusive” language was used, “the damage was done,” Coombes said.

This year, the Women’s March mission statement included, “… we stand in full solidarity with the sex workers’ rights movement. We recognize that exploitation for sex and labor in all forms is a violation of human rights.”

There’s still a lot of work to be done, advocates said.

“I have to be fair and say it’s been really cool to see the support,” Coombes said. “And to be right at the table. It’s clear the effort is there.”

Advocates also were represented in the rally’s lineup, including Cris Sardina, director of the Desiree Alliance, a sex worker-led network of resource providers.

Sex workers are part of the solution to obtaining equal rights for all women. They are not the problem, Sardina said.

“Don’t dismiss my womanhood,” Sardina said. “I am a sex worker, and I have the right to be here.”

Contact Madelyn Reese at mreese@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0497. Follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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