One of the more difficult aspects of living as a sex worker is never knowing exactly whom you can trust. Sometimes even allies can say offensive things or break confidentiality. In the wake of such indiscretions, it’s sex workers themselves who are left to navigate that broken trust and the increased vulnerability that comes along with it. I know this pattern leaves me wary, and it is perhaps this wariness that led many sex workers to mistrust the Give Forward fundraising campaign initiated on behalf of Heather, a sex worker in West Virginia who survived an attack at her apartment by a serial killer posing as a client.
The Give Forward campaign was launched shortly after the attack on July 18th by a man and a woman local to the area who knew each other, but who did not know Heather before Falls’ death. In an article on The Daily Dot by Mary Emily O’Hara from July 31st, the woman involved with the campaign, Laura Gandee, is quoted: “I got a text message from a friend telling me that Heather was hungry, upset, and feeling all alone in her apartment, and asking me if I could I take her some food and go comfort her…Of course I said I would, if she was willing to let me.” The article doesn’t reveal who this friend was, and while it implies that Heather was willing to let a stranger into her home after the trauma of Falls’ attack there, it does not indicate her comfort with Gandee’s visit in her own words. Gandee went on to say that, “I have spoken to a number of people who are part of a movement to ensure sex workers’ rights. At first they were very skeptical of our campaign because they couldn’t believe anyone from outside their circle would step up to help someone in their industry after a tragedy like this. I told them West Virginians are different.”
Gandee’s words conjure images of any number of rescuers sex workers have known, armed with ostensibly good intentions, and confident in their own efficacy in situations with which they have little familiarity. While many cultures in the United States and elsewhere, including those of West Virginia and other parts of the South, value loyalty and neighborliness in a crisis, it’s equally true is that sex workers often live in dual spaces of invisibility and hypervisibility. Many of us operate in the underground economy. Often, our friends and family don’t know about our work until we are arrested, outed, or otherwise thrust into the spotlight. Our work, and entire parts of our lives, are unknown to people one day and revealed the next to be judged by anyone with a half-formed opinion on sex work.
So, we are allowed to be cautious. I suspect many of us were not surprised when the male colleague of the woman who visited Heather, Nostra-Thomas Koenig, otherwise known as Charles de Koenig, reacted hatefully on the campaign’s Facebook page when sex worker activists from across the U.S. organized to establish another fundraising campaign: “To all the Drug Addict Hookers of the world. If my attorney catches any of you giving to this fraudulent and counterfeit fund…We WILL find you and we WILL be bring the Police.” (Koenig has since been banned from Facebook so some of his comments are no longer visible, but screenshots remain.) All it took was the possibility he might lose control of Heather’s fundraising effort to reveal the shadow side of the rescuer mentality. Too often, these rescuers’ endeavors are more about control of sex workers’ lives than they are about helping people they see as fundamentally incapable of making their own decisions. The fact that this dark, controlling instinct is often activated when sex workers are particularly vulnerable due to trauma and sudden visibility only causes additional harm.
Lily Fury, a sex workers’ rights activist who was close to Heather during the aftermath of her trauma, reported that her receipt of the money from Gandee and Koenig’s campaign was tied to her meeting certain conditions, including leaving sex work. Furthermore, she told me that Koenig and Gandee harassed Heather after the attack. In one egregious incident they arrived at her apartment with the police in tow because Heather had refused to answer the door to them earlier. On top of the stress of sudden exposure and visibility, as well as the trauma of surviving an attempted murder, Heather had to copewith this. Did Koening and Gandee feel entitled to harass her because they were operating under the assumption that they were helping her?
I had a friend who used to be heavily involved in social justice work in her city. She volunteered at a food pantry, helped out at a shelter for LGBT youth, and took part in marches for immigration reform. Over gin and tonics, she told me once, “It’s unbelievable the damage that can be done when people come with charity in their hearts.” She told me about groups who came in from the suburbs, mostly white, hetero, and upper middle class, to “help out” at the food pantry on the weekends. She bemoaned the fact that she felt she and the organization’s clients were doing more to boost the egos of the volunteers who swooped in than the volunteers were doing for the clients. She and I had a falling out, however, when she took on a part-time job at a sex worker rescue organization for women who were arrested for prostitution who, in her words, “wanted out.” The organization was largely funded by the police department, a carceral project at its core. I told her I opposed her working there and she said I wasn’t a representative sex worker. (Did she read these words off the rescue industry’s official handbook?) I told her that whether or not individuals want out of sex work, their lives don’t become better through contact with law enforcement. She said it was the only way for her organization to “access prostitutes.” I told her I was concerned that the organization didn’t know what it was doing and that it was potentially causing harm to its clients. She said, “Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to do good.”
She and I have barely spoken since then. For a while, I regretted not explicitly drawing a parallel between her new work and the weekend volunteers from affluent suburbs who frustrated her. Now I’m not sure she would have seen it. Like many non-sex workers, she was blind to the ways in which she consciously and subconsciously condescended to and mistrusted sex workers. It seems impossible for this persistent condescension and mistrust to productively coexist with efforts to “help” sex workers in moments of particular vulnerability. What seems more likely is that the same people who come with a desire to help also bring their egos, their ignorance, their desire for sex workers to be subordinate to their narratives of rescue, and their poorly informed conceptions of what sex workers need.