Sex Workers and Drug Users Speak Out in Philadelphia

By Courtenay Harris Bond 07/27/17

“I don’t have to change the prostitution part because that’s – that’s who I am. But I have to change the drug use so that I can be a productive member of society.”

sex workers and allies congregate outside of the Philadelphia Assembled project dome
photo by Jeffrey Stockbridge

Casey, 42, is a sex worker in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, who only wanted to use her first name.

“This is the way that I am in my life right now, making money and taking care of myself financially, and I actually enjoy it,” she said before she spoke to a group of other sex workers and allies recently gathered as part of the Philadelphia Assembled project.

Philadelphia Assembled aims to share diverse narratives to help describe the shifting fabric of the city, the result of a long-term collaboration between the Philadelphia Museum of Art, volunteers, collectives and organizations. Some of these groups have been presenting programming in a tented, dome-shaped “living room” in Lubert Plaza on Thomas Jefferson University’s Campus this summer.

“We are a sanctuary city Philadelphia, but what does that actually mean?” wondered Ask Nicely, one of the steward’s of the Philadelphia Assembled space. “Technically it means that the police do not share certain information with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). That’s it. But in the City of Brotherly Love, sisterly affections and otherly ardour, how do we walk the walk of being an open city?”

Philadelphia Assembled’s focus on a recent Friday evening was on sanctuary in street economies, raising questions about where drug users and sex workers find feelings of peace and belonging. Project SAFE, a grassroots, all-volunteer organization that does outreach with intravenous drug users and sex workers in Kensington, and the Philadelphia Red Umbrella Alliance, a sex workers’ collective, visited the dome to share their stories.

photo by Jeffrey Stockbridge

Many of the people who spoke about their drug use said they would like to get into treatment; but few said they would quit sex work, despite the dangers.

“I’ve been raped so many times, it’s just part of a normal day,” said Ilsa Padua, 49, who has been a sex worker in Kensington for 20 years. “It’s just part of a normal day. The last time I got raped, I went home and took a shower and went back out. It’s just normality for me.

“I’ve been stabbed. Beat up. But you just learn how to take it. You don’t have no choice but to. You need to survive. You just have to have that second coating on your skin you know.”

Padua has been homeless in the past and is addicted to heroin and cocaine, she said before the presentations. But she recently found housing, and she is hoping to get into drug treatment.

As rain hammered down on the dome, another sex worker who goes by the name Dom told the group that drug use and sex work go hand-in-hand for her.

“It keeps money in my pocket to get more, more of what I need,” Dom said.

“But also it’s killed a lot of people that I love. And it’s killing me,” Dom added about her substance use. She said she recently lost several friends to overdoses.

“I know that I have to change,” Dom said. “I don’t have to change the prostitution part because that’s – that’s who I am. But I have to change the drug use so that I can be a productive member of society.”

A woman named Kat said she began using drugs at 14. She is 21 now. Kat said she started sex work when she moved to Philadelphia about a year ago and only recently started using heroin. She cried when she talked about how she felt when people looked at her on the street.

“It’s hard if I’m just standing on the corner and somebody drives by,” she said. “It’s like I see the way that I’m looked at. And it doesn’t make me feel good.”

At the same time, Kat defended her way of life.

“It’s my choice, and nobody’s making me do it,” she said. “Nobody’s forcing me to. It is a means of survival, and I don’t think anybody should be put down for choosing to do that with their bodies. Everybody has their different ways of getting by.”

Kat has been homeless but right now rents a room in Kensington with her boyfriend. She said that she finds sanctuary in Project SAFE’s ladies’ night, where she goes to take a break from the street every other Tuesday at Prevention Point Philadelphia – a needle exchange, shelter and social services agency. Others agreed that Project SAFE was a lifeline for them.

“The community has been the sanctuary for me, because I did sex work alone for over a decade and have only just now met other sex workers and allies,” said another woman, Lore, about joining Project SAFE and the collective. “I find that I am happier, more fulfilled, smarter, and able to share that with other people now that I’m out about it.”

photo by Jeffrey Stockbridge

Establishing a sense of empowerment and community is crucial – even lifesaving –for sex workers, said Amanda Spitfire and Aisha Mohammed, Project SAFE volunteers and the evening’s organizers.

“A lot of the stories were really painful, involved a lot of pain and sadness and hardship and difficulty, and I think that that’s really important to recognize that that’s a part of it, too,” Mohammed said after the event. “But that’s not a reason to abolish the sex industry altogether. Those are the reasons to make it safer – to make conditions safer and better and more lucrative for people who are doing it.”

One of those who is trying to make sex work safer and more profitable for those in New Jersey is longtime sex worker, Janet Duran. She spoke about the challenges of facing multiple incarcerations and losing custody of her children. She and an ally who uses only his first name, Derek, are trying to organize sex workers into a collective called the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance.

Sex workers and allies at the Philadelphia Assembled event also remembered the life of Sharmus Outlaw, a transgender activist from Washington D.C., who was a tireless advocate for all workers. She encouraged sex workers to speak out, people gathered in the dome recalled.

“Being able to have a voice as a sex worker was Sharmus’ thing,” said transgender activist Cayenne Doroshow. “She really loved this work. She really loved what she was doing.”

Phoebe Bachman, Philadelphia Assembled project coordinator and collaborator for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said that she was moved by hearing the women speak about their sex work. “It’s so often hidden and stigmatized, but these women are powerful,” Bachman said.

The Sanctuary dome will be part of a temporary installation about Philadelphia Assembled at The Philadelphia Museum of Art beginning Sept. 9.

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Courtenay Harris Bond is a freelance journalist and blogger from Pennsylvania. She covers health, social issues and family life.  She can be found on Twitter.