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More than two dozen sex workers and advocates for sex workers’ rights from across the nation convened in Los Angeles June 23-24 at the offices of the ACLU of Southern California for a strategy session to address harsh new federal legislation that has targeted their industry. The summit’s participants concluded the two-day meeting by agreeing on a declaration of independence for the sex trade, which they hope will guide them and their allies as they battle for survival.

Modeled on the response of gay men to the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, the document, titled “National Sex-Worker Anti-Criminalization Principles,” demands “autonomy and self-determination” for adults who work consensually in the sex trade. It also condemns prostitution “abolitionists” and those in the so-called rescue industry who aim to eradicate all commercial sex transactions.

Decrying “punitive intervention,” the statement reaffirms the dignity and humanity of people who engage in commercial sex and insists that sex workers be empowered to take the lead in any and all decision-making that concerns them. It delineates the “rights of sex workers,” including the freedom to work as they choose, “without onerous regulation that is disrespectful of our agency and our autonomy.”

The “onerous regulation” uppermost in the minds of most attendees: Congress’ recent passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), a.k.a. FOSTA/SESTA, which effectively outlaws the online promotion of prostitution by creating severe penalties for any website that “facilitates” or allows advertisement of sex work. Signed into law on April 11 by President Donald Trump, the measure is part of an ongoing federal crackdown that has resulted in widespread fear, self-censorship, and the shuttering of online forums and other websites.

One goal of the summit was to develop a statement based upon the  “Denver Principles,” a revolutionary, self-empowering manifesto drafted in in June 1983 by five gay-rights activists who’d been diagnosed as HIV-positive.  Using a mere 300 words, they declared themselves “people with AIDS,” refused the label of “victim,” and demanded their rights as patients and advocates.

“These five guys came together and took back their voice. Thirty years later, they’re still using the Denver Principles,” Sardina reminded her colleagues at one point during the meeting.

Publicly, attendees appreciated having access to the ACLU offices for two days. But privately, some expressed disappointment that the group isn’t doing more to aid them, citing the organization’s low-key opposition to FOSTA/SESTA earlier in the year.

Norma Jean Almoldovar, a longtime advocate for sex workers’ rights, went over some of the inaccurate numbers the rescue industry relies upon to conflate sex trafficking with commercial sex among consenting adults. (The latter is what is known as prostitution. The former is defined by federal law as occurring when “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or [when] the person induced to perform such act has not attained eighteen years of age.”)

Almodovar, who has catalogued the data on the website, pointed out that there were only 1,007 reported cases of sex trafficking in the United States in 2016 according to FBI statistics, a fact that undercuts assertions that sex trafficking is sweeping the nation.