Violence against sex workers is something I confront regularly in my life.
For example, a Google alert for "sex worker" includes stories of assault and death on an approximately weekly basis. These are only stories that make the news. They eventually start blending to build an ongoing global narrative of abuse and indifference towards the lives of sex workers.
The institutional perpetuation of this rampant violence is a large factor in why these things keep happening.
In the past two years, I've become fairly well versed on information about both violence and available resources for sex workers in the US. But it didn't hit home until a sex worker I know was assaulted by a client. And she needed help.
DEARTH OF RESOURCES
I searched for resources she could access in her city. I contacted five people in her area who are all connected to various sex work communities, social services, and anti-violence projects. The best we could come up with collectively were a couple of hotline numbers, none of which were based in her city.
We were not even looking for a service that specialized in helping people with experience in the sex trades. We had exhausted those resources within minutes. It's not a long list. And those groups are tragically underfunded, understaffed, and overworked.
None of them had sexual assault recovery services that were accessible in this instance.
We were hoping to find a sexual violence recovery resources that would not be actively harmful or traumatizing. Sexual assault recovery centers and services are concrete accomplishments of feminist movements, but remain largely inaccessible to sex workers. I generally won’t recommend an organization without either a reference from a sex worker or organization I trust.
This is not unfounded paranoia.
Last year SWOP-LA helped a sexual assault recovery center re-write their training manual for incoming counselors and volunteers. The original section pertaining to people with experiences in the sex industries was written by Melissa Farley.
In this training manual she explicitly declared that all prostitution is equivalent to rape, and went on to instruct counselors to remember that prostitutes seeking their help were immersed in a life of perpetual sexual violence in the sex trades.
Jill Brennerman eloquently describes a consensual session that turned into assault for those who are still confused about the differences between consensual activity with a client and rape.
How could anyone adequately support victims of sexual violence without the basic ability to differentiate between assault and consensual activity? Why would anyone in crisis confide in someone who will not accept their lived experience as valid?
Facing stubborn insistence that you are a rape victim is emotionally difficult under the best of circumstances. I cannot in good conscience recommend an organization to someone in crisis without knowing for damn sure that won't be their experience.
POWER OF COMMUNITY
Excluded from institutional resources, sex workers are doing what other marginalized groups historically have done. We are organizing ourselves, doing what we can to support each other, and working to change systems that are harmful to our communities.
In this instance, we sent a quick flurry of messages asking for donations to help a sex worker in crisis. Originally the goal was to send her some food as a gesture of support.
But in less than two days we raised about $400 for her.
When the first donations came in, I was excited and elated. As time passed I started watching my email like a television show, openly weeping in a coffee shop. The gratitude and pride I felt for my community completely overwhelmed me.
Donations came from sex workers, activists, allies, clients, and people we didn't know. People repeatedly apologized for not having more to give. One sex worker dedicated an hour of her webcam earnings from the night to raising donations.
It was an incredible show of support and solidarity. The money helped her take time off work while she recovered, demonstrated our collective support, and was a powerful moment for everyone involved.
It strengthened our faith in each other and our communities. It reminded us of the power that we have to help each other survive. And it showed everyone who got the message that they are not alone, that they matter, and that people care about their health and safety.
As powerful as this moment was, it is not enough. It’s a beginning, not a total victory. Community support is not a substitute for institutional systems of resources, just as church collections for sick parishioners are not a substitute for comprehensive healthcare. This is not a discredit to community work, but a disgrace to the systems that continually deny fundamental resources to marginalized communities.
But marginalized communities, including sex workers, have seen community organizing start to change those systems. St. James Infirmary, the only health care center in the country specializing in helping those with experience in the sex industries, was formed in direct response to a local woman arrested for soliciting in San Francisco who had her blood forcibly drawn in the jail and was not informed as to the nature of the test. Now it is one of the country's strongest models for harm reduction practices and healthcare and advocacy for sex workers, their partners, and children.
Similarly, a group of sex workers and sex work activists have formed the Persist Health Project and are working to create a monthly drop-in center providing comprehensive health exams and counseling to people in the sex industries. In both cases, these health centers began as labors of love on a volunteer basis.
Health care, counseling, and harm reduction efforts are being created out of community needs by members of our communities, including our friends, partners, and allies. It is through these projects that we aim to make concrete differences in people's lives and eventually achieve the goal of changing the ongoing narrative regarding the sex industries.
Our communities continue to grow, support each other, and fight against the oppressions and violence we collectively face in all their forms. We need all the support we can get in these struggles, from within our existing communities and from new allies or concerned citizens.