The Sex Workers Outreach Project, or SWOP for short, is a nationwide organization whose goals are to advocate for sex workers’ rights and work to reduce the violence that often accompanies the sex trade. Today, we’re speaking with Ms. Sassy Sherry, Executive Director of the SWOP San Antonio chapter, about being an advocate for sex workers and some of the issues that are facing sex workers today.
C.J. Asher – First of all, thank you for this interview! Tell me a bit about yourself…
Ms. Sassy Sherry – Hi, and thank YOU for asking me for the interview. I am fifty-one years old now, my birthday is on June 2nd, which is also “International Whore’s Day” and I absolutely LOVE having my birthday on what I consider to be a High Whore Day, love, love, love it. I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, on the “other” side of 8-mile road, in a middle-class suburb and taught Southern Baptist philosophies. I took and passed the G.E.D. exam when I was sixteen years old and then left Detroit when I was seventeen to marry a sailor, who had just got out of basic training. Since he was in the military, we moved around a lot, at first. We started off in Saratoga Springs, New York, then Summerville/Charleston, South Carolina, then to the North-East towns of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Kittery and Portland, Maine. I left him when my mom died and settled down in St Petersburg, Florida in December of 1989. I stayed in St. Pete almost twenty years, working as an escort the entire time. I then moved to Tennessee in 2007, leaving Florida and my life there behind, after being departed from prison for the THIRD time. Clarksville and Nashville, Tennessee sucked, so in 2008, I left and moved to San Antonio, Texas, where my brother, who was taking care of my son, had retired after twenty years in the Army. When I was thirty years old, I earned an A.S. in Business Administration with a focus on management and adopted a newborn child from a best friend that bore him just for me, he is twenty years old now, lol, and she and I remain close friends.
C.J. Asher – Tell me about SWOP (Sex Workers Outreach Project), its mission and goals.
Ms. Sassy Sherry – Well, C.J., our mission at SWOP is to support the human rights of sex workers and to restore our dignity by removing the stigma that we are covered with and educating our communities about the harms that criminalizing us creates. Our goal is to see full decriminalization of prostitution.
C.J. Asher – How did you first become involved with the SWOP organization?
Ms. Sassy Sherry – When I left Florida in 2007, C.J., I was so lonely and lost. It was a “death,” of sorts, of me, my friends, my life, my lifestyle, of everything and everyone I had known for the last nineteen years, and loved. It was gone, I had to leave it all behind me now, because I could no longer keep living the way I was living there. I was grieving all that. I started searching for support groups for prostitutes on the internet. I was looking for a group that would not shame me or negate me and my entire life but that would instead understand me and accept me for who I was, my choices and who I am now. Unfortunately, at that time, there was nothing coming up in my various worded searches for support. I didn’t give up though. So, every now and then I would do my usual “keyword” searches hoping that I would soon find a group or something that was positive and supportive of prostitutes. Finally, around 2009, organizations started showing up in my searches, but more so as Facebook and Twitter groups. I joined a few groups and quietly started learning about them and what they were about. The next thing I know, there are countless groups and numerous individuals online and they’re all talking about human rights for hookers and publicly sharing their stories, it seemed to almost explode overnight.
I was – and still am – astounded that there was so much going on concerning prostitution and sex workers rights. I mean, where the fuck had I been living all these years to NOT know about all this, under a rock? But, anyway, after becoming aware of the movement, I was so captivated by it that I barely left my computer, wanting to learn and know everything that was going on. One day, I notice that a new organization is on Facebook and Twitter and they have a catchy name that I like, so I start following them. And then I start to notice that the same organization is in another city, and then another city, AND THEN ANOTHER CITY. But none of them were coming up in a city anywhere close to San Antonio. I kept watching the organization and getting excited thinking that they would soon be in San Antonio. And I kept watching and waiting, watching and waiting…
Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore so I emailed them to ask when they would be starting a group in San Antonio. But as my luck would have it, there were no immediate plans for San Antonio. Fortunately for me though, the board of directors just so happened to be in Dallas for their annual retreat and two members of the board would be in San Antonio the following week and one of them graciously offered to meet with me. I met with the two board members in my home that we and we had a good discussion and I really liked the women, so we decided that I would be the one to organize the San Antonio chapter. That was in April of 2015 and on April 14th, 2015, I launched our first website, Sex Workers Outreach Project of San Antonio or SWOP SATX. Yep, that organization was/is SWOP, USA and I quietly watched them as they quickly grew to have chapters in several cities across America. C.J., Joining SWOP and organizing a chapter in San Antonio was a lifesaver for me, especially at that time in my life. Had that not happened exactly when it did, well, I hate to think of where I might be now. This song explains how being included and accepted into the SWOP family and organizing a chapter in San Antonio made me feel then and now. To be able to finally talk about my life, my job, to say things aloud, like “prostitute”, was so freeing for me, the chains had finally broken, I was walking on air, I felt good, I felt like this…
C.J. Asher – What are some of the greatest threats facing sex workers today?
