Jackie’s story, like that of so many, begins with domestic violence, violence she weathers with the help of her sex work. Her son’s father continuously uses abusive financial tactics, severing any ability she’s ever had to gain ground in her life. Her ten-year-long saga has kept her working under the table, which in turn has constantly disqualified her from government perks, benefits, and safety nets, most recently The 2020 Economic Impact Payments, aka the stimulus checks.
In California Family Law, child support is often awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis, and Jackie’s ex demanded an amount that he knew she could not pay. As a young mother with no representation, she had no ability to fight back, and thus began her downward spiral out of mainstream existence. She tried to make her child support payments, but she was caring for her son almost half the week, working, and going to school. Then came garnished wages. She couldn’t afford to live, so she moved her job underground.
She’s not alone; low-income sex workers have complicated financial lives. We often arrive at sex work in the first place because the gray or black markets were our only options. We wake up every day with debt collectors, past convictions, or neglected forms hanging over our heads, but it’s impossible to coherently state exactly how we ended up here. Our individual stories become so dizzying that we had to focus this article on Jackie to keep it digestible; our lives are filled with the type of bureaucratic adventures that enrage and derail us while boring readers.
Sometimes, our entire households or extended families have stories too complicated to relate, even if it all began with a single misstep. For Ana, a young Chicana woman with disabled migrant parents who don’t speak English, the bureaucratic nightmares target multiple generations. She thinks the trouble started with a car accident years ago. Nobody in her house is getting a stimulus check. She says: “It’s not helpful. We used to collect recycling, but we aren’t supposed to anymore. I’d get a panic attack explaining this all to you and it still wouldn’t make sense.”
In Jackie’s situation, her driver’s license was suspended after continued non-payment, further affecting her ability to work and care for her child. Of course, with no license, you cannot insure your vehicle; with no insurance, it’s impossible to register your car. A client added her to his insurance for one month and paid for the registration, which of course expired when the DMV received notice that the insurance was canceled. She had to hope that the tags were enough and that the cops wouldn’t scan her plate. Eventually, she was pulled over.
No credit, no license, no insurance, no registration—the court doesn’t care that it’s nearly impossible to find work under those conditions. Just pay the child support!
Many sex workers face similar spirals, where one situation becomes a multi-year financial disaster. This precludes us from living normal lives while compounding our other vulnerabilities. For example, the stimulus checks are sent out based either on recent tax reports or on receiving specific government benefits such as SSI (Supplemental Security Income), unless you actively choose the option meant for non-tax filers who make under $12,200 a year. Sex worker media written from the perspective of more privileged workers makes it seem so simple for us to pay our taxes! But it should be no surprise that structurally oppressed people, including the multiply marginalized in our community such as transgender and Black sex workers, often can’t or don’t prioritize organizing our financial lives in socially acceptable ways.
Alisha Walker is a 27-year-old former sex working person originally from Akron, Ohio. She was criminalized for an act of self-defense when a regular client threatened her life and the life of a fellow worker in January 2014. A jury convicted her of second-degree murder,and Alisha was sentenced to 15 years in prison. She is currently incarcerated at Decatur Correctional Center in Decatur, Illinois.
As Alisha commented, “When [Judge] Obbish sentenced me to 15 years, he basically said that I should have died that night when my client attacked me. He basically said that my life didn’t matter as much as that white man’s. My punishment is another example of the racist and whorephobic violence of the police, courts, and prisons.”
The violent combination of racism and whorephobia, coupled with her attacker Alan Filan’s familial connections to the Chicago political machine—specifically, Filan’s sister is a judge in Cook County and was very close with Judge James M. Obbish, who presided over Alisha’s case, and Filan’s brother is a famous Illinois lobbyist—are what Alisha attributes her harsh sentencing to.
The Support Ho(s)e Collective is a small Leftist formation of currrent and former sex workers and our trusted co-conspirators and accomplices based in Chicago and New York City. We founded and continue to coordinate the Justice for Alisha Walker Defense Campaign, supporting Alisha materially and advocating for her release. We’re currently a closed collective, meaning we don’t accept new membership. We’ve decided to remain closed until Alisha is free.
Inside/outside relationships are already fraught with surveillance, especially those relationships built on mutual aid and political organizing. Alisha and I are members of the Support Ho(s)e Collective. We’re also affiliated with Survived & Punished, Alisha as an inside survivor/organizer whose story has been uplifted, and I as an organizer with the NY formation. Alisha is in regular contact with the Uptown People’s Law Center, often encouraging others experiencing rampant sexual, medical, or gender-based discrimination inside to advocate for themselves alongside UPLC.
