well-meaning: a note of caution to our allies

“Isabel Chen, a medical student at UBC, is part of a team that has invented a mobile panic button for street-based sex trade workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.”

A team of medical students at the University of British Columbia have developed a panic button for street based workers in Vancouver. This could be awesome. I hope this helps workers who are left without any decent options for creating basic safety. I also have ambivalent feelings about our saviours, the non sex workers. The best safety for sex workers is when we work together in a setting under our own control. If this button saves lives and prevents violence, then fuck yeah. Just don’t forget that it is second best to sex worker self-determination and should never replace it.

Which is to say, it also makes me uncomfortable to see non sex workers get really excited about how smart and amazing other non sex workers are at saving us. This project may have enormously beneficial impacts for sex workers–if and only if–they implement all the suggestions made by street workers, the actual experts and heroes of this story. I do not want to attack this or other projects like it, I just want non sex workers to think twice about:

1. how easily you support projects led by non sex workers who have access to resources and power and don’t face the huge barriers that street based sex workers do in creating their own awesome strategies for safety. Against extreme opposition and indifference, sex worker orgs in Vancouver and other cities have been working their asses off for decades to get their own systems of safety, mutual support and community funded and implemented. Whether that’s the right to work out of their own homes or begging and pleading with police to stop enforcing the laws against prostitution or investigate the deaths and rapes of sex workers, going out at night to do peer-to-peer mutual aid, sex workers have already thought through the best policies and practices. What we don’t usually have is the power to make these real. Our allies with access to the resources and power of academia could push for community based strategies led by those most impacted to get the funding and support they deserve.

Right now, we live in a world where allies have the vast majority of the power and resources assigned to deal with violence against sex workers. There is a reason this matters–it keeps sex workers in our place, with less power but the biggest problem is that it is horribly ineffective and sex workers die from this ineffectiveness. The worst example of this are anti-trafficking initiatives that lead to increased criminalization. No one facing abuse is helped, migrant workers are detained and deported and sex workers who are part of criminalized communities to start with face increased police violence. Our so-called allies are some of our biggest threats.

Allies are the wrong people to be in leadership because they have no direct experience of the risks we face–and as a result, for the most part they don’t really get it. And why should they? That’s fine. But unfortunately privilege makes it hard for allies to understand that sex workers are the only experts on sex work and that they, the allies, are the students.

This may not be the case with this project, but as one example, frequently non sex workers misunderstand the people doing us harms as anonymous bogeymen. Again, due to their privilege, they often don’t understand that for the most marginalized sex workers (trans, Indigenous, POC, drug using, poor and youth workers), their whole existence is criminalized, not just their work. So a solution that is tied to police or social service agencies (who have links to child protective services or the cops) is not safe for sex workers. Would wearing a highly visible blue watch scare good clients off (along with the bad ones) because they are worried that the worker is connected to the cops? I don’t know. Personally I would only wear it if it was much more discreet and was connected to my own networks not social services–but I am totally open to hearing how street workers feel about it and hope it is of help.

2. how easily you support other non sex workers who only address client violence and not the shit *they* are actually implicated in. It is the responsibility of non sex workers to address your roles in institutional violence against sex workers. Where is the panic button to deal with the violence of whorephobia?

Allies are reluctant to look at their part in the culture that creates the conditions for the violence in the first place–something they *do* have experience with, but requires a really uncomfortable level of accountability. Our well-meaning allies talk over and over about rescuing us from client violence while completely ignoring other forms of violence we face–including by systems that they are a part of and benefit from everyday.

Remember this project is coming from the intersection of two institutions that loathe and pathologize sex workers–academia and medicine–and elaborately rewards those who disrespect us and our knowledges and community on every single level. There is plenty of support work that our allies at the University of British Columbia could do in their own backyard. For example UBC produces some of the most dangerously bad “research” about sex workers in the country–by professor Ben Perrin. At the same time, the people with the most expertise (sex worker community leaders from the streets of Vancouver) are not seen as (nor paid as) the experts and scholars they are. Sex worker scholars do not have access to teach course sections that address sex work (including medicine and law) nor the prestige, influence and respect that would come with it. Medical, social work and social science classes typically portray us as damaged, unhealthy, a danger to our kids and communities and of course, needing intervention by non sex workers.  Our allies within the academy could address this kind of bias and speak out against it.

This is not to say that this project or others like it are bad. Ambivalently, I support it. I also invite the research team to use their privilege to lend their support to changes that sex workers in Vancouver are themselves demanding, to make a clear statement against the whorephobia in their school and professions and to offer sex workers meaningful leadership on the panic button project (including paying them for their expertise and community connections).

