SWOP-NYC: Thoughts On “Being a Good Ally”

I was asked by SWOP-NYC to pass this on to Bound, Not Gagged. Enjoy.

Thoughts on “Being a Good Ally,” for People in the Sex Trade and Supporters:
Thank you for your interest in working with us.  Here are some points to keep in mind.

Basic Guidelines:

1)  Remember that we are all allies to each others experiences.  No one has had exactly the same experience in the sex industry, and we must all be mindful to listen to each other and respect our differences as well as our common ground.

2)  People involved in the sex industry are diverse, and many belong to multiple marginalized communities.  Part of respecting people with sex trade/industry experience is respecting people of all races, classes, immigration statuses, gender identities, gender expressions, life experiences, histories (including histories in the sex industry and experiences of coercion), ages, educational levels, abilities, orientations, HIV statuses, trans statuses, etc.  It is important to note that people with addictions and/or substance use histories, criminal records, and health issues (mental and physical) are also just as worthy of respect as anyone else.

3)  Think of being an ally as work that you do and not as your identity.  Don’t get so bogged down in critiquing yourself or in memorizing and adopting dominant ways of thinking and ideologies around sex work that you lose sight of the reason you are an ally in the first place.  Hopefully, fundamentally, you are an ally because you wish to cultivate basic respect for all people, as well as contribute to the important work that allies can do in supporting people in the sex industry in organizing for their rights, health, and safety.  Being an ally is less about how you carry yourself (though, again, respect is important) and more about what you contribute to the struggle.

4)  To expand briefly on (3), ideas and concepts and points of unity are important, but they should serve human rights and the issues that sex workers face, not the other way around.

5)  Understand that experience as a client does not necessarily give you special insight into the lives and realities of people in the sex trade.  Friends, significant others, researchers, reporters, and service providers also filter others experiences through their own lens.  No one is as well-equipped to speak on their thoughts, feelings, motivations, experiences, etc. as the person directly involved.

6)  It is not appropriate to “out” someone without their consent.  Doing so can have real-world impacts for a person beyond embarrassment/reputation.  Please also remember that disclosure is a personal choice.  Be considerate in what you ask and remember that no one is obligated to disclose anything to you.  Asking someone about their sex industry experience at all may often be considered too personal.  Allowing people to come to you with information is usually the best policy (with limited exceptions specific to organizing).

7)  Respect people’s self-identification.  Many people who have what you might consider “sex work” experience do not identify as “sex workers.”  Some other words that might be problematic for certain people include prostitute, hooker, whore, escort, etc.  Please follow the lead of the person in question as far as how they would like to label themselves.

8)  Allies must remember that all people have a stake in advancing the rights of sex workers, as sex workers’ struggles address issues we all care about.  Whether these issues are police harassment, immigrants’ rights, economic rights, health and safety rights, or rights of equal access to public spaces, these issues affect everyone.  Being an ally means engaging in the spirit of solidarity and shared struggle.

Additional Guidelines for Activists/Organizers:

1)  Understand that allies should support and listen to sex industry workers rather than impose their own ideas about sex work on the community, and that leadership and decision-making will privilege voices of experience.

2)  If you are a client, understand that sex industry organizing is not a forum for finding dates.  Also, opposition to client/police/management violence on the part of sex workers rights activists is not a slight against you personally.  Please be respectful, humble, and avoid ogling or flirting with the other activists.

3)  Allies should offer consistent, uncompromising support for the human rights (including the right not to get arrested for engaging in consensual activities between adults), health, and safety (especially freedom from violence) of all people in the sex industry regardless of their own attitudes or thoughts about the industry.

4)  As we are all allies to each other, just as voices of sex industry/trade experience should be prioritized over ally voices, voices and leadership of more marginalized members of the sex work community should be prioritized on the issues that affect them the most.

