Missouri sex workers organize to protect their community's access to abortions
On a busy corner in Wellston, volunteers recently passed out essential items — including bottled water and cellphones — to people in need.
Under one tent, sex workers Miyonnee Hickman and Esmeralda, who uses the name for work, fill bags with condoms, pregnancy tests and emergency contraception.
Hickman and Esmeralda represent the MO-Ho Justice Coalition, a statewide organization of sex workers trying to decriminalize and destigmatize sex work in Missouri.
After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Missouri outlawed nearly all abortions. Now, the coalition is starting an abortion fund to help sex workers pay for the costs of abortion in Illinois. Abortion funds are among the fastest-growing ways that grassroots groups are trying to help people continue to access abortion services.
“It's going to be these grassroots groups on the ground who are going there to serve people when the state has let them down and cannot meet their needs,” said Maggie Olivia, the policy manager for Pro-Choice Missouri, the state’s largest abortion-rights organization.
Sex workers face higher rates of sexual violence. Many entered the industry to afford food and housing. People who use abortion funds often are parents who lack full-time jobs and permanent housing.
Esmeralda, who has had two abortions, said she wants others to be able to access the same care.
“Knowing that I had that option and how difficult [it] was at those moments in my life and knowing now that a lot of people don't have the option that I had, it puts me in a position of like, ‘I need to do something about this,’” she said.
Esmeralda, 26, began sex work at the start of the coronavirus pandemic when she lost both of her jobs. She started by selling photos and videos on Twitter and Instagram, and after making $500 in two days, decided to stick with it. She later began advertising herself for sugar baby arrangements through online dating sites.
But she said going into sex work wasn’t easy, mostly because she was afraid her family would find out.
Ultimately, Esmeralda decided to do what she wanted with her own body.
“I can't live my life thinking about others [and] what they're going to think,” Esmeralda said. “They're not the ones that are going to be paying my bills.”
Her decision to have an abortion wasn’t easy either, she said. But it came down to the fact that she couldn’t give a child the life she wanted to.
”If I’m going to bring another human into the world, I want to give them everything they need,” Esmeralda said. “And at that time, I couldn’t give that little person that.”
As sex workers could become pregnant while working, it’s essential that they have access to abortion, she said.
“Sex work is with our own bodies,” Esmeralda said. “We're always on the verge of getting pregnant or getting an STD.”
Predictive policy changes
Sex workers have sounded the alarm for decades about how politicians were increasingly restricting their bodily autonomy. It was no surprise, they said, when the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade this summer, leaving legal abortion access up to individual states.
In 2018, Congress passed a set of laws that aimed to shut down websites that facilitate sex trafficking. FOSTA-SESTA made it harder for sex workers to advertise their services online and made their work more dangerous, they said, driving them more often to street work.
“First, the state makes you more vulnerable to being sexually assaulted,” said Heather Berg, a Washington University professor of gender, women and sexuality studies who studies sex work. “And then," when it comes to abortion services, "it takes your ability to access health care off the table.”
Berg said many sex workers she has interviewed began sex work so they could pay for abortions. Now because of travel costs, abortion is even more expensive.
Old laws like the Mann Act of 1910, which made transporting sex workers across state lines illegal — or any woman for what it called "an immoral purpose" — could be used as a template for legislation to prohibit helping someone get an abortion in another state, Berg said.
“What sex workers mourn when contesting these laws is that it they won't just affect them,” Berg said. “Sex workers always warn with policing and surveillance policy, that they won't be the last ones — that they’re canaries in the coal mine.”
That’s why sex workers are experts in staying safe and navigating new statewide abortion restrictions throughout the country, she said.
A fine legal line
The rights of sex workers and others seeking abortions are inherently intertwined because they ultimately have the same goal of bodily autonomy, said MO-Ho Justice Coalition’s co-founder, Indigo Hann.
“At the end of the day, what we are all advocating for is for people to be able to be in charge of what they do with their bodies,” Hann said.
Organizing as a group gives sex workers, who often face stigma from friends, family and society, a place to be themselves and talk about issues they face in their communities, Hann said.
Sex workers often choose their own family, they said, and rely on each other for protection and support.
“It opens a space for people who are truly at the margins to be able to be free to be who you are, without apology [and] without violence, and to care for each other in substantive, material ways,” Hann said.
Sex workers have always had to walk a fine legal line because of their work, Hann said. Now that much of the rest of the country is having to navigate to access abortion, sex workers constitute a community that’s ready to help.
“Sex workers offer a beacon of wisdom, guidance and and hope in a post-Roe world,” Hann said.
Farrah Anderson is the newsroom intern at St. Louis Public Radio. Follow her on Twitter: @farrahsoa.