The Tucson Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival has been running for over 20 years. It has been kept alive by the need to be a safe space for sex workers to express themselves creatively. In 2024, the festival will unfold into three days of workshops, panels, art exhibitions and film screenings. In all that they do, the event centres on the experiences of sex workers, showcasing art and films that empower them as professionals and human beings. The festival has also launched a text-based informational warm line for current and former sex workers to access a free, confidential, and trauma-informed abortion navigation program, a move that helps empower sex workers medically. This is why the Tucson Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival is aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of Reduced Inequalities, Gender Equality, Decent Work And Economic Growth and Good Health and Well-Being.

Still from The Stroll, shown at the Tucson Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival. Image courtesy of The Stroll’s IMDb.

This year’s edition of the event is also sponsored by the University of Arizona’s College of Social and Behavioural Sciences’ Human Rights Practice Program, further showcasing how the long-running event has made many positive contributions and gained institutional support. One of the highlights of this year’s line-up is a screening of The Stroll, attended by the film’s director, Kristen Lovell herself. The 2023 documentary, which has been nominated for the Grand Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival, follows Lovell, a transgender sex worker of colour, as she reunites with her sisters. Together, the group shares stories of working in lower Manhattan, New York, from the 1970s to the early 2000s, reminiscing a bygone era that has been beautifully put together through archival materials.

Still from The Celluloid Bordello, shown at the Tucson Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival. Image courtesy of The Celluloid Bordello’s IMDb.

Initiatives such as The Tucson Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival that are open to the public and help them see things from a sex workers’ perspective are imperative in a society where they are discriminated against and criminalized. A survey by Lambda Legal— a voluntary group of lawyers who help marginalized groups in the US— found that 40 percent of sex workers had been unlawfully detained at least once during the course of their careers. Almost 50 percent had also faced some form of police misconduct on the job, with being extorted for money being their most common problem.

Moreover, a survey published on the US National Library of Medicine (NLM) found that older Americans still view sex workers in a derogatory nature, they also tend to think of them as victims with little to no agency. The survey also found that American healthcare professionals tend to overestimate the prevalence of various diseases in sex workers, further stigmatizing them medically. Hence, there is a need for spaces like The Tucson Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival that help to introduce the diversity of experiences that exist in the sex work industry.

Vigil at El Tiradito Shrine in Tucson for The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Image courtesy of @swop_tucson/Instagram.

The Tucson Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival also hosts an array of talks, including a talk on the international human rights of sex workers with former UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls Dr. Ivana Radačić, Director of the Human Rights Practice program at the University of Arizona William Simmons and Dr. Penelope Saunders, co-Executive Director of the Best Practices Policy Project, a national organization dedicated to the health and rights of sex workers and trans people.

The Tucson Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival creates a safe space for sex workers to share their stories and experiences. This helps them challenge societal stigmas and advocate for their rights by fostering an understanding and respect between sex workers and the general public through relatable and easy-to-understand mediums. Thus, The Tucson Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival is a crucial initiative in promoting the rights, safety and dignity of sex workers.

Check out @swop_tucson on Instagram to learn more about the Tucson Sex Worker Art & Film Festival and other initiatives.

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