Oscar-winning Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody led a secret life as a lap dancer in seedy strip clubs before she was discovered by a big-time Hollywood producer.

She graduated from the University of Iowa with a media studies degree and landed her first job as a secretary for a law firm in Chicago. Cody was bored of her job when she entered an amateur stripper competition and got hooked.

Cody chronicled her year spent stripping and working at other sex industry jobs in her memoir, Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper. She showed us that the sex work industry is not a world of misled, poor, hungry, homeless, illiterate and drug-addicted men and women. She describes herself as a nerd from a well-off, wholesome family.

One of her motivations for stripping was money. Of course, she also stripped and wrote about it because she wanted to gain attention as a writer.

But it wasn’t all about the fortune and fame. By the end of the memoir, Cody says she is proud that she overcame her prior inhibitions and insecurities.

Cody’s story is one shared by many successful women who have chosen a profession in the sex work industry. This includes prostitutes, strippers, go-go dancers, burlesque performers, escorts, dominatrices, peepshow workers, phone sex operators, hustlers, foot fetish models, brothel workers and porn stars, among others. They feel empowered through their control over clients and their sexuality.

At the same time, Cody admits that she had bad experiences and noted the very sad and very vicious people she met as co-workers, employers and clients. What Cody begins to reveal is that sex workers do not have the same basic human and labor rights as other working people.

All too often, sex workers are victims of discrimination, assault, rape or non-payment by a client. And they can’t do a thing about it because their work is illegal.

It is for this reason that Mariko Passion, a self-described “urban geisha” and paid escort, founded the Los Angeles chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project. She is fighting for a Whore Revolution, which is about acknowledging the sex workers that exist within our communities.

Passion has nine years of experience in sex work. She has worked as a stripper, private dancer, agency escort, independent escort, Mistress/Dominant and sensual masseuse. But to disprove all stereotypes, she is educated, successful and driven.

Passion earned a Masters Degree in Social Justice Education from UCLA and chooses to run SWOP-LA. She vowed to fight for the self-determination and justice of sex workers instead of having a “real job.”

“Social justice education can happen everywhere, at any moment, not just in the schools,” Passion says. “I am using my Masters Degree to the fullest, except now I put MSW – Master of Sex Work – after my name because it seems more fitting.”

The non-profit organization focuses on ending violence through education and advocacy. SWOP-LA wants to inform the public that the sex industry is becoming a dangerous, underground world.

Because of the intolerance and stigma, sex workers are forced to work in secrecy and fear of arrest. These are women who are constantly victims of sexual assault and have nowhere to turn. There is no victims’ compensation, counseling or disability pay for an assaulted prostitute.

“Decriminalization is the only way to end the violence and discrimination in the industry,” says S. Porter, a member of SWOP-LA. “It is important that all sex workers know that they are employed in a profession where they should be treated as humans. They have feelings, emotions and intellect just like anyone else.”

Porter recently joined the organization after watching a number of her friends suffer in the industry. Though she has never been a sex worker herself, she is proud to fight for sex worker activism.

“There’s nothing dirty or shameful about working in the sex industry,” Porter says. “What’s shameful is the way that the public views them.”

SWOP-LA empowers men and women to view sex work as a privileged title and acknowledge what they do as work. For Mina Zhi, a member of SWOP-LA and paid dominatrix, the organization has helped her to balance herself mentally and give back to her community.

Zhi works as a successful Accounts Manager by day and professional dominatrix by night. She wears business outfits at sunup and whips, chains and handcuffs at sundown. Her two worlds cannot be mixed.

“From the prospective of a nude performer, my job has been extremely empowering because I pick and choose my work,” Zhi says. “I look at it as an art form. I don’t only do it for the money.”

Once the stigma is resolved, advocacy efforts can focus on helping and protecting sex workers. This means giving sex workers the right to recognition and protection under labor and employment laws, the right to form and join professional associations or unions and the right to legally cross borders to work.

Also, the legalization of sex work would allow it to be carried out in better-organized circumstances. Regulations, such as requiring condom use and regular health checkups for sex workers, could reduce the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

SWOP-LA promotes the health, safety and wellbeing of sex industry workers in a way that enables and affirms their occupational and human rights.

For more information, visit www.myspace.com/swopla.