17 thoughts on “well-meaning: a note of caution to our allies

  1. Good, hard-hitting, words, BW. No panic button is ever going to work as well as us sex workers being empowered to to demand justice, acceptance and a respected place in the community.

  2. At least one of the three was a sex worker, and a very long time as a sex worker rights activist. Not sure about the others. Plus they had a hoax donation and they didn’t raise the money after all!

    • I know it’s terrible about the hoax fundraising! And do you mean one of the UBC researchers was a sex worker?! that would be awesome and perhaps I missed that.

      • At least one of the team members listed in the article…not UBC…I am not sure about the other researcher though..could be. The one I know is also on the Board of a sex worker org…

  3. You might want to correct this at the beginning of your blog so people don’t have to read the comments. Maybe you have more specific things to say about how sex workers collaborate with these institutions…but it would be good to know if any of the other researchers are sex workers too. I don’t know.

  4. I am the sex worker individual that Scarlot is talking about. I learned of this project from one of the med students who co-developed the idea at a conference. My first thought when hearing about the idea was “Awesome, and very neat idea; using something that’s already out there to help another group of people,” and my concerns to them were that they must involve sex workers at every step of the pilot. We’ve been in contact with orgs in the DTES and received similar concerns that you mention (I share them as well), and we will be using the money we raise (or is donated to the project) to hold meetings and feedback networks from sex workers to learn what we need to think about from their perspective prior to distributing the devices. Our goal is to see if this could work with existing technology (I agree, the watches are not attractive, and sex workers may have some ideas on how to hide them in clothing or something), ensure that no increased harm is done to individuals who use the devices, and determine the response and feasibility of the devices. Also, if we find that this works (and work out with sex workers any kinks, etc) then we hope to apply to develop our own device with specs that are less unattractive and have the features that will best suit sex workers needs. Please feel free to communicate with the team if you wish: keepsafeinitiative@gmail.com. Best, Vanessa

  5. I appreciate the substance of this critique, but I think it is misapplied in the case of this particular project.

    Personally, as a sex worker who is also a student, I am impressed to see a student project that starts with a recommendation from sex workers, involves sex workers at every stage of planning and implementation, respects sex workers’ privacy by not enabling the GPS full-time, and collaborates with sex worker organizations instead of with the police. If students and academics must research sex work, that is the way to go about it. Yes, I want continued oversight from sex worker organizations, but it sounds like that is already happening. Unfortunately, the university is not one big, monolothic clump, and work like Ben Perrin’s receives far more institutional support than a project like this ever will. (No one besides Ben Perrin has control over the conclusions, however idiotic, he draws in his research. Nor should they, unless we would like to hand the same wealthy, mostly-conservative university administrators the same kind of control over sex-positive research on sex work, critiques of government policies, anti-racist research, climate change research, etc. Academic freedom is not sex workers’ enemy, even if it does come with the occasional Ben Perrin.)

    But what really worries me here is how the idea that *only* sex workers should lead this kind of project puts pressure on sex workers to disclose their status in an environment where they are not necessarily safe to do so. I risk my current *and future* employability in the university every time I disclose my sex work experience, and sometimes I rely on allies to put my ideas forward when I don’t have the option of “coming out” or the access to implement them. I gather that members of the research team had already chosen to out themselves, but what if they had not and were forced to do so here?

    Once again, I appreciate the thrust of your argument that sex workers’ voices and experiences should be privileged in the movement, but I don’t think this is the best application for it.

  6. It’s so great to see sex workers commenting here! So I’ll be clearer: I’m not talking about excluding non sex workers so much as creating much fairer ways of doing research together in ways that redress the oppression of sex workers by non sex working researchers and advocates.

    Having a sex worker on this project is great and I’m so glad you’re on board Vanessa! It sounds like you’re bringing such great insight and guidance to the work. Thank you for that!

    At the same time, individual participation by one sex worker does not necessarily change the dynamic I’m talking about as that individual sex worker/researcher may be familiar with and accountable to diverse sex working communities and experiences (eg street workers) or they may not be.

    I’m talking about how *before any work is initiated* researchers build mutually beneficial relationships with sex worker led community groups and receive mentorship by experts (sex workers engaged in the kind of work under study) to address their biases and gaps in knowledge. Then if that is successful, the work continues where sex workers are part of all decisions about the research, how the money is spent, what will happen with the research and a plan for accountability to sex working communities. I am proposing that in particular street sex workers also enjoy some of the prestige and influence that comes with being a recognized researcher/scholar.

