Like millions of others, Melony Hill took to social media last fall to say “me too.”
The 36-year-old Baltimore resident disclosed on Facebook and on her blog in October that she had experienced sexual violence. But rather than receiving an outpouring of support, Hill said she’s gotten messages saying that she deserved to be sexually assaulted — because she has worked in the sex industry for 20 years.
“They don’t want to include women like me,” said Hill, who has worked as a prostitute and a nude webcam model. “They’ll say we’re just whores anyway — ‘How can you sexually assault a whore?’ I’ve had that said to me multiple times.”
Sex workers are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence on the job, but have few good options to report it. Sex workers of color and transgender sex workers are thought to be at even greater risk for experiencing violence, according to the Sex Workers Outreach Project. Several consensual sex workers spoke to TIME about how they feel they have been excluded from the public conversation around #MeToo and the nationwide reckoning on workplace harassment.
When advocates use the term “sex workers,” they’re referring to people who choose to participate in a range of sex-based work, including prostitutes, escorts, strippers, pornography actors, dominatrixes, erotic massage therapists, phone sex operators and nude webcam models, among other jobs. Consensual sex work is not to be confused with sex trafficking, when people are forced into sex work by violence, threats or other forms of coercion.
Some people who sell sexual services told TIME that they have posted their #MeToo stories anonymously to avoid potential legal repercussions. Others said that they don’t want to speak out publicly because they anticipate they’ll be shamed, or not believed because they aren’t “perfect victims,” as professional dominatrix J. Leigh Brantly puts it. As Hill pointed out, there’s also the damaging notion that sex workers can’t be sexually assaulted.
These consensual sex workers say the most public voices in the #MeToo movement could be doing more to support them, noting that Oprah did not mention them in her acclaimed Golden Globes speech and that their particular issues haven’t been raised by the celebrities supporting the Time’s Up movement, unlike the issues facing farmworkers, restaurant workers and domestic workers. (Representatives for Oprah and the Time’s Up movement did not respond to TIME’s requests for comment.)
“Not all women are being supported in the #MeToo movement,” said Cris Sardina, the director of sex workers’ rights organization Desiree Alliance and a sex worker. “It’s what type of woman.”
That’s frustrating to sex workers who say they have much to contribute to the national conversation around #MeToo and that they’re uniquely qualified to lead discussions about consent.
“Sex workers are experts at negotiating consent,” said Brantly, who identifies as genderqueer and uses the pronouns “zhe” and “they.” “When you have a monetary transaction, there have to be very clear boundaries about what is going to transpire because it’s an issue of money.”
Christa Daring, who has worked in various aspects of the commercial sex industry for 10 years and serves as the president of the Sex Workers Outreach Project‘s board, agrees.
“Society has taught me to be pliable and generally pleasing to men,” said Daring, who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” “and sex work has taught me to say what I want and get what I need.”
‘That whole script is thrown out the window’
One issue clouding the conversation around sex work and #MeToo is a long-held fallacy that sex workers can’t be assaulted.
“Folks are usually totally aghast [at] the idea that a woman has somehow asked for it,” said Kristina Dolgin, a longtime sex worker and the founder and executive director of Red Light Legal, an organization that aims to help sex workers access legal representation and services. “But when it comes down to someone engaging in sex for payment, that whole script is thrown out the window.”
During the 2016 presidential campaign, adult entertainment actor Jessica Drake was one of several women to accuse Donald Trump of sexual misconduct. Trump has denied all claims. In an October 2016 interview, Trump rejected Drake’s allegation, saying: “She’s a porn star… Oh, I’m sure she’s never been grabbed before.”
Dolgin said another concerning example of how sex workers have come up in #MeToo discourse is the suggestion that “men wouldn’t rape if they seek a sex worker to get it all out.”
Sex workers say they have often been marginalized by mainstream feminist movements. Current and former sex workers, including activist Janet Mock, criticized the Women’s March organizers last year for erasing its statement of support for consensual sex workers’ rights from its national platform after it was initially released. The statement was later added back, and Mock spoke at the march in Washington.
“Women’s March has been very intentional over the past year about trying to rebuild trust with the sex worker community,” a spokesperson for the Women’s March organization said in a statement to TIME. “Sex workers rights are women’s rights, plain and simple. That’s part of our platform and it needs to be part of our movement.”
