Home Activism Sex Worker/Social Worker: An Ethics Roundtable

Sex Worker/Social Worker: An Ethics Roundtable

via soulkreations on Etsy
via soulkreations on Etsy

Monica Jones was both a student in and a target of the Arizona State School of Social Work when she was arrested in a sweep that was part of Project ROSE, the prostitution diversion program that’s a partnership between the school and the Phoenix PD. We asked sex workers who, like Monica, are students in or graduates of social work programs, to talk with moderator Tara Burns about the ethical and professional intersections of sex work and social work. The participants are:

Serpent: I’m a longtime sex worker, an active board member of SWOP-Chicago and one of the people behind AIT Research, a research project on trafficking in the sex trade. I’m also currently enrolled in a MSW program in Chicago. Find my websites at sexpros.net, redlightdistrictchicago.com, and AdultIndustryTruth.com, and my tweets at @redlightchicago and @AITResearch.

Katie: I have been a dancer for about 18 months, and I recently entered and withdrew from a Masters of Counseling in Marriage, Couples, & Family Therapy program. I currently work full time as a domestic violence advocate and work with our local sex worker outreach coalition. I write at sexualityreclaimed.com.

Cyan: I danced and also did the more private variety of sex work from age 21 to age 27 in Los Angeles and in Vegas. Now I am in my second year of a Masters in Clinical Counseling program. I’m currently too busy with school, work, and single parenting to write in it very much lately, but I have a blog called snapshots of a spiral path.

Annie: I have been involved off and on in sex work for about the last seven years, mostly escorting, some massage. I’m currently in a Social Work Ph.D program, and finished my MSW in 2010. I also work as the program coordinator for an LGBTQ IPV program. Before starting my Ph.D program, I coordinated a harm reduction program for folks working on the street. Right now, I’m doing a lot of education with a colleague, to various organizations and university programs, on students working in the sex industry. Annie is one of my working names.

Tara: I’ve done all kinds of sex work off and on for well over a decade, and I recently had a brush with an MSW program. I blog at ecowhore.com.

What is/was your experience with a social work/counseling program? Did they know you were a sex worker?

Tara: Interactions started off generally bad with my advisor, but the classes were great. After she became aware of some of my activist work, the director sent me an email saying that I was probably violating the code of ethics by doing things to a vulnerable population that I wasn’t qualified to work with. I wasn’t doing anything to anyone, and I am the vulnerable population! It just seemed like she was sending me all these emails to create a lot of documentation that I was violating the code of ethics when I wasn’t, and a lot of emails explaining to me that I didn’t really “want” to be in this program and I was wasting my money. Later she said I was in good standing and she didn’t foresee trying to kick me out of the program, but I decided not to wait four years to find out.

Serpent: I speak a lot about doing community organizing with sex workers in my classes but I haven’t fully “outed” myself to my classmates. However, I think anyone that can put two and two together can figure it out. I actually don’t think any of my professors would have a problem with it if I did speak out about my experience as a sex worker and I think they would be supportive of me. My classmates, however, don’t seem to be that evolved yet. Except for a few of them, I don’t think any of them have ever really thought about the sex trade and really haven’t formulated an opinion on the whole sex worker thing. It seems like it would be a really difficult conversation for them to have. I did come out as a sex worker to a guy in my class over a beer while hanging out socially at a bar. He said “thank you for sharing that with me” in a supportive way and then acted somewhat aloof and distant towards me in class from that day on. Perhaps he got the wrong idea.

Katie: I had decided I wanted to come out before I entered the program, because I was tired of keeping it a secret from people. There was a highly personal class assignment which asked for a lot of self-disclosure. I was nervous, and so met with my professor one-on-one to express my nervousness over possibly receiving poor responses from my cohort. My professor took my desire to meet with her as an indication that I was thinking that stripping was an ethical issue (although I didn’t) and ended up convening the core faculty and the Dean of the school to discuss how stripping while in school violated the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy code of ethics (sections regarding multiple relationships, sexual intimacy, and conflict of interest). While my advisor was extremely supportive of me and my intention to continue stripping through school, she is not tenured and had very little power to assert her beliefs. The initial professor told me that stripping would negatively impact my future career, and that it was impossible for me to be an ethical therapist-in-training if I continued to dance. If I had continued in the program, it is quite possible that I would have had to go through a formal Academic Review Panel, the result of which was likely that the program would ask me to leave. I didn’t want to go through all of that stress and took the initiative to leave. I did write a seven-page letter and sent it to all faculty and higher-ups (dean, provost, president) regarding the issue and my perspectives. I felt like I needed to try to change the dynamics somehow, either through staying and fighting the issue or leaving with a paper trail. I applied to an MSW program thinking that it would be a more inclusive place, but now I’m not so sure. I probably will not disclose my experiences next time given this experience, but I may depending on context. It is worth it to note that I received only support and positive feedback from my cohort, and that several people told me I helped them rethink some of their stereotypes about strippers.

