Share story

Changing the narrative about sex work and battling the stigma associated with the adult industry are among the primary goals behind a series of events that started Friday and culminate Wednesday with a march to Westlake Park to mark the annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

Armed with a shoestring budget and the verve of a core group of volunteers, the Seattle chapter of the Sex Worker Outreach Project — known as SWOP — is holding a three-day sex-work symposium to educate the public about consensual sex work, advocate for sex-worker rights and build community among a diverse group of practitioners.

“I hope people who have heard that all sex workers are victims and all sex work is exploitative will see there are other experiences that are drastically different from what they’ve known,” said Savannah Sly, a 30-year-old retired dominatrix and a lead organizer of the symposium. “I hope people will see the adult industry is vast, complex, diverse and not inherently exploitative.”

The Seattle Times agreed to identify Sly and other sex workers by the aliases many of them use to protect their privacy and safety. Some say their work can make them targets for stalking or harassment — or attention from police.

Most Read Local Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“Rights, not rescue” has become the mantra of a movement aimed at providing a counterpoint to the national discussion focused on prostitution and sex-trafficking.

While SWOP doesn’t deny that violence and exploitation, especially of minors, exist in the sex industry, Sly and others say many adult sex workers are engaging in consensual transactions.

Escorts, porn performers, strippers, erotic-massage providers, phone-sex operators, professional dominatrixes and fetish providers all fall under the red umbrella, an international symbol for those involved in the sex industry, Sly said.

“As somebody very leery of using the criminal-justice system to curb human behavior when it comes to sex, I find this very disconcerting that we want to punish men for having sex, especially when the women are consenting and wanting money,” said Melinda Chateauvert, a retired history professor and the author of “Sex Workers Unite!”

Asked about women who turn their earnings over to a pimp, Chateauvert, who will be speaking at a couple of the Seattle events, said: “What she does with the money once she earns it is her choice.”

Members of SWOP, who believe sex work should be decriminalized, say prohibition doesn’t work and sex workers should be allowed to use their bodies to earn an income.

“We’re just hoping to give sex workers a voice and tell our own stories. The representations in the media are generally very, very poor,” said Maggie McMuffin, 24, who has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and theater from the University of Montana.

She strips for a living and says it is the best job she’s had, allowing her the flexibility to focus on art projects and make more money — usually $150 to $340 a night — than others her age.

Though topics like personal safety and exploitation will be discussed during the symposium, entertainment and celebration are also on the agenda, including what is being billed as a circus-inspired dance party.

SWOP, Sly said, isn’t aimed at recruiting anyone into sex work, but wants to provide resources and services so those involved in the industry can work as safely as possible.

Noel Gomez, a co-founder of the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS), vehemently disagrees that the majority of women involved in sex work are doing so by choice, or that men who pay for sex shouldn’t be held accountable.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time and I have never met one woman in the life who wants to do the work they’re doing. Not one,” said Gomez, who was forced into prostitution as a teen and left the life a decade ago but still feels damaged by the experience.

The johns, she said, aren’t “just these poor guys” looking for sex.

“They’re dangerous … and they want to do to her whatever they want,” Gomez said. “I’ve had men pull guns on me. It’s just not true.”

Sola Love, who founded the Seattle SWOP chapter six years ago, was a corporate accountant before becoming a sex worker in 2002.

Though there are no good estimates about the size of Seattle’s sex-worker community, Love said 150 people are on SWOP’s email list for regular updates from the nonprofit, which also aims to connect sex workers with social-service providers — especially those not out to convince sex workers “how broken we are,” she said.

“The big goal is public awareness of the (sex) industry in a more holistic fashion,” said Love, 42.

“Sex workers are not different from other people. We’re doing a particular kind of work and should be seen as the individuals we are — and we should be able to improve our working conditions,” Love said.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com