There is a the global push in the sex workers’ rights movement for full decriminalization of all consensual sex work.
There is a the global push in the sex workers’ rights movement for full decriminalization of all consensual sex work. Credit: Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash / Unsplash

The pursuit of social justice and equality takes years, decades even. Civil rights, voting rights, LGBTQIA2S+ rights, reproductive freedom — all these important and often intertwined causes took many years, and a lot of dedication to advance.

The struggle for sex workers’ rights is no different.

It takes time to change the “hearts and minds” of the public, and even more time to convince politicians to take up your cause. Activists and community organizers are, for the most part, folks from the marginalized communities they seek to represent. Burn out is high when there is no end in sight. 

Sex workers have been through a lot these past couple of years. I’ve written about the lack of access to pandemic supports, and the need for decriminalization before. Today, I want to take a step back from the grind, and talk about some successful, non-criminal law litigation. There are a couple of cases that can bring us all hope while we’re toiling away at advancing rights for sex workers. 

In a recent case, Nicole Gililland was awarded a $1.7 million settlement after being pushed out of Southwestern Oregon Community College (SWOCC) nursing school by professors and administration once they found out about her past as a porn performer. One professor told her that “unclassy women shouldn’t be nurses.” She won because the jury found that her mistreatment was due to her being discriminated based on her sex. The logic was that if most sex workers are women, discriminating against sex workers is effectively discriminating based on sex.  

There is more to the legal aspects of this case. This is an American case and it touched upon Title IX and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which deals with discrimination based on sex/gender in education and employment. But I’m not a lawyer, and I want to focus more on the human aspect of the case. If you want to learn more about the legal analysis, Derek Demeri, who is a lawyer and and sex work advocate with the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, has you covered.

Nicole Gililland lost more than just an opportunity to become a nurse when she began her litigation against SWOCC. The stigma against sex workers in her small Oregon town was so great, she suffered from mental health problems, lost her housing, and had to fight to keep custody of her children. It’s absurd that a person who is simply trying to get an education should lose so much because once upon a time, they were a porn performer.

Many of my friends transitioned or are transitioning from sex work into jobs in health care. Sex workers know how to interact with all sorts of people, are generally empathetic, good at maintaining healthy boundaries, and aren’t afraid of hard work or weird hours. Also, transitioning to health care makes it easier to explain the gaps in your resume. You get the education required and a blank slate. Nobody asks too many questions about what you used to do, at least in theory. 

Gililland’s struggle is a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. On one hand, there are people who tell sex workers to get a real job, or other hateful comments. On the other hand, these same people don’t let you forget your unconventional past. In the meantime, you’re trying your best to survive under capitalism; hence the choice to do sex work in the first place. 

Gililland said that she started her litigation because: 

“Stigma tells sex workers that they’re not worth anything, and I want my lawsuit to be a wake-up call… This is what I want it to illuminate as if on a neon billboard: be careful who you treat like shit.” 

I’m thrilled she won a decent settlement for all the pain the school caused her and her children. And I am super happy that she’s on her way to becoming a lawyer, and wish her a successful and rewarding career. 

It’s important to note that some forms of sex work, such as porn, camming, stripping are less criminalized and stigmatized than others, such as domination or full service sex work. The more “legal” your sex work job is, the easier it is to seek remedy against injustice, at least for now. The system is designed this way. Hence the global push in the sex workers’ rights movement for full decriminalization of all consensual sex work. 

In Canada, with our Nordic model, selling sex is legal, but purchasing sex is not. So what happens if you don’t get paid? If you were selling televisions, or giving someone a haircut and didn’t get paid, you can get a person charged with theft, or seek remedy in small claims court. But how does it work when the item or service in question is illegal to buy?

One sex worker in Nova Scotia, who goes by the name Brogan, is taking a client to small claims court later this month for non-payment. I’ll be following her case closely and rooting for her. 

Another question stems from our current Kafkaesque sex work laws. If you consent to have sex with someone, and money is part of initial agreement, what happens when sex has been had but money isn’t paid? I’m not trying to put words into Brogan’s mouth, or turn her into a victim, when in fact she’s taking a courageous stand to stick up for herself and help other sex workers with similar problems down the line with her legal action. What I’m trying to do with this rhetorical question is to point out that our lawmakers are out of touch when putting forth legislation that disproportionally affects already marginalized communities, such as sex workers.  

I wish for Brogan the same outcome that Gililland got: a decent payout that comes with a side of warning — be careful who you treat like shit. 

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Natasha Darling

Natasha Darling is a pseudonym to protect the author’s true identity from the stigma and harm associated with her sex work. Darling is a stripper and community organiser based in Toronto. Plant...