Alisha will be the first person to remind you that what happened to her is nothing new. She’ll be the first one to cite the long history of anti-sex worker stigma and criminalization. Early on when we talked about Mariame Kaba’s writings on Black women having “no self to defend” in this country, LeLe would light up with angry excitement. She’d exclaim, “Yeah, that’s exactly fucking right, they don’t want us to survive. But sometimes we do, and here I am.”
What follows is an accounting of conditions inside as Alisha and our other comrades have recounted them. We’ve pulled a selection of call summaries, video visits, and email correspondences to highlight what communication and organizing to meet Alisha and her community’s needs has been like since the pandemic hit.
Writing about surveillance experiences makes them real for people outside who’ve yet to be impacted by incarceration personally. We must detail the arbitrary cruelty of prisons and the mundane chaos that is always present in them, bearing down on our friends and comrades inside. Alisha’s ability to report to and communicate with outside organizers like myself and our fellow Support Ho(s)e comrades during this ongoing pandemic is essential. Alisha and I both believe that taking the lead from our most impacted community members—incarcerated people—during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic will activate our networks to further our practices of mutual aid and care toward accessibility and freedom for us all.
Over the last two months, Alisha has used her allotted phone time to call us and give updates about herself, make sure we’re still alright out here, and update us on the prison’s ever-changing policy enforcements during the pandemic as well as the status of her entire unit. What has been consistent during these check-ins is uncertainty: uncertainty around the lack of precautions the prison is taking, about what this lockdown will bring, and how long we’ll all have to endure this pandemic moment.
“There’s no such thing as social distancing in prison.” Alisha begins and ends just about every call with this truth.
Our pandemic check-ins really began on Friday (March 13th). This was when Alisha was able to get word to us that Decatur Correctional Center was going on (what would be its first) pandemic) lockdown. All in-person visitation had been cancelled. Video visits were still tentatively going forward, but it was unclear if the GlobalTel Inmate Call (GTL) tech staff would be allowed into the prison for technical support and the administration of video visitation.
Alisha also mentioned during this call that Decatur’s GTL staff were working on installing a video visitation kiosk on the unit but no one had shared with the prisoners when it might be operational. Alisha also relayed that no one seemed to be sick yet, and that she and her friends on the on unit were being proactive and buying soap at commissary—the hand sanitizer they are offered at commissary has no alcohol content, which means it’s virtually ineffective.
By this point on the outside, the existing calls to “Free Them All” had multiplied, and new people were becoming activated and radicalized because of the public health crisis the pandemic posed. An email received from Alisha on March 14th informed us that all activities at the prison have been cancelled. This included all educational classes, contract work, certification courses, and their Shakespeare rehearsals. All that remained, for now, was “chow” and gym, but she also wrote that the COs had told them that those were the next activities to be cancelled. They were currently only being allowed two 20 minute phone calls a day.
On Wednesday, March 18th, Alisha and I had another check-in call. Her voice was bright and hopeful. Alisha let us know again that so far no one inside Decatur was sick or showing symptoms. Their commissary was still open; they were still able to go and shop for themselves, with soap still available for purchase (albeit at its typical exorbitant rate). Alisha’s tone shifted halfway through the call as she began to articulate her worries about her incarcerated family: “…because so many of them are immunocompromised and the ‘care’ we all receive inside here isn’t really care.” She was horrified by the news of some prisons, like the ones in New York, cutting off access to commissary and care-packages. She said, “We all rely on shopping to survive. How will they [those incarcerated in NY] survive without commissary?”
I told her about Survived & Punished NY’s expansion of our commissary giving along with other comrades to create a “Soap Brigade” and Abolitionist Mutual Aid Fund. She was ecstatic to hear this news, and expressed hope that it would catch on as an organizing trend. I assured her that it already had.
She also reported that regular phone use had been reinstated (though this would be short lived), and that gym and chow were still happening for now. Our video visits were still on, and she wanted to encourage everyone who didn’t already have a GTL account to set one up, as well as a Connect Network email, because people inside were feeling even more isolated without access to in-person visits while on lockdown.
Alisha said the prison was taking some precautions about the COs’ health, but she didn’t feel like it was enough to keep her safe. She had been following Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s public statements and efforts and was hopeful, but she also expressed that even when people get things right on the outside, people on the inside are the ones always left behind.
Alisha wanted to express support for the Chicago Community Bond Fund‘s actions and demands that everyone be released to prevent an outbreak at Cook County. She said, “Unless Cook County releases everyone, they’re condemning us in here to illness and likely death.” She was also very worried about friends and comrades at Logan Correctional—it was almost impossible to get word about their well-being.
Even though her Shakespeare theatre-troupe practice and her classes had been cancelled for now, she was practicing her lines, doing math problems, and working through her Introduction To Soil horticultural science text on her own time. She had gotten back into writing poetry and making art to process this new trauma of being trapped inside prison during a pandemic as well.
