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Liara Roux, Whore of New York 1
Photography Bao Ngo, courtesy Repeater Books

Sex workers warned us about the US right – now it’s time to listen

After the overturning of Roe v Wade, we need to form a powerful coalition to protect the rights of women and marginalised communities, writes Liara Roux

As a sex worker, the US supreme court’s reversal of Roe v Wade doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s a part of a strategic, sustained erosion of people of colour, women, and queer people’s bodily autonomy and rights. The United States Constitution is set up in such a way that puts power into the hands of a few, no matter the opinions of the majority of Americans. This current clamping down on freedom is more aligned with most of the Founding Fathers’ visions – formed in the late 18th century – than any of the changes activists have fought for over the years. 

Sex workers are on the front lines of the battle for civil rights and we’ve been shouting for some time now that the far right is waging a terrifying war against anyone who falls outside the lines of white heteronormativity. The right to do sex work, much like the right to get an abortion, is a matter of bodily autonomy. Why am I criminalised for selling access to my pussy? Who does it harm? More importantly: who is it that typically turns to sex work?

Marginalised people are far more likely to turn to sex work as a means to survive. It’s a way to escape through the cracks of our regressive society. Undocumented immigrants work in massage parlours as a way to earn a decent living; trans women who work are able to afford the gender-affirming medical care that saves their lives. Both groups experience discrimination that prevents them from getting regular jobs.

The right is outlawing abortion for the same reason white women campaigned against prostitution after they realised it was a far more lucrative career for the Black women they used to exploit as slaves or servants in their homes. By foisting the skyrocketing cost of reproductive labour onto people in precarious situations, instead of subsidising childcare, the right seeks to create a continuously renewable supply of cheap labour.

America’s wealth is built on labour exploitation. Slavery is our tainted legacy. The Constitution was created to protect the interests, not the rights, of land-owning white men. In another infamous supreme court opinion, 1857’s Drew Scott vs. Sanford, Chief Justice Taney wrote: “We think [people of African ancestry]… were not intended to be included under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges [of] citizens of the United States.” Is it any surprise that an institution that put such vile, racist words to paper is now taking away the rights of women? 

Abortion puts more power into the hands of men. It makes reproductive coercion far easier. Abusive men who attempt to control their partners by getting them pregnant (read: vulnerable and reliant) are rejoicing. They already mess with birth control, take condoms off without consent, rape. Now pregnant people have one less route of escape.

Sex workers are already used to operating in legal grey areas. Abortion being outlawed terrifies me, but perhaps less than you might think; I’m already used to being an outlaw. I’m used to dealing in double speak and innuendo, encrypted chats, and clandestine exchanges of cash. I’m far from believing the illusion that the laws in this country are meant to protect me.

The right does not want to stop with abortion or sex work. As conservative justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion, he’s eager to target gay marriage and contraception rights next”

Those who are upset about this ruling would be well served to look into the recent campaign by the Christian right against sex workers. SESTA/FOSTA, a law that was passed four years ago now, in 2018, continues to decimate our community, with harmful effects that have rippled out to damage freedom of speech online in general. SESTA/FOSTA was ostensibly about curbing prostitution, but now those same activists have set their sights on porn (the bipartisan SISEA bill, introduced last year, would effectively force the majority of mainstream sites to block all sexual content).

The right does not want to stop with abortion or sex work. As conservative justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion, he’s eager to target gay marriage and contraception rights next. If we’re to have any hope of protecting these rights that the majority of Americans support, we will need to form a powerful coalition to fight back – and civilians would be well served to study the sex workers’ rights movement and its arc. Whores have been fighting for a long time now. Perhaps if we all fight together, we can beat this.

Liara Roux is a sex worker, activist and author. Her debut book, Whore Of New York, is available now via Repeater. Read our interview with Roux here.