Last Friday at the Sex Worker Symposium I led a discussion called “How to be an Ally to Sex Workers.” It was a privilege to be invited by CalPEP to lead this discussion at the end of their day-long symposium attended by social service workers, HIV prevention/treatment workers, sex workers and employees from the departments of public health in Alameda and San Francisco counties.
Throughout the day participants attended workshops that included topics such as: youth in the sex trade, sex over 50 years of age, Prop 35, transgender sex workers, cultural competency for people working with sex workers and more. The program was amazing. The only complaint I had about it was that there was too much good stuff packed into too short a time period. They had 2-3 days worth of great material packed into concurrent workshops in a single day. It was hard to choose which workshops I was okay with missing.
By the end of the day when my talk began, symposium participants had heard from several sex workers, some allies to sex workers and some foes of sex workers. These foes, however, are people who believe they’re doing good by supporting policies that keep sex workers and our clients criminalized. There is still confusion about the difference between trafficking, exploitation and sex work. Some still believe it’s necessary to arrest prostitutes in order to “rescue” trafficking victims. It was valuable to have this mix of perspectives so that conference participants can be best informed about why sex worker activists are opposed policies such as “End Demand” and Prop 35.
Some who attended my presentation arrived a bit confused. They needed to have explained to them that Prop 35 will further criminalize adult consensual sex workers and give more money to the police who harass us. They needed to learn that our methods of protecting ourselves by screening potential clients, sharing safe clients and sharing apartments/hotel rooms with each other are considered pimping/pandering and that Prop 35 would enhance penalties for those activities. It was more information than could be eloquently presented in such short a time. Nonetheless, this was an invaluable staring point!
The most important question asked during my presentation was “What’s next?” The participant was asking, what do we do if/when Prop 35 passes? How will we minimize the harm caused by Prop 35? How are we all going to work together to improve the safety and well-being of sex workers? It was my favorite moment of the day. In that moment it was clear to me that the symposium was an astounding success. People who do important work in our communities have taken a new interest in sex work and understand that they have a role to play in advocating for policies and projects that both affirm our rights and protect the vulnerable from exploitation. They had learned how to be our allies or at least demonstrated the desire to do so.
We closed with a comment from a participant who pointed out that 30% of the money procured through Prop 35 goes to “training law enforcement officers,” she felt this is an area in which allies should be active, to ensure that this training promotes better relations between officers and sex workers. That’s a great place to start. Our allies must understand that as long as the police view us as criminals, it’s not possible to be treated fairly by them. This symposium was just a beginning, seeds have been planted that will blossom into advocacy that I hope will include: decriminalization of prostitution, protection and resources for runaways and support for mothers/families to end child abuse and sexual abuse in the home. Some other ideas I have for our allies:
- In-service trainings from sex workers in DPH, at hospitals/health clinics and at domestic violence prevention/service agencies.
- Invite sex workers to apply for jobs in health, social work and advocacy organizations
- Participate in December 17th activities
- Speak out when prostitution busts or other violence against sex workers is reported in the media
- Discuss these issues with friends and family members
These are just some ideas to get started with. Like I said in my presentation, we’ll have to change hearts before we can change policies. I’m deeply grateful to those who participated in the Symposium, especially the people who organized it! Thank you for your vision and your follow through. I can’t wait to attend again next year!