Army of Me: Sex Worker Self Defense

by Natalie on May 10, 2011 · 1 comment

in Activism, Interviews

Girl Army

In light of the recent murders of Long Island sex workers, vigilante justice group New York Initiative has been getting attention for their offers to protect and rescue sex workers in need, all while wearing superhero costumes. Their Craigslist post, beginning with a somewhat creepy and condescending “Hello, pretty lady!”, gives some obvious safety advice (“make sure a friend knows where you’re going”), and then offers their own services as “rescue team,” should a client get out of hand.

So is this a potentially useful resource for women making their living outside the law? Or is it just a group of patronizing douchebags flaunting machismo without offering real help? Audacia Ray blogged about this recently and suggested that teaching self defense courses would be more helpful than offering to swoop in with capes. On the West Coast, the Oakland-based self defense collective Girl Army has been teaching sliding-scale classes to women for over 15 years, including some workshops specifically for sex workers. Melisa Spence— Girl Army instructor, St. James Infirmary employee and sex worker ally—weighs in on the importance of basic self defense, and offers her own perspective on the New York Initiative.

Could you tell me what you do with St. James, and what you do with Girl Army? How long have you been a martial artist and what kind of training do you do?

For the past ten years I have worked as a massage therapist at St. James Infirmary and taught with Girl Army Self Defense. St. James Infirmary is a free primary care health clinic for sex workers, which is also primarily run by sex workers. Girl Army is a volunteer-run collective which teaches self defense classes open to women and transgender people. I have trained in various martial arts since middle school, and currently study Bagua Zhang and Danzan Ryu Jujutsu under Maija Soderholm and Professor Janice Okamoto, respectively. It’s worth noting that Girl Army has instructors who are not martial artists, and we value this diversity of backgrounds in our instructors.

Is a short-term self defense workshop enough to give someone useful skills? What would you say is a good minimum amount of training for a sex worker to have for basic self defense?

Yes. In terms of how much training, it depends on the person’s needs and goals. I would recommend to try a one-day, three-week or six-week self defense class, and be self-responsive. Occasionally folks quit our six-week class partway through, and complete it at a later date when they have had time to process the material from the first classes. Other people, after taking our one-day workshop, have success stories of how they have used the psychological and physical skills and saved their lives.

It is my belief and experience that the most important skills for self defense are the will to fight for oneself, and the ability to handle a stressful situation with practicality and imagination. Self defense classes can help a person develop these skills. It is a place to try out new verbal and physical responses that may be outside of one’s comfort zone, and to practice responding to a threat while under stress. If one wants to spend more time building in physical skills, I would recommend studying a martial art. Jujutsu is a good one, but the most important thing is finding a supportive environment to train in. Girl Army’s basic curriculum is taken directly from the Danzan Ryu Jujutsu taught at Suigetsukan Dojo.

What are your thoughts on the New York Initiative? I tend to mostly agree with Audacia Ray’s post, but on the other hand, I do sort of appreciate it whenever someone wants to come forward and be an ally, even if their approach is a little misguided.

I’d love to have a conversation with them. NYI doesn’t seem to me to be macho (mostly) guys with savior complexes. They seem pretty geeky and tongue-in-cheek. It looks like one of their focuses is the recent muggings of queer men in West Village. There is obviously only so much that a group of 13 people can do—and I think they know that—but bringing visibility to unjust circumstances and encouraging folks to look out for themselves and each other is a good thing.

What do you suggest men and non-sex workers can do to be good allies to us, especially during such a scary situation as what’s going on in New York right now?

Know that the sex worker knows more than anyone else does about how to take care of themself and survive. Share your skills and resources without defining the sex worker’s experience for them or judging the choices they are making. Many people have risky jobs, and do not have to deal with people telling them to quit their jobs because there is the potential for harm.

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