    This is not about individual sex workers outing themselves but about building accountable relationships with a community that is currently and historically oppressed by both academia and medicine. No individual sex worker needs to come out, though there are many workers who would certainly want the chance to have a role as a recognized (and compensated) expert, perhaps in particular street workers who are not respected as the smart ass scholars they are.

    As I mentioned, this is also about encouraging our allies to do the hard work of addressing the injustices in which they themselves play a direct role such as in their professional contexts.

  7. So poignant. I am a researcher studying trafficking, but I am finding that narratives from sex workers are too often marginalized from the dominant discourse. Anti trafficking movements, as you stated, can end up becoming problematic for sex workers, in the end. Your blog is so grounding. Please continue to inform (or if you’d like to offer a narrative, I would love to include your great thoughts in this research) us of ways to create a more ethical, collaborative approach. If you have any advice going further on the type of community you envision between academics and sex workers, I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks!

  8. Pingback: The Week in Links–March 1st

  9. Amazing, amazing writing – thank you for sharing it so publicly, and providing such a real-life example of the grey areas that allies work in, and both the potential for harm and the potential for good. I also *love* the way you challenge me as an ally to think about my own role in ongoing forms of violence, as I am always seeking to learn more about my role and ways to change it.

  10. Hi guys – just a thought – I’m a SW for over a decade who is also a university student. I applied for a research grant to do research about barriers to health care that SW’s face that I know well about because I am a SW. I am not out as a SW at school, and if I had done this research it would have looking like an outsider deciding to study SWs, but it wouldn’t have actually been so. (I didn’t get the grant and am not doing the research for now, by the way) There may be lots of people doing this kind of thing that identify as allies or don’t identify at all, but actually have a personal history in SW that they keep to themselves. Just something to keep in mind as a possibility.

    • Thanks for asking Ally! Well this article doesn’t quote the people we ought to make front and centre here–sex workers–so who can say? So I would love to know how the sex workers who use this service feel about it–as well as what the sex workers organization of Switzerland is saying. This article is pretty bad but maybe the idea is good for workers without homes? The suggestion that social workers will be there to “look after them” is a great example of how patronizing allies can be and how liberalism is used in place of actual liberation. Sex workers are grown-ass folks who would best be “looked after” by having power and control over their work, not city-issued babysitters.

  11. I am moved to write here because I am angry about the misrepresentations of SWOP-USA’s reaction to this project. Vanessa brought it to us and we DID NOT ENDORSE IT, for a number of very specific reasons. Vanessa, I believe, left the Board largely over her anger that we would not endorse it. Frankly, she was never a good choice for it, since she flat-out told others that she wasn’t interested in community organizing.

    Me, and Meg Foster of SWOP-Chicago and now also the SWOP-USA Board, and several others of us had issues with it that were a lot more specific. We do not think it works in a US context where sex work is criminalized, to just have a panic button, plus it MARKS people as sex workers to the police. Also our experience with current street-based sex workers is that most of them have cell phones, so this device is not cost-effective. We proposed to implement Emi Koyama’s (scaleable) idea for a SMS-based, national Bad Date Line, bringing in all the internet sources and other scattered BDLs around the country. We also proposed to try to get a cell phone program going, and an arrangement with the companies to allow BDL access (and maybe some kind of panic button-ish functionality that notifies a person of your choice rather than the police) even with no minutes remaining. We haven’t been able to actually do any of this yet, though I have been trying to work with Meg on a separate project petitioning the UN about HIV criminalization laws relating to prostitution. It’s been a lot of work and Kate Zen is trying to help too and such. I’m sure any assistance with any of this would be very much appreciated.

    • First of all, Robin, this wasn’t a SWOP idea or project. I brought it to SWOP for feedback, and that’s what I got. The majority of the feedback was around an app instead of a stand-alone GPS device and that it would likely be hard to implement in the US. That whole discussion is way too old to justify a lengthy response on this blog. I encourage you to visit the organization’s website at http://www.keepsafebutton.org. It’s come much farther than an idea at this point.

  12. Oh, and I didn’t leave the board because it didn’t endorse Keep Safe. And I am offended that you would post this on a public blog, when you don’t know the circumstances of my resignation or offer to be on the board. Just because SWOP did not endorse the project, did not mean that it was not going to be pursued. The former board apparently thought that I was fit to be a board member, and I never said I was not interested in community organizing. I have no idea where you got this information, but consider the source if you did, and perhaps next time you want to make statements about me or anyone else you might want to check the facts with them before posting publicly.

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