Commentary: Our Work to Decriminalize Sex Work in Minneapolis

The Sex Workers Outreach Project in Minneapolis (SWOP-Mpls) is the city’s local chapter of the nation’s largest social justice organization fighting for the rights and liberation of sex workers. As a grassroots organization, SWOP was founded by sex workers and those with lived experience in the sex trade to firmly claim space for and support sex workers. Over the last six years of SWOP’s presence in community, the goals have shifted towards making political gains in labor practices and health codes for workers in the stripping industry, and fighting for the full decriminalization of sex work. 

I became involved with SWOP-Mpls in 2017, as a person with lived experience in sex work, through the process advisory group to put forth the state’s Safe Harbor for All Strategic Plan. Safe Harbor for All is a plan to expand the provisions previously set only for youth that would stop the state from legally or criminally penalizing adults engaged in commercial sex who are seeking services such as housing support, violence intervention, and health care services. Across the spectrum of work in the sex trade, between both sex workers participating in consensual labor and survivors of trafficking, advocates of affected communities were outspoken towards ending the criminalization of commercial sex. Through this work and connection with other sex workers, I developed a personal passion for ending the criminalization of all sex workers as a step towards honoring the humanity of all people who have been impacted by the sex trade. 

For many people who face barriers to traditional work due to structural racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, poverty, and the lived intersections of these dynamics, sex work needs to remain an accessible and viable form of work. Rather than litigating the reasons why a person might choose sex work or pushing them into more normative forms of work, our collective’s response is one of harm reduction. In our on-the-ground outreach, we supply street-based sex workers with safer sex kits because they might not carry protection with them for fear that condoms will be used as evidence by the police that they are intending to commit a crime. 

In our policy advocacy, we advocate for the full decriminalization of sex work in Minnesota. A first step in this process is to reduce the level of interactions police and the state have with sex workers. Laws in Minneapolis against “loitering with intent to commit prostitution” and actions like police stings in strip clubs and massage parlors only put sex workers in more situations of harm, surveillance, and outright violence. In 2015, Minneapolis City Council repealed the “lurking and spitting” ordinance — the ACLU found that this law was used to target Black people 8.7 times more than white people and Native people 8.6 times more than white people. The loitering ordinance, which is split into the categories “with intent to commit prostitution” and “with intent to sell narcotics” is a similar racial justice issue.

Using MPD data from 2018 to 2021, our research found that every individual arrested arrested for “loitering with intent to commit prostitution” was identified as Black.

In our work to decriminalize sex work, we are galvanizing our community towards repealing all of the lower level offenses that are used against sex workers. Laws that criminalize poverty such as panhandling, and any charge with the qualifier “with intent” are based on officer bias and lead to widening the gaps of racial and income inequality in our community.

Our collective’s goals have also been shaped by a rising tide of sex worker activism across the country, and the abolitionist activism within Minneapolis following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. As a community that faces criminalization, detainment, state violence, and societal stigmatization, sex workers have historically led the way protecting one another without the intervention of the state. In New York and California, sex workers and other community activists fought to repeal loitering laws because they’ve been proven to harass and target people of color, specifically trans women of color; through work in these communities, loitering laws are nationally colloquially known as “Walking While Trans.” In Minneapolis, we are making a similar case as to how the full decriminalization of sex work is an issue that encompasses racial justice, bodily autonomy, public joy, community safety, and LGBTQ+ rights.

At this time, we are building a broad coalition with organizers across movement issues within Minneapolis, including with survivors of trafficking. Trafficking will remain illegal if sex work is decriminalized, but with more steps towards fully decriminalizing sex work, sex workers won’t get caught in the broadest understandings of trafficking law and will be able to seek support from resources deemed valuable through their own agency when they experience violence. 

For so long, violence against sex workers has been unnamed and elided from public life. Sex work has been a part of Minneapolis’s story since its origins — along the riverfront, with the advances of milling industries, brothels flourished and provided the city with revenue from municipal fines. The punitive attitude towards sex work is a relatively new phenomenon and is steeped in prejudiced social attitudes about any community that is non-normative.

Our work comes from the heart. Each year, we hold a vigil for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers on December 17. At this vigil, we name sex workers who have been lost to violence in the last year. Currently, in 2023, a number of those lost are victims of two known serial killers who targeted sex workers. Making space for the grief in our community is hard and important work, and a foundation for our policy advocacy and outreach. Our work spans the past, the present, and the future that we are building together.

aegor ray is an organizer with DecrimMN, the campaign towards the full decriminalization of sex work in Minneapolis. Read more from the resources SWOP is looking to in support of full decriminalization of sex work (sellers and buyers) – rather than partial decriminalization of sellers.

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