Ms. Sassy Sherry – Since we are still considered criminals, the threat of being arrested for prostitution is always there, lurking, not to mention, that some of us are now being charged with trafficking… trafficking of our own selves. One arrest can become a vicious cycle; it can create so much damage to our regular, everyday lives and bring financial destitution, that some of us can never get out of doing sex work, even IF we wanted to. This damage spreads out to our children’s lives, our family, it just destroys everything about us, about our lives. You know, the courts order us to pay fines and court costs, they make us go to many unnecessary classes that we must pay for, then there are probation fees and on top of all that, if we are lucky, we will still have our children to provide food and shelter for. The chances of getting a job at McDonalds become close to impossible. Even if we successfully complete all the classes, counseling and pay for all the bullshit that the courts order us to comply with. No one wants to hire someone with any type of criminal background and a prostitution charge on our record is as prejudicial as a theft or murder charge. if not more so. Throughout this whole process, we are being shamed, humiliated, and made to feel inferior by the people that the justice system has forced us to report to and comply with, all the while, there are several greedy hands reaching for, no demanding our money with threats of jail and prison behind their smiles as they are taking our last penny while looking down their noses at us. But that’s not all, C.J. As criminals, we tend to get targeted by all kinds of psychopaths and subjected to varying degrees of violence. These predators might come dressed as the regular guy next door, he could be a new client or one you have known for a while, he might be the creepy guy that you have seen lurking around, but many times he will be wearing the uniform he was given when he swore to protect and uphold the law. Probation officers, doctors, counselors, correctional officers also target us for their violent tendencies, we are not immune from anyone nor are we afforded any protections from this violence against us. The list goes on…
Healthcare for many of us is hard to get, if we can get it at all, and having a criminal record makes housing even more unattainable for many of us. The stigma, discrimination, and fear of being arrested and charged with trafficking, isolates most of us, thereby reducing our safety factors of working with others or having drivers, etc. Many of us are parents and risk losing our children if someone finds out what we do and drops a dime to child protective services or they are called because we got caught up in a sting. All this shit causes so much damage to our soul, right down to our core; this is what truly causes our scars and the reason some of us end up suffering from P.T.S.D. It’s not our work, it is because of the maltreatment of us from those who work in the criminal justice system and what they, basically, force us to comply with, along with the cruel, isolating treatment from the people in our communities.
The ones who hire us for a service are, usually, the ones who treat us the best. My clients have always assuaged my esteem, fed my soul, and gave me life and hope.
C.J. Asher – Why, in your opinion, should sex work be decriminalized as opposed to simply legalized?
Ms. Sassy Sherry – I feel like this: the local governments have profited off our backs for centuries, even before it was criminalized and then with all the money from the fines and fees they made off us once it became a crime. They have used, manipulated and blackmailed us long enough. Legalization, to me, means that I would be working for someone. Forced to pay fees for whatever the “powers that be” decide there needs to be a fee for. Decriminalization, to me, means that I am free to choose the way in which I work, whether it be as an independent contractor or in a brothel, massage parlor, or for an escort agency… MY choice. I’m an independent contractor, always have been, and as such, I am perfectly capable of obtaining my own business license, keeping my own records and filing my own self-employment taxes. I am also capable of going in for regular health screens on my own, providing it is accessible and without discrimination and stigma. I do not need them holding my hand to do these things as they greedily wait for me to hand over my hard-earned cash to pay for “made-up” fees and expenses. I can also get my own job in a brothel or parlor of my choosing, should I want to hand the reigns over to someone else and still work. I am an adult, I do not need nor want so many “pimps” in my pockets telling me what to do, how to do it, when to do it, where to do it, or how long I must do it, and have to pay each person telling me what, where, how, and who.
C.J. Asher – What are your thoughts on the brothel model, as currently exists legally in Nevada?
Ms. Sassy Sherry – I think there are too many costs, rules, and restrictions in Nevada. This works for some of us, just not for me. I started on the streets of Detroit, for a very brief period of my life when I was sixteen years old. At seventeen, I left Michigan with a sailor and married him. Soon after that, I found myself up in New Hampshire getting it on with some chick on a regular basis while hubby was out to sea. She would disappear every weekend to work. Finally, I asked her what she did cuz she always had WADS of cash. C.J., I wanted wads of cash like that too, who wouldn’t? Turned out that she worked as a masseuse for a massage parlor in Portland, Maine, an hour’s drive from Portsmouth, N.H. where we lived. So, one day I asked her if they would hire me too, she took me up there, I got hired and worked there for the next five years. Now at this place, if we had TWO clients while working any one shift (there were 2 shifts per day, some of us would work both shifts), we would pay the house $20 and given a receipt for it. Every two weeks we would get a paycheck in the amount for what we had paid in to the house, minus taxes and FICA. In actuality, we were refunded our house by way of a legitimate payroll check that we could use to prove income with and most of us also filed taxes at the end of the year. Testing wasn’t an issue back then (because) HIV had not yet been named. I started sex work around the same time that the virus had started taking lives and there was almost nothing known about it. Most of us took precautions just because of all the other STD’s and we were all concerned about this mysterious virus, of course, but testing of any kind, for anything was not required. But anyways, that’s how a brothel/massage parlor should be, in my opinion.
