Sex worker allyship is an ongoing, active practice, and it has to happen even when you think there are no sex workers around to witness it. But it can be hard to know what to do, especially with a community that is so often forced to stay underground for our own safety. Luckily, there are some straightforward steps to becoming a good ally to sex workers. Here’s where you can start!
1. Don’t out sex workers
This one should go without saying, but DO NOT OUT SEX WORKERS. Is there someone in your life who is a sex worker, and trusts you enough to let you know? Consider yourself blessed and hold that information sacred unless and until that person tells you they’re out. Even then – it’s not really your information to share.
If you think you don’t know any sex workers – perhaps take a critical look at your own politics and attitudes toward the community. Are you a safe person for a sex worker to come out to? And if not – what can you do to change that?
2. Don’t ask us for uncompensated emotional labor
As a stripper, a very large portion of my life is devoted to providing emotional labor to frequently ungrateful men who think they are entitled to it – and then I have to educate them as to why they must pay me. Of course, in my personal life, I’m emotionally available to my friends, and happy to be so – but I don’t appreciate it when people who aren’t in my inner circle approach me for the low down on my job. It comes off as voyeuristic and objectifying, and I get enough of that at work – and at least at work, I get paid to put up with that.
If you’re curious about sex work and the lives of sex workers – approach us with respect. If you’re interested in doing research, make sure you have some form of compensation ready to offer – better yet, make sure you have ca$h. If you’re just interested for the sake of your own curiosity, do some Googling or read some memoirs – they are certainly out there. Sex workers are people, and our lives and lived experiences don’t exist purely for your consumption.
And on that note…
3. Pay us!
The number one best way to be an ally to sex workers is to pay us for our work. You can determine what your comfort level is with this, of course – whether it’s being a generous and consistent tipper at the strip club; hiring a domme to mentor you if you’re interested in learning from a professional about the ins and out of BDSM-play; paying for your (feminist!) porn; or going to a full service sex worker for a session. (Which, by the way, there’s absolutely no shame in doing! Many full service sex workers are open to and encouraging of non-men clients, though to be fair, they tend to make up a fairly small percentage of most FSSWs client demographic.)
If paying for actual sex work isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other ways to support sex workers. For example, there are plenty of sex workers on Instagram whose accounts provide valuable emotional and intellectual labor, and they’ll never be mad if you DM them for their Venmo/Paypal/CashApp information to compensate them for their work. (Check out @professorstripsalot, @grimkardashian, and @thegizellemarie for some places to start.) Sex workers are also frequently some pretty amazing artists, so paying for a print, t-shirt, or any other sex worker created merch is a fantastic idea. @exoticcancer has an amazing, whimsical pastel style that highlights memorable strip club moments, and @allsexworkersgotoheaven collects and features the amazing work of queer sex workers of color.
4. Don’t try to save us
…but do donate time and money if possible to sex worker led resistance movements and policy-changing initiatives. One such example is the Sex Workers Giving Circle, a grant making initiative the first of its kind, and with which your humble author just happens to be a fellow. The Sex Workers Giving Circle is backed by the Third Wave Fund, a feminist organization that has long understood that change needs to by led by and for members of the community most impacted. Since nobody knows sex work, the challenges sex workers face, and the changes we need to make things better, than sex workers themselves, if you’re going to get involved, make sure vet your organizations to be certain they’re sex worker led. (And by the way, you can donate to the SWGC here.)
5. Try to stay up on current political battles and news
Sex workers have always been fighting tooth and nail to keep our community safe amidst ever-increasing danger – but we need all the help we can get. If you’ve been paying attention to sex worker social media in the last couple of months, you’ll know that SESTA/FOSTA – a bill supposedly put in place to crack down on sex trafficking – was passed in April and has since made it exponentially more dangerous to be a consensual sex worker (while simultaneously making it more difficult for authorities to investigate and track down actual sex traffickers, sigh).
By following sex worker social media accounts and working with sex worker led organizations, you can stay up on all the sweeping political changes taking place that impact the sex work community. Because of the stigma that still surrounds sex work, even in the most progressive communities, news about laws impacting sex work are often under-reported or misreported in activist circles. Listen to sex workers, and then amplify their stories among your non-sex working activists and community members.
