Category: Articles

Shannon Williams (remembered by the Red Umbrella Babies Collective)

A guest posting by our friends at the Red Umbrella Babies Collective to honor the amazing Shannon Williams, who was an activist with SWOP in the Bay Area, a founder of the sex worker rights movement, and is very much missed by all…

Shannon Williams: the hottest mama (photo from Naomi Akers)

Shannon Williams: the hottest mama (photo from Naomi Akers)

Shannon Williams died this week, catching us all off guard. During the MLK long weekend, she had a bad headache. She went to the emergency room, a tumor was found in her brain stem. It was inoperable. Almost immediately she lapsed into a coma. On Tuesday January 20, 2015, her family removed her from life support. This had been her wish.

We are her friends at Red Umbrella Babies, a forthcoming anthology developed by sex workers who are parents and our children. When we learned of what had happened, we called each other, torturing ourselves with questions: did she know that she wouldn’t wake up? And, did she have time to say goodbye to her sons who are twenty-one, nine and seven years old? One of our children, Blaze who is seven and knows Shannon’s younger kids asked through her tears, “who will take care of the boys?”

Although our hearts ache we know the answer, because we knew Shannon. She was dedicated to the beautiful art of raising children in the most thorough and thoughtful way.  We know that those boys will be okay because Shannon has laid the groundwork for them and because their dad is there too.

Shannon did everything in her life with such grace and apparent ease. She was a gorgeous, sensual babe. She dressed in cool, funky outfits, radiating raw energy. But her casual demeanor was underpinned by thoughtfulness and steely determination. She was completely grounded, practical and not given to pointless abstraction. She was a successful sex worker, proudly taking courses in techniques—such as Bondassage and Tantra—to hone her skills. She created a schedule that allowed her to live her life on her terms and bring up her children well.

“I’ve been asked if the fact that I was a parent made me more hesitant to do sex work,” she wrote in her contribution to the Red Umbrella Babies anthology, “ It didn’t. I never felt like being a parent and being a prostitute were at odds with each other. In fact, I thought it was absolutely the most perfect job for me BECAUSE I was a parent.”

But a nosy parker neighbor and the law did not see it that way. In 2003 Shannon’s house was raided. “Seventeen of Oakland’s Finest came crashing into my bedroom with their guns drawn,” she recalled. When the press found out that a Berkeley High School teacher had been arrested for prostitution, “it instantly became a national news story and blew my life to pieces,” Shannon added. Her case was a catalyst for organizing in the Bay Area. Other sex workers like Robyn Few and her compatriots took to the streets in protest, wearing leopard skin-patterned lingerie in solidarity. The cops had dragged Shannon into a police car in her underwear in order to humiliate her.

The powers that be still have yet to figure out that sex workers are a force to be reckoned with, and that shabby attempts to sexualize a woman like Shannon will always be subverted by the sex worker rights cause. The leopard skin lingerie turned into an emblem of freedom.

Shannon—with her certification as a teacher and her mentoring heart—turned the public nature of her arrest into a “teachable moment” when communicating with her then nine year old son. “The story was running in every local paper, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh featured segments about me on their shows, and everyone around us was talking about it. I took my son up to one of our favorite parks up in the Oakland hills to have the conversation,” Shannon recounted. She had only six months before explained her job to her son when other kids had taunted him saying that his mother was a whore. ‘You know about my job, spending time with people who are lonely,’ I began. He said, ‘Yes.’ I went on. ‘You know how I told you that I might have sex with them sometimes, if we both wanted to.’ He said, ‘yes’ again.  ‘Well, I’ve been arrested because of my job.’ ‘Why?’ he asked and I said, ‘Because it’s illegal to have sex with someone for money.’ And my brilliant, wonderful, nine year old son said to me, ‘Well that’s dumb. You should be able to have sex with whoever you want.’ And that was the end of that.”

So very few of us are as brave and as open as Shannon Williams when faced with arrest and public humiliation. So very few of us could have laid the groundwork for this conversation with our children. How many of us can speak to our children frankly about sex at all? How many of us would be proud of our child’s candid answer? We are so lucky to have had Shannon Williams in our lives, we are so lucky to have her example. All parents must find their own path, but knowing how others have handled devastating situations with poise and affirmation, strengthens us. Enlightens us.

Rest in Power, Shannon Williams. We imagine that you are with Robyn Few, Gabriela Leite and all the rest from our movement who have passed after giving us so much of themselves. Our other mothers, that we hold so close in our hearts. Your children will proudly carry their memories of you for the rest of their lives, we are sure.