Cyan: My graduate program is a distance learning program and is entirely online. I don’t interact very much with admin, students, and even professors. I do not share much about my life with anyone from school, except when an assignment requires me to share, which in that case the professor keeps my information confidential. Even in my undergrad I didn’t share that part of my life with very many people. I learned to compartmentalize different aspects of my life and personality very well when I was a sex worker. I guess you could say I was/am “in the closet.” Legislation keeps most of us hidden for a very good reason. I’m just used to omitting it.

Annie: I started working the summer before I began my MSW program, and had a lot of intense and confusing experiences that summer, some related to sex work, others that were not. When I started school that fall, I thought that I wouldn’t do sex work anymore, but on the first day of class when we introduced ourselves I identified as being a sex worker. I wanted to expand people’s ideas of who sex workers were (white, artsy looking, curly hair, smart student). After class I talked with my professor, who I read as someone super interested in feminist politics, anti-oppression politics, and getting the varied and nuanced experiences of folks in the sex industry. She told me that she was worried about me, and that she hoped I would stop working (without knowing any details of my experience). Later that quarter, I was working on a group project around harm reduction, and one of my classmates was like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could get a ‘real live prostitute’ to come in and talk to the class?” I was like….ummm….didn’t I just come out? (I actually froze then, and didn’t know how to respond, but that is what I was thinking). In my Ph.D program, I’ve come out several times, mostly in classes, but again, I think that folks choose not to hear what I’m saying, because they continue to go to the immediate place of assuming all sex workers are victimized, or have been trafficked. My advisors are both very supportive of sex worker rights and they recognize the range of sex worker experiences and how privilege and power impact these experiences, so I feel really comfortable with them and the fact that they act as allies all of the time. In general though, whenever I meet a new student or a new faculty member and tell them that I research sex work, they immediately assume I’m doing work around sex trafficking. I even had someone send an e-mail recently asking if I would want to participate or host a program on sex trafficking. While I recognize that people are trafficked, there is little examination of the labor issues that are a part of it, or an analysis of what Laura Agustin and others call the “Rescue Industry.” Anyway, I want our conversations to be more expansive and less about saving folks.

Historically, to create their own role in society, social work and psychology have pathologized stigmatized populations like sex workers, but now it seems like a lot of schools are promoting a more positive approach. Do you think this affected your school experience? What do you think about it in general?

Tara: Totally! Right before I started the program someone told me that “people like that recognize people like us,” and I think that’s exactly what happened. Right at the beginning of my program, my advisor sent me a couple long e-mails telling me that I didn’t really want to do this program and it would be a waste of my time.

I’m in a research program now and I’ve been studying the history of prostitution in my area. Sex workers were the first to offer social services here. When Alaskan towns were just mining camps, it was sex workers who took in orphans, grubstaked minors, and started the Humane Society. Now, the social workers are trying to save the sex workers by shutting us up and pushing us underground. Coincidence?

Serpent: I’m actually surprised at how many of the instructors are warning us about the tendency for social workers to become “rescuers,” not necessarily referring to sex workers but towards any population of people we are working with. I wasn’t expecting it but I think there is a shift towards a more radical approach even though a lot of our curriculum seems very 101 and not as advanced as I’d expected. I have, however, started weaseling my perspective into our class projects, presenting on some sex work research in my research class and I just submitted a proposal that focuses on the opposition to End Demand policies for my Policy class. Additionally, we have a student government rep in our class so I asked her about having SWOP do a lunchtime training for first-year students on affirmative practice with individuals in the sex trade and we’ve set it up for next month. Basically I prepared myself for the opposition and haven’t encountered much because I’ve asserted myself as the expert on this topic in our program and just started infiltrating the curriculum as much as I could.

I had a lot of hesitation entering a MSW program, mostly because of the stigma attached to the profession. It’s strange to go from one highly stigmatized profession to another, but I sometimes wonder which profession has the worst amount of stigma attached to it…social work or sex work? However I think the only way to change the way social workers/counselors interact with our community is to pursue these professionals ourselves and educate the people who teach us, who we work with, and our peers.

Katie: Interesting, yeah. I think the program I entered and left markets itself as a program centered firmly on values of social justice, interdependence, and feminist theory. One class I took was basically about the dynamics of power, privilege, and oppression and helped us identify our positions in society and recognize where oppressive power dynamics exist. However, the experience I went through was completely counter to supporting inquiry into power structures and oppression—indicative of the fact that the professors were more concerned with their own sex negative and sex work negative views than with truly supporting social justice.