Those of us on the outside who are close to Alisha had already weathered her being put on “B Grade” with no access to email, phone calls (except for “legal calls” with lawyers), and video visits a few times before. We continue to endure retaliation from the mailroom COs who censor and lose her mail with abandon. We’ve been through so many versions of this communication breakdown and yet there are different fears and anxieties we’re holding because of this new contagion.
Meghan Murphy, a Canadian feminist writer who has spent at least five years on this site waging misogynist harassment campaigns against sex workers and trans women, as if it were all she had for a content strategy… is finally suspended. pic.twitter.com/lo9sW9niv8
Meghan Murphy was booted from Twitter recently for spewing transmisogynistic and anti-sex work garbage. Cue: Ding Dong the Witch is Dead! Meghan Murphy as an individual human person is a complete joke, having edited Feminist Current for nearly a decade, a site consisting of random pepperings of George Soros conspiracy theories muddled together with the language of feminism. Nonetheless, her “gender critical” ideas are gaining traction among so-called feminists and fascists alike, and that’s the part that worries me.
Many “gender critical feminists”—aka TERFs and SWERFs—have aligned themselves with violent allies, proclaiming, much like the alt-right does, that “men aren’t women” and “sex work isn’t a thing.” In a pitiful blog post with endless martyred complaint about her locked Twitter account, Murphy whines:
While the left continues to vilify me, and liberal and mainstream media continue to mostly ignore feminist analysis [sic] of gender identity, people like Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro (and hundreds of right wingers and free speech advocates online), and right wing media outlets […] have attempted to speak with me and understand my perspective […] the left seems to have taken to ignoring or refusing to engage with detractors or those who have opinions they disagree with or don’t like [while] the right continues to be interested in and open to engaging.
Raise your hand if you see a lucrative YouTube rant about “Red Pilling” on the horizon!
The alliance between “gender critical feminists” and the alt-right has been forged on mutual bigotry: hatred for trans people and sex workers. “Gender critical feminists” are willing to sacrifice access to medical care, abortion, and self-determination in their alliance with the alt-right for the sole purpose of harassing, doxing, and generally inciting violence against trans people and sex workers.
Historically, factions of white feminism have flirted with fascism, from the overt racism of the Suffragists in the US to the Christian Temperance Movement here and abroad.
It’s time to give serious consideration to the fact that these factions are still alive and well.
Jason Stanley recently described fascism as having three distinct and alarming qualities: a mythic past, cultural division, and a targeted attack on truth. The alt-right exemplifies these qualities, from “Make America Great Again,” to the carefully cultivated division between “patriots” and The Other and ruthless attacks on the press wherein oppressors suddenly lay claim to victimization. Let us not forget that Hitler wrote an entire book about his “struggle,” detailing the myriad ways he believed himself oppressed.
Gender critical feminism is helping to perpetuate a mythic past, cultural division, and a targeted attack on truth, and it’s time for all the Meghan Murphys of the world to be exposed as the fascist bootlickers they are.
We are witnessing the blossoming of a white nationalist nation. Being the person that I am is not easy in the United States right now. It’s not easy for my friends, my family, or millions of Black people, Jews, and LGBTQI people.
I’m an Iranian, Tunisian, French and Jewish sex worker. I immigrated from France to the U.S. as a child. I still hold a fair amount of privilege; my skin is light, unlike that of many of my family members, and I am a high-income sex worker. With that, I’m still confronted with Islamophobia—many people assume I’m Muslim because I’m Middle Eastern—and anti-Semitism both in my personal and professional lives.
I was raised with Judaism but I’m a secular Jew. I’m a Hebrew school dropout. My feelings about religion are very complicated and honestly, it often makes me quite uncomfortable. Every time I walk around New York and see white Hasidic Jews, I feel both otherness—we are culturally different and I’m not a nice Jewish girl—and a connection to them.
The thing that makes me feel most Jewish is knowing how much people hate us. People hate them as people hate me. I’ve been to Nazi death camps and I remember looking at a flyer in one camp’s museum. There were excerpts from a pamphlet the Nazis passed out during the war. It was titled How to Spot a Jew, containing several highly racist caricatures presented as what to look out for. Those racist caricatures all looked like me. I don’t need to have religious garb on to be recognized as Jewish, and I still see those caricatures being used in reactionary media today.
I’ve been conflicted about saying anything about anti-Semitism under my work persona. I struggle with being politically vocal while still trying to make money and remain appealing to wealthy clients.
But when I’m faced with these prejudices at work, it hurts to be silent. I feel like I’ve lost. My racial identities come up too often at work to ignore. I once posted a photo online of myself post-menstrual sex, and someone’s response was: “Now I know why Hitler gassed the Jews.” People frequently point out my big nose. I’ve been called a “terrorist,” “camel pussy”, and “kike” on client-facing social media quite a bit.
