Utah sex workers talk about the personal, practical and political aspects of their jobs

A panel discussion sheds light on the sex industry and efforts to lobby lawmakers on policy concerns.<br>

(Rich Kane | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro, Bella Arsenic and Nicole Emma speak at the "Let's Talk About Sex (Work), Baby!" panel discussion, which took place at the Utah Coalition Against Sex Assault in Salt Lake City on Nov. 16, 2017.

Much of the time, it doesn’t have anything to do with sex.

“Sometimes it’s about creating a safe space,” Nicole Emma said. “Real life doesn’t always allow people to express themselves. Our tools are our bodies and our communication skills, but what we are really selling is a safe space.”

Talking about her job isn’t something Emma, a married mother of two, typically does publicly.

But on Thursday she and three other women — Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro, Bella Arsenic, and Heidi Robinson — led lively discussion aimed at breaking down stereotypes about their industry, which includes a broad range of legal services, from phone sex and stripping to pornography.

The conversation was equally broad, touching on the relationship between feminism and sex work, on the opportunity for human connection the industry gives to disabled and transgender people, and on the effects of Mormon culture on the demand for sex services.

It also was political.

The women are lobbying state lawmakers in hope of shaping future policies that impact the industry.

“Oh, and P.S., sex workers pay taxes,” Robinson said, just before Arsenic chimed in with, “I vote!”

(Rich Kane | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bella Arsenic, Nicole Emma and Heidi Robinson speak at the "Let's Talk About Sex (Work), Baby!" panel discussion, which took place at the Utah Coalition Against Sex Assault in Salt Lake City on Nov. 16, 2017.

To that end, the group drafted a letter and a petition asking to sit down with Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, a known champion of morality-focused legislation.

Emma said the goal is to better understand the senator’s beliefs and motives.

“Our fundamental goals are the same,” she said. “We all want safe communities, we all want safe children, we all want people to be safe from violence. We can agree on that level.”

The letter criticizes Weiler for proposals that the women say are “well-intentioned” but that reinforce stigmas that dehumanize and endanger workers in their industry.

Those measures include the senator’s recent proposal to revive the office of the Utah “porn czar,” and his 2016 successful resolution that deems pornography a public health crisis in the state.

“We believe there are nonpartisan issues that we focus on, invest in and work towards together that help adolescents and young adults develop healthy sexualities,” they wrote, citing programs to provide information and education about sexually transmitted diseases, consent, sexual abuse and human trafficking.

Weiler welcomes the invitation, he told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday evening.

“I’m happy to meet with them and consider what they have to say,” he said. “Despite what people think, I’m a pretty nice guy and I like to learn.”

Weiler called the post of “porn czar” — a position established in 2000 to crack down on pornography crimes; the office was abandoned — a “failed experiment” that Utah probably ought not repeat.

He has said there could be merit in reviving the ombudsman post to guide retailers and the public about what the law allows and requires — not only on pornography but also other matters.

Emma was heartened by news that Weiler would meet them and was encouraged by the opportunity to begin a dialogue and better understand how the senator and others like him come to their opinions.

“Even if nothing changes right now, [dialogue] is how it is going to change,” she said. “And I’m sure this is how policymakers would prefer to do it, rather than rallies and protests.”