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).