When I was younger and new to sex work, I was afraid to set boundaries and money was scarce, so I took jobs that I wouldn’t take now that I’m in a better financial situation. I think all performers of color are faced with this experience. I’ve been in a movie called Women Of the Middle East, and have been cast as a belly dancer many times. I was always being given the information that I would be participating in a racial fetish scene only after I had traveled, paid for testing, been booked, etc. I’ve had a director make jokes about needing machine guns as props for Middle Eastern vibes, and I’ve had to fuck a white man in a turban with black eyeliner. Clients still ask me to wear hijabs.
A few years back, I woke up, looked at my arm, and thought I was in a nightmare. My arms were covered in rashes of tattoo-dark blood blisters so thick my skin looked burgundy-purple from a distance, and bruises, the flesh so swollen it looked like I had been in a car wreck. I had not done anything out of the ordinary, not been beaten up, not survived a new trauma.
It was the most obvious symptom of what would later be diagnosed as an immune disorder. The other symptoms were invisible but devastating—among them, noncancerous growths in both lungs large enough to require a surgical biopsy, and having to relearn how to breathe. My platelets dropped to levels that saw me restricted to cancer treatment wards, experimental medications and bed rest, and a never-ending hell of side effects. The only potential explanation was that this immune disorder could be causing my body to kill my platelets, removing my blood’s ability to clot.
Without platelets, you struggle to get enough oxygen. For a while, I even spent time on oxygen tanks. Without platelets, you’re a “bleeding risk.” You bruise. Sometimes you bleed spontaneously—internal bleeding, swollen limbs, bloody noses that soak towels and can’t be stopped outside a hospital. You can die from a bloody nose if it can’t be cauterized in time. The underlying immune disorder also removes my ability to respond to vaccines, rendering me vulnerable to preventable illnesses.
The good news is, with ongoing access to a medication derived from healthy people’s immunoglobulin, I can see the same long life as others. That’s a whole other discussion about ethics under capitalism in and of itself, because that immunoglobulin sure ain’t coming from rich people, is it?
The bad news is that without insurance this medication costs as much as some types of cancer treatment, and I’ll require it for the rest of my life. In the time between medication doses, my body chews through the donor immunoglobulin, as well as my own blood’s existing components.
In the scope of weeks, months at best, I go from healthy to on the verge of death, platelets dropping, sometimes by 2/3 in the scope of a day. In the course of diagnosis, I spent periods checking into the hospital every two weeks as my blood nosedived to a platelet level so dire that, at times, my doctors thought their machines had malfunctioned and were simply failing to count my blood’s components properly, because how the hell could I be alive otherwise? I was the youngest adult in the cancer wards, the mystery patient doctors came from other floors to see because my case was just THAT strange.
I was uninsurable prior to the Affordable Care Act, even without this diagnosis. My docs claimed I’d grow out of my irregular, heavy, unnervingly painful menstrual cycles, that they were nothing to be concerned about, yet the insurance companies claimed I had “an undiagnosed uterine disorder” and refused to cover me entirely. It turned out they were right about that disorder, ironically enough. After the endometriosis got bad enough to become disabling due to medical neglect, I finally got a diagnosis. I was disabled before my immune disorder ever happened.
Being able to get covered through the ACA was a turning point.
And if I had still been limping along without coverage when my immune system went into free fall, point-blank, I would be dead. Lack of coverage led to my deterioration and my medical inability to work to this day. But it would have led to my death if it had gone on just three years longer. Without full coverage that handled almost everything—blood tests sometimes daily, expensive medications, hospital stays, a dozen specialists, outside consults, extensive imaging, multiple surgeries, an ungodly amount of medications—I would have died during one of those blood drops, when I had 1/150th the minimum platelets of a healthy person.
I tell you this so you can understand how it’s all connected. How one denial, one interruption of coverage, one financial bad break, can cause a failure cascade that results in an individual’s life becoming a mire of sickness, struggle, medical neglect, and decay. For countless Americans, it leads to financial ruin.
For chronically ill and disabled people who do sex work in order to work around their conditions, doing criminalized, grey market, or informal labor without benefits means we often have no access to insurance without the ACA. Employer-based health insurance is now and has always been a leash on workers to keep us beholden to more powerful employers. The ACA was a first step away from that and empowered all workers, regardless of employment status. This is crucial in a “gig economy” of Uber drivers and independent contractors, people with standing not so different than my standing was as a stripper. A nation without the ACA is one in which many of us will die of illness and poverty.
This is the country that we are in danger of returning to if Brett Kavanaugh becomes the newest associate justice on our Supreme Court.