6. Confront stigma where and when you can
Speaking of stigma, confront it when you can. Overhear someone make a dead hooker joke? Hit them with the facts that sex workers are one of the most vulnerable populations to violence, and that trash jokes like that are never funny. Does one of your friends think that she could just quit her office job and become a stripper? Ask if she really thinks she’s down for night after night of emotional and sexual labor, eight hours of ego stroking in eight-inch heels, and constant, unwavering defense of her physical and emotional boundaries from clients who often feel no shame or compunction about pushing them. Is there a non-Black person in your group who uses the word hoe/ho/heaux (or do you yourself use it, if you’re not Black?). Make an effort to strike it from your lexicon, as it’s a word that has been leveraged against Black women & femmes to punish them for their sexuality — and in reality, it’s a word solely for Black women and femmes to reclaim.
Also keep an ear out for more blatant forms of stigma and misinformation about sex work vs. human trafficking. Become well-informed about how this “mix-up” is often deliberate misinformation put forth by policy makers that endangers both consensual sex workers AND trafficking victims. It sets a precedent for the real goal behind such policies: hindering the sexual freedom and human rights of anyone who is not a cisgender straight white man.
7. Unlearn your respectability politics
Respectability politics in the sex industry are entirely informed by the constraints of cisgender heteropatriarchy, and deeply tied to white supremacist beauty standards and capitalism. But there is no one type of sex work that is better or more respectable than others (although admittedly even within the sex industry, certain types of sex work can sometimes be safer than others).
Legal forms of sex work — like porn, stripping, and camming for example – are to varying degrees regulated, and while they’re not without their hazards, they do tend to be safer than street-based or outdoor sex work, though “streetwalkers” are most often looked down upon and “rate shamed” (or made to feel bad for not being able to charge the glamorous amounts of cash that “indoor” and typically more privileged and conventionally attractive sex workers are able to charge).
The type of sex work people have access too is also determined by the multiple aspects of their identity, with cisgender, conventionally attractive, and white or white-passing women often at the top of this toxic hierarchy — and top of the earning potential. Part of being a good ally is to understand how white supremacy and capitalism intersect to inform the choices that people are able to make for themselves within the industry. A glamorous stripper going home with 7k a night is no more worthy of respect than someone doing survival work, and part of being a good ally means fighting for all sex workers, not just the ones whose lifestyles you envy. Moreover, the myth that all sex workers must necessarily be making thousands of dollars a night is actually harmful. After all, no one’s worth is determined by how much money they make, no matter how much living under late capitalism tries to make us believe that is so.
8. Educate yourself about police violence against sex workers
The police as an institution have always been violent and oppressive when it comes to marginalized communities, and no where is this more evident than when it comes to police treatment of sex workers. As recently as two weeks ago, police arrested Stormy Daniels and two other strippers in an Ohio strip club after posing undercover and accepting dances from them. This practice of the police entrapping sex workers, paying for their services, and then arresting them, is a common practice and a flagrant abuse of power.
Police violence against sex workers has a long history that is deeply connected to queer history in particular: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, the leaders of the Stonewall Riots, were sex workers revolting against police violence within queer spaces, for example, and in Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg’s protagonist Jess is a survivor of multiple police rapes, as are the sex worker femmes who are the emotional glue of the queer community – a travesty that is still a reality for many queer sex workers today. As such, any queer ally to sex workers should be working towards the dismantlement of the police state and anti-incarceration. Street-based sex workers are often queer, trans, people of color, are often youth, and are very often the most susceptible to being targeted by the police.
If you’re going to stand with sex workers, educate yourself on what your alternatives are to calling the cops. Sign up to be a pen pal with SWOP Behind Bars and become a point person for an incarcerated sex worker – but only if you’re going to hold yourself to being emotionally available as a pen pal. Or head over to Support Ho(s)e and see what you can do to support this organization as they work with incarcerated sex workers to bring justice and healing to the community.