This year, Sardina and other sex workers spoke at the Women’s March’s official anniversary event in Las Vegas, and sex workers attended anniversary marches around the country.
‘There’s no HR department in the strip club’
Prostitution — whether it takes place on the street, through an escort service or online — is criminalized in most states in the U.S. Other types of sex work, including appearing in pornography and stripping, are generally legal for adults. People do sex work for a variety of reasons. Some, like Brantly, feel that the work is genuinely empowering. Others, like Hill, get into the industry for financial reasons.
Those factors are partly why the concept of consensual sex work is still controversial. Some feminists, including Gloria Steinem, believe that prostitution is rarely a choice. Steinem told TIME in an email: “I’ve listened to prostituted women and girls — and a few men — from Las Vegas to New York, from India to Australia — telling their personal stories of what made them risk body invasion by a stranger for money.” Based on those conversations, she believes most prostitutes aren’t acting entirely on their own volition. When it comes to those who say they work in the sex industry by choice, Steinem said, “I just listen and try to figure out if some part of the women’s movement might be able to help with whatever she needs.”
There are no comprehensive, up-to-date statistics on how many sex workers in the U.S. have experienced sexual violence. One systematic review of research found that globally, sex workers have a 45% to 75% chance of experiencing experiencing sexual violence on the job.
A consent violation, according to Brantly, occurs any time a client goes outside the bounds of the agreement about what is about to transpire — if a client touches a part of the body or attempts to engage in a sexual act that’s off-limits. Sometimes, clients become violent. Or they may fail to pay for services.
“There’s no HR department in the strip club… You think we’re going to go to the cops? Hell no,” said Brantly, who also works as an alternative sexuality advisor for advocacy group SOAR Institute. “You have to out yourself, and you lose your credibility — now we’re not the perfect victim anymore.”
Sex workers also say they’re reluctant to report sexual violence to the police because they could be arrested for prostitution — or assaulted.
A 2014 report submitted to the United Nations by three sex worker advocacy organizations documented a pattern of abuse by police towards sex workers that includes “assault, sexual harassment, public ‘gender searches’ (police strip searches for the purpose of viewing genitalia) and rape.” A 2016 Department of Justice report, launched after the April 2015 police custody death of Freddie Gray, found indications that the Baltimore Police Department disregarded reports of sexual assault from people in the sex industry, and some officers targeted people in the sex industry “to coerce sexual favors from them in exchange for avoiding arrest, or for cash or narcotics.” (The Baltimore Police Department did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.)
“We don’t know how big the problem is,” said Philip Stinson, a former police officer and a criminologist at Bowling Green State University who runs the Police Crime Database, which tracks state and local law enforcement arrests based on news reports. “It’s very easy to discount this as just a few bad apples, but I don’t think that’s the case… But I don’t want to paint with such a broad brush that we’re talking about every cop and every police department.”
Earlier this month, San Francisco announced a new policy barring sex workers who come forward to report experiencing or witnessing violence from being arrested, which sex workers described as the first of its kind. But consensual sex workers say that the burden is still on them to protect themselves.
Sex workers and advocates say that decriminalization of prostitution, which they have long been advocating for, is the best solution to address these issues. Others, like Steinem, advocate for what’s known as “the Nordic model,” which calls for criminalizing buying — rather than selling — sex services.
‘We’ve always had to watch our backs’
Just like “whisper networks” and the “Sh-tty Media Men” list, sex workers have their own ways to warn each other about predatory men. Sardina and Dolgin say sex workers circulate “bad date lists” and do background checks on clients. St. James Infirmary, a health and safety clinic for sex workers in San Francisco, has a “Bad Date” app where sex workers can anonymously log and look up clients who have threatened, robbed, extorted or been violent toward other sex workers in the past. Sex workers also organize around the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers every Dec. 17.
But even with such preventive measures, Hill said safety is never guaranteed.
“The best thing you can do is know some type of self-defense,” Hill said.
Briq House, a sex worker, intimacy coach and communications director at the Sex Workers Outreach Project, underscored that consensual sex workers were having these conversations long before #MeToo.
“We’ve always had to be on our toes, we’ve always had to watch our backs,” House said, “because we have no one but ourselves.”