The Red Umbrella Babies Collective

Monica Jones says “come out in force on April 11” (interview with A Kiss for Gabriela)

Monica Jones is an Arizona based human rights defender who was wrongfully arrested by a rights violating police operation known as Project ROSE. Monica has always fought for the rights of her community, pressuring for gender neutral bathrooms at Phoenix College and vocally opposing SB 1062–a bill that would allow businesses to discriminate against any group including LGBT people for any religious reason–at the Phoenix Capitol building. Yesterday, Monica went to court for her trial supported by organizations in Phoenix, across the United States, in many other countries and by activists at the United Nations. This is her first interview since her trial was unexpectedly postponed. In this exclusive interview by Penelope Saunders for A Kiss for Gabriela, Monica shares about her ongoing campaign and what was learned in room 706 at Phoenix Municipal Court yesterday. BPPP hosted the interview for A Kiss for Gabriela due to a technical issue with their website that is now fixed and the complete interview can be viewed there.

Questionable Practices: Arresting people “for their own good” violates social work ethics

Stephanie Wahab and Meg Panichelli provide a succinct analysis of the ethical considerations associated with diversion programs that arrest people in the sex trade in order to force them to accept services. Their commentary which appears in a 2013 edition of AFFILIA, a peer reviewed social work journal addressing the concerns of social workers and their clients from a feminist point of view, challenges the “assumption that arresting (or participating in the arrest of) people ‘for their own good’ constitutes good or ethical social work practice.” The authors conclude that, “targeting people for arrest under the guise of helping them violates numerous ethical standards as well as the humanity of people engaged in the sex industry” and express concerns that such an approach “constitutes an act of structural violence against individuals who already frequently report negative, discriminatory, and often violent encounters with law enforcement including people with precarious migratory or citizenship status, poor, youth, transgender, and people of color.”

The example that sparked the writing of the AFFILIA editorial is Project ROSE, a program in which social workers from Arizona State University  School of Social Work and some service providers collaborate with city wide raids orchestrated by the Phoenix Police Department.

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New York is finally considering saying “no” to using condoms as evidence

“I’m damned if I do, I’m damned if I don’t.  I don’t want to get any disease but I do want to make my money… Why do they take your condoms, do they want us to die, do they want us to get something?”
– New York-based Sex Worker (Public Health Crisis: The Impact of Using Condoms as Evidence of Prostitution in New York City, April 2012 Report).

It may have taken over ten years, but a New York State Assembly bill to prohibit condoms as evidence in prostitution cases is finally catching the attention of District Attorneys and the New York State legislature.  Last week, New York State Assembly and Council Members, the Kings County (Brooklyn) and Nassau County District Attorney’s office, along with human rights groups and legal advocates – Red Umbrella Project, Human Rights Watch, the Sex Workers Project, Make the Road New York, Streetwise and Safe, and the New York Civil Liberties Union- gathered on the steps of New York City Hall for the “No Condoms As Evidence” press rally.  Organized by the No Condoms as Evidence Coalition, these groups gathered to urge the passage of NY State bill S1379/A2736, also known as the No Condoms as Evidence bill. This is an inclusive bill that would prevent prosecutors from introducing condoms as evidence in prostitution cases, including cases involving victims of trafficking. New York has a history of police confiscating condoms from people perceived to be engaged in sex work, particularly targeting transgender and gender non-conforming persons.

The Urban Justice Center and the PROS Network released a report in April 2012 on the impact of using condoms as evidence finding that over 50 percent of the NY-based respondents interviewed had condoms confiscated based on police profiling them as a sex worker.  Seventy-five percent of transgender women and gender non-conforming people interviewed reported that they did not carry condoms on them for fear of being arrested by the police.

Seeing District Attorneys and sex workers’ rights groups together addressing sex workers’ right to carry condoms without the fear of being arrested demonstrated important progress for sex workers and allies.  This, of course, does not mean that all D.A.s are fully committed to ending the use of condoms as evidence.  A recent New York Times article revealed that some of the City’s D.A.s stated that they would still continue to allow condoms as evidence of human trafficking, despite adopting a policy that would not allow condoms in prostitution cases.

The press rally also spotlighted the problem of police profiling of members of the LGBTQ community—especially transgender women—as sex workers.  Queens Councilmember, Jimmy Van Bramer spoke on the City Hall steps stating, “No assumptions should ever be made about anyone who carries condoms.”  Yhatzine LaFountain, a member of immigrant rights group, Make the Road New York stated, “I have experienced firsthand how the police profile transgender women like me, confiscate our condoms and arrest us for walking the street as ‘trans’… Condoms are supposed to protect us, not turn us into criminals.”

Supporters of the bill are working to have the bill passed by the NY State Assembly by the end of the June session.


Guest blogger Kat Thomas attended the June 6, 2013 rally and press conference on the steps of NYC Hall organized by the No Condoms as Evidence Coalition and provided the Best Practices Policy Project with the above post.