5)  As a diverse community, it is inevitable that already-marginalized voices within the community will at various points be erased, ignored, colonized, or tokenized.  Awareness of this fact should inform our activism and our leadership structure (formal and informal).

6)  Some self-identified allies may have sex industry experience that they do not wish to disclose for any number of reasons.  This is one reason that ally space is important in organizing.

SWOP-NYC http://swop-nyc.org/wpress/

SWOP National Network http://swopusa.org/

6 Responses

  1. it’s great to see this. i wonder if anyone has come across something that speaks less to ally-ship in organizing and activism and more to personal relationships, including romantic ones? thanks.

  2. @Ruby yeah, I’d like to see something similar too

  3. This is a sort of old post, so I am not sure anyone will respond, but I have a few questions that you may be able to answer.

    I have recently been asked to set up a center assisting sex workers in a nearby city. I have never worked with this population, though I have had some experience working with addicts and alcoholics and some background in public health.

    My initial reaction was “I don’t want to train hookers to work at Bojangles,” which seems to be the usual model in working with “unskilled” adults. I have interviews set up with some prostitutes next week, but I would like as many perspectives as possible.

    What sorts of things are helpful, both for people who want to stay in the sex trade and people who want to get out? Harm reduction programs in terms of disease prevention (i.e. condoms and needle exchanges)? Basic services for poor folks (i.e. food, job training, access to social services, etc.)? Drug treatment? Psychiatric care? Religion? I assume that all of these things would be appropriate in some cases and few or none of them in others. I am just trying to determine what the program’s emphasis should be. I don’t want to automatically try to push people out of the life, but I also want to assist those who choose a different path. And I want to provide supportive services to sex workers regardless of their choices in this.

    If there are organizations working with this general mindset, I am so far unaware of them. Most programs I have seen are diversionary–that is, prostitutes can choose them instead of jail–and of the “Bojangles” ilk OR are harm reduction programs, usually to control AIDS transmission.

    I am leaning toward a drop in center–warm in the winter, food, tampons, underwear, condoms, AND access to information on drug treatment, disease prevention, social services, job training, etc. I am also considering an arts program, including documentary film making. The phrase that keeps echoing in my head is “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (from a Mary Oliver poem).

    Any ideas? Links?

  4. Mae,

    Thank you for your position that we don’t need “rescue” programs attached to law enforcement. What we do need is job training, education, legal services, health care and housing. In other words, the same needs as all poor/working people.

    I am not sure how valuable an arts program or documentary film making would be when every social service not attached to law enforcement has been cut. Drop in centers are essential because so many workers don’t have housing.

    Good luck to you.

  5. Lisa,

    Thank you for your response. The drop in center idea was popular with the ladies I spoke with as well, so I think that will be a central part of it.

    The arts stuff was sort of to avoid the Bojangles route. I mean, it is nobody’s dream to work fast food. As a short term measure, it can be completely fine, but if I were in that position, I would need a larger goal (I have worked lots of crap jobs, but I did always have something I was working toward) in order to move forward and not get discouraged. And I am vaguely artsy and have lots of contacts in that community–people who would be willing to work with clients and help with job training.

    The film making idea was a way to give a voice to clients–it would be a DIY project, but I sit on the board of a documentary film company, so technical assistance and possible sales channels (if it were a completed project) would be easy to come by.

    I am basically in both cases trying to leverage what *I* personally have to offer right now. I mean, I could make other contacts when it is appropriate to help a client, but I don’t have, say, banking buddies, at present.

    Education looks like it will be a big component too. Especially basic literacy.

    Quite honestly, it seems to keep coming back to getting to know the people I am serving as individuals and trying to figure out how to assist them one at a time. But it is hard to write a grant proposal saying “I will do whatever.” Guess I will just have to work on my phrasing.

    Thanks again for your help.

    Mae

  6. There’s an organization called STORM in Minnesota that I recommend checking out, but I can’t find the link to this organization. Does anybody know the link?

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