Cyan: There is much required coursework now on multicultural competence in these types of graduate programs. What is refreshing is that multicultural isn’t just used in the racial context only but also takes many other factors into account such as socioeconomic status and disability. Ethical codes in counseling state that imposing one’s own values onto a client is harmful. It is important because over 80% of clinical counselors and psychologists are white and middle class. It is stressed that a therapist research a great deal before working with clients/populations who come from different cultures than they do. With that said, the things my fellow students say and do really make me think that they just don’t get it. They don’t get it because they are coming into it with the impression that they are going to fix people like us by making us more like them. And then they grow up and sit on academic advisory boards.

Annie: Honestly, in my program, I think there are a few faculty who really work to deconstruct and be reflective about the impact of this pathologization and the stigma around sex workers and push social workers to be aware of their social location and how this impacts the work that they do with sex workers and other marginalized communities. However, I think that this history of stigma and pathology is so pervasive and heavy that I haven’t seen much talk of more human rights-based approaches or anti-oppressive approaches or strengths-based approaches when talking about the sex trade. I want to see so much more. I also want social work (or at least my social work program) to talk more about the intersections of sexuality, race, class, gender, nation, etc. I’d love it if we had a class in social work that talked about sex and sexuality explicitly.

Are sex work and counseling or social work related for you? Is it a natural progression?

Serpent: Definitely. But while my client interactions prepared me to do do counseling, I’d say my work as an activist and community organizer is more influential in my decision to pursue this. I’ve basically been working as a social worker/counselor for years without the official title, or pay. While I provide therapy for many of my clients for pay, more often I’m talking with sex workers in need of support and there’s such a lack of it from understanding professionals or even our own peers.

Katie: They are related for sure. I started applying to counseling programs (and now social work) because I want to be a mental health provider for marginalized sex communities (poly, queer, survivors of sexual violence, and sex workers). I think there are a lot of similar skills shared between sex work and counseling/social work: the ability to deeply listen without judgement, keep confidentiality, and to attract the confidence and sharing of those you are talking and sharing space with. My desire to go into social work precedes my stripping experience, but the two experiences have definitely informed and shaped one another.

Cyan: For me it is a very natural progression. Part of what made me a good sex worker is my ability to actively listen well, and pick up on meta communication; something that is the foundation to counseling and very helpful in finding out exactly what will blow a client’s mind and keep them coming back for more. I also feel that that the sexworkers provide a therapeutic and public service that is not acknowledged in this culture. The right kind of intimacy between a professional and a consumer—in counseling it is the helping relationship—is a healing experience.

I will be a great therapist because I can relate to some experiences and populations that other therapists couldn’t even imagine. I’ve seen the sides of people that are kept in the dark corners. I only hope that people are as honest with me as a therapist as they were when I was a sex worker. How liberating it can be to be the person that no one fears being judged by.

Annie: They are definitely related for me. I think that social workers have so much power in the lives of sex workers. First, this profession is supposed to hold social justice as a core value/ethic and I think that means being in a position or role to advocate for social justice in our organizations, academic institutions, on policy levels, etc. and that the ways that people working in the sex trade are impacted by oppression should be acknowledged. I’ve noticed that sometimes when I use the language of “sex work” with other social workers they think they don’t have any of us as “clients.” Then when I ask, “Do you have folks who trade sex for money, drugs, food, housing, etc,” then social workers are like, “Oh…yes…almost everyone I work with!” So, in general, I think social workers have access to resources and action, and really should be critical of the ways they do their work with sex workers and be really reflective of their personal biases, feelings about sex work, and where this all stems from.

Any advice for sex workers in or about to be in a graduate social work or counseling program?

Tara: Don’t be afraid to hustle for what you want, and hustle your way into a different program if it’s better for you.

Serpent: Speak up for yourself and your community. Don’t just complain about the school’s policies or opinions regarding sex work/sex trade, work towards making changes that support our rights and perspective. Propose a training on best practices for working with sex workers for students or staff, write or present on unbiased sex work research or policies in your classes. What I’ve found is that most of these people (students and faculty) really don’t know anything about prostitution/sex trade and their minds are really easy to mold because they’re not even aware of the different perspectives involved.

Katie: Don’t compromise your beliefs to accommodate narrow-minded and sex negative dominant discourse. Stay true to yourself. Share your experiences, and keep in mind that while you may risk losing the program’s support, you also will shatter people’s stereotypes about who a sex worker is, which is invaluable for our community. Remember that your experience as a sex worker is a highly needed insider experience within the mental health field, and that you will and do bring so much to the field.

