Sex Workers Outreach Project works to end violence and discrimination against sex workers by smashing stereotypes

Photo by Robin Marquis

Melony Hill works at Impact Hub. She’s petite, but with a voice that commands a room. She founded and runs a company called Stronger Than My Struggles, which she calls a “mission-based business to help heal through the written and spoken word.”

She also did sex work for over 20 years. People know her as Sexy Sapphire. She says she has 2.6 million views on Pornhub.

At Baltimore’s observation of the International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers on Dec. 17, Hill spoke before a small crowd. She’s used to sharing her work—she’s a spoken word poet—but this was her first experience discussing sex work before an audience.

Hill said she’s seen people “ignore the cries of ‘me too’ from sex workers” and treat them as disposable.

“No one is disposable,” she said. “They deserve respect. Respect because they’re sex workers? How about respect because they’re human beings?”

As she talked about the difficulties of addressing violence against sex workers “without making all sex workers victims,” her voice wavered slightly, but she seemed confident.

The event was organized by Sex Workers Outreach Project, or SWOP, and held in a small room in Impact Hub on North Avenue, just a few short blocks from “the stroll” on Charles Street where many sex workers trick nightly.

This was the city’s third annual observation of the International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers.

Many depictions of sex workers show them living double lives, but Hill says that in her sex work, she honed skills she could transfer to other trades.

“I was always a writer, so . . . I did a bunch of erotic stories and stuff like that,” she said.

“People say [sex work] is like, easy money,” said Christa Daring, who is the community manager at Baltimore’s Impact Hub, an organizer with SWOP, and a sex worker of 10 years. “Clearly, those are people who have never done sex work . . . to do sex work full time is easily a 60 hour a week job, and most people are not getting rich doing this.”

Hill said some kinds of sex work, like BDSM, can bring in more money than others.

“For me to dominate you, spit on you, things like that, I could charge more money just because I’m a black girl because it’s so rare to find a black girl that enjoys these things and knows how to dom . . . and normally, the ones that are into BDSM are white men,” she said. “It’s always been a thrill to take a white man and take his power and to show him what he deserves.”

Monica Stevens, who runs a support group called Sistas of the T, co-founded the Baltimore Transgender Alliance, and helped organize the event, also spoke about the misconception that sex work is easy.

“[I’m a] psychologist, a mother, a companion, a playmate, all at the same time,” she said.

Sex work isn’t just hard, it can also be dangerous, especially when it’s illegal. And if you’re poor, black, or trans—as many sex workers in Baltimore are—it can be even more dangerous.

At the event, organizers noted that at least two sex workers in Baltimore were killed this year: April Ellis on March 28, and Alphonsa Watson on March 22 (though it should be noted that there was some controversy at the time of Watson’s death as to whether to identify her as a sex worker).

To honor Ellis and Watson, SWOP constructed a memorial for attendees to pay their respects, and Stevens drummed for several minutes on stage.

“If you’re black and trans, then you also have to worry about black men’s egos and their misconceptions of manhood, because it can become dangerous and life-threatening,” said Stevens. “And so I have to deal with getting ‘put in my place,’ and it usually means something violent.”

“I think that dehumanization is why we see so much violence against sex workers,” said Daring. “It’s why serial killers target sex workers, because they know that we are considered less valuable. Police frequently have referred to sex worker murders as ‘no human involved.’”

“The police add to the assault because you can’t go and report it,” Hill added. “It’s either ‘you’re lying’ . . . or ‘you deserved it.’ I’ve experienced it myself. You become a double victim, and that’s really where the pain is.”

Baltimore’s 2016 DOJ report backs this up. The report showed that the Baltimore Police Department routinely refused to investigate sexual assaults and often harassed victims of sexual assault, and that in cases of sexual assault or violence against sex workers, officers often tried “to coerce sexual favors from them in exchange for avoiding arrest.”

“My understanding is that that has not actually lessened,” said Daring. “And in particular we see a lot of arrests around trafficking, but really what that is frequently is a 17-year-old and 19-year-old working together, and the 19-year-old is going to go away for trafficking for 6, 10, 12 years depending on the circumstances.”

One of Daring’s goals in SWOP is to show people why they should not call the police on sex workers.

“If someone is loud on your stoop, calling the police is not the way to deal with that because they could potentially die from that situation or at least have their liberty deprived,” she said. “Most of those women are going to be put into men’s facilities where they’re going to potentially experience a lot more violence.”

Photo by Robin Marquis

Stevens said that even among Baltimore’s activists and organizers, some “want to lock up all of the transgender sex workers” to get them out of their neighborhoods.

“When I suggested to some of them that a better way to approach it might be to maybe create a system where sex workers might have their own housing and their own way of controlling their underground income, they’re like, ‘So do you mean a brothel?,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, why not?’ And so they’re like, ‘Well, that’s illegal.’ . . . They won’t look at a solution that may entirely solve their problem.”

The illegality of prostitution, also known as “full service sex work,” complicates conversations about how to better sex workers’ lives. Some, like Hill, believe that this work should be regulated like other forms of labor, though she did note that “the only reason we need it is for the respect from the police and protection, which is really sucky.”

Others, like Daring, think decriminalization, which would remove all penalties for engaging in sex work, is the more practical current option: “I feel like we have that we are completely unable to treat sex workers fairly and safely on a governmental level.”

Daring noted that decriminalization legislation is currently being considered in New Hampshire, California, and Washington, D.C. But Stevens pointed out that with some people, conversations about the best ways to help sex workers are often obscured by morality: “Even when you debate the ethics of it, if your ethics aren’t practical, then how ethical are they?”

Like the Trans March of Resilience in November, Baltimore’s International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers centered the need to uplift and celebrate life, rather than to mourn loss. The organizers wanted to combat the idea that sex workers should be pitied.

“It’s always this self-reinforcing stereotype, which is like, ‘Well, we would never trust a sex worker to do something else, so that’s all that they’ll ever do,’” said Daring.

It isn’t lost on Daring that these words are spoken in the place of their full-time employment, where they have a managerial position.

Stevens echoed this sentiment: “Have you ever thought about how comfortable people are thinking of us as downtrodden and hopeless and not capable of anything?”

She said when people realize that she isn’t any of those things, they react with fear.

I’m black and trans, so I’m not supposed to have any intellectual content,” she said. “So then they figure I must have grown up way out in the county somewhere, I must be from some Ivy League school, and it’s like, no, I grew up around 22nd and Greenmount.”

Stevens said that her capabilities can actually make her even more susceptible to violence.

“Part of oppression is being able to control people,” she said. “People get really scared of me because they can’t.”

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  • Melony Hill

    Thank you so much for this amazing write up

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