Cyan: FUCK YES THANK YOU! We need you and more like you! We can infiltrate the system in swarms and not get assimilated into it. Look, the ivory towers of academia, as well as “the normals” only listen if you speak their language. So learn the language, but remember that where they are coming from may not be where you’re coming from, and they are the ones that can be easily blinded by their privilege. It’s your choice whether you want to tell people you are/were a sex worker or not. It’s not your duty and it’s nobody’s business unless you want it to be. Be aware of the consequences as well as the empowerment that identifying yourself as a sex worker in academia can have on you.

Annie: I really like Serpent’s suggestion of proposing trainings around best practices with sex workers. I think its important to find faculty and other students who you believe will have your back and check in with them when issues come up. Also, bring sex work(ers) into the conversation all the time, remind folks that sex workers have many identities and that oppression impacts their/our lives in many ways, and that sex workers are in our classrooms, are our friends, and family members. Also, ask people to consider what structural barriers for sex workers may be when accessing resources. These are just a few things that come to mind right now…

Any advice for professors and administrators of counseling or social work programs?

Serpent: Bring in guest lecturers to present on different perspectives in the sex trade. Inquire about bringing a lecturer from another state (if funding is available) if there are no activists or organizations nearby. Our organization gets invited to several different schools and programs in the Chicago area to give trainings on a regular basis. Assign journal readings on sex work research. Don’t focus only on the trafficking aspects of the sex trade and challenge students’ biases or opinions about sex workers. If your campus has a yearly “Sex Week,” encourage them to have a panel, presentation, or discussion about sex work related issues.

Katie: Everything Serpent said!

Cyan: Assign readings and assignments that require the students to learn about a specific population from their perspective. Like, for example, to learn about sex workers from the writings of actual sex workers, and learning what they want, rather than what others think they should want. When interviewing a potential student for a program and finding out that they are/were a sex worker, don’t think that it is your duty to inform other administration and figure out your liability. That is someone’s own personal business and a student’s merit should be based on their academic ability, and not someone else’s moral scale.

Annie: Everything folks above said! To include a wide range of perspectives, readings, experiences, etc. about people working in the sex trade. Specifically, use the literature found on Young Women’s Empowerment Project website! Emi Koyama’s website! SWOP! Best Practices Policy Project! And, really to push people to identify where they are coming from around their opinions and perspectives on sex work and ask themselves and students to dig deeper and to look on many different levels of micro, mezzo, macro policies and practice. And, identify opportunities for activism and solidarity building with sex workers and folks working in the sex trade (opportunities that recognize the range of sex worker experiences).

Suzy Hooker is a collective byline.


  1. Great, great post!! As a sex worker (Pro Domme and FBSM provider) and a Masters student in counseling, with aspirations of a Ph.D in Counseling Psychology, it is terrific to read the experiences of others in the same place as I am.

    Thanks !!

  2. Thanks for this piece. I kept my sex worker status private throughout my time in a graduate program (although I’m sure some put two and two together), and I can relate to a lot of what you all discussed.

    Hearing other students talk about sex workers as though there were none in the room was really annoying at times. I can’t believe how many people don’t realize that sex workers go to university, and even go on to do PhDs. This attitude was prevalent among professors as well. One time I went in to talk to a professor about a paper we had to write on Marx, capitalism, labour, and that sort of thing, and during the course of the discussiom he made a remark about how awful it was to learn that some university students in England were putting themselves through school by “prostituting themselves.” He had just read some news story about it earlier in the week. I found the remark insensitive for so many reasons, not the least of which was that it didn’t even occur to him that I might myself be one of these pitiable creatures he had just read about in the newspaper.

    “Real live prostitute” indeed!

  3. Thanks so much for this! I read it in between my social work classes (only 2 more weeks!), and have to agree. It’s so frustrating to hear professors and students talk about kink being bad and needing to “save” women who are forced into sex work, because no one in sex work wants to be here.

    My Dom work was some of the most rewarding work I have had, and I wouldn’t trade my experience for something else. I just wish my school was a safe place to bring it up.

  4. I’m part way through a Masters of Sexology and I’m struggling to stay in the sex worker closet. I feel like I need to because sexologists make such a song and dance about NOT BEING SEX WORKERS EW EW EW and I don’t want to mess up my career prospects. But it’s HARD and I feel bad about it. I’m guessing y’all can relate to sitting in class seething with anger, heart racing, teeth gritted…

    On the first day I overheard another student asking the course coordinator if he thought she should come out as a sex worker (he advised her not to because it would make her seem unprofessional). So she and I get to make eye contact with each other in the teeth-gritting moments and it really helps. We also get to take it in turns defending sex workers so we share the burden of being the crazy sex worker rights woman.
    Thanks for this article! xxxx

  5. Please outline and explain social work techniques used in interviewing a commercial sex worker. Please help its urgent


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