C.J. Asher – What types of upcoming events will SWOP-San Antonio be hosting?
Ms. Sassy Sherry – We are getting ready for our 2nd annual, strategic planning meeting coming up in February 2017. The grand finale of 2016, for me, is that the Pride center of San Antonio has asked me to be on the planning committee for their second, annual New Year’s Kiki event, for which I accepted, am honored to help plan, and excited to bring in an awesome 2017 with them.
C.J. Asher – What types of legislative efforts are SWOP currently supporting, as well as which ones are you opposing and fighting?
Ms. Sassy Sherry – SWOP recently supported the porn industry on Prop 60 and WON. Now, we are focused on supporting the CEO’s of Backpage.com and working to help them win, no get dismissed the bogus charges that the top three executives have been charged with.
C.J. Asher – How can people help to support SWOP-San Antonio and its members?
Ms. Sassy Sherry – We need more volunteers and members. We also need donations, cash, nonperishable snack foods, makeup and hygiene items, especially tampons and sanitary napkins, bottled water and soft drinks for our outreach nights.
C.J. Asher – Why do you feel that politicians and other members of government are against decriminalization of sex work?
Ms. Sassy Sherry – The money, jails, prisons, and what would the cops do with themselves now? Solve a real crime, maybe? Hell, with the way they target us for arrest, how would they make their payrolls without us? (laughs)
C.J. Asher – Tell me about some of the sex workers you know, and how their lives, both personal and professional, differ from common misconceptions about sex workers.
Ms. Sassy Sherry – I know all kinds of sex workers, from all walks of life, working in different fields of sex work. One of my favorites is someone I will call CT. She has done full contact sex work off and on for over twenty years. She bought a house and raised her three children with very little state help, no baby daddy’s help, and never had Child Protective Services harass her or a criminal charge against her. She has remained close to her mother and father and basically lives what many would call a “normal” life. She is now putting herself through college since two of her kids are now grown and have left home. She is actually the birth mother of my son. We planned a pregnancy, with sperm donor’s consent, just so I could have a child of my own. For that alone, I will always love her. We are still friends to this day and my son knows her too.
Then there is PM, a full contact sex worker, a stripper, a nurse aide, and a single mother. This girl was full of life and a bit wild. But we hustled so good together. I would waitress at whatever club she danced in and we worked as a team, I would get her lap dances and she always stayed in my area of service and if a dude liked her but was sitting in another waitress’s area, she made him come to “our” area, lol. Whether in the club or a client’s house, it was teamwork. She worked forty hours a week at a nursing home, but baby, once she was off the clock, it was on. She didn’t give a rat’s ass who knew what she did and she did what she wanted. She paid her bills, owned her mobile home and the land it was on and raised her daughter by herself. She and I shared a birthday, June 2nd, only she was five years older than me. Unfortunately, she passed away in her sleep about five years ago. That was my girl, though. I loved her to death. Her daughter and I are still close; I am the only “family” she has.
C.J. Asher – Why do you feel there is such a negative stigmatism against sex work, and sex workers, in our country today?
Ms. Sassy Sherry – Not everyone can do this type of work. It takes a special kind of person to handle this job and there has always been a certain belief concerning women and men of our nature. But anyone who is different than the “sheep” or the “followers” almost always gets stigmatized, whether it be an addiction, a physical or mental illness or a propensity for sex work. I think that women, in general, feel threatened by us and that they keep us stigmatized due to their own feelings of inferiority or maybe jealousy because of their inability to perform acts that we don’t have a problem doing. I also feel that the stigma was cultivated with the criminalization of our work. Sure, we have always been considered immoral people, but we were right in the middle of our towns, knocking down the whiskey and hiking up our skirts with the town’s men. We didn’t hide back then. We lived our lives publicly.
They made our work a crime and caused us to go underground. Whispers and rumors started about who was and who wasn’t a whore and we slowly got pushed into the shadows. Some people who are not whores have been stigmatized as a whore just because an upper crust bitch may not have liked her or felt threatened by her, so they start their gossip and telling lies and cause harm to get the person out of their way. Ya know, C.J., I have to point out that at one time in America, almost EVERY major city had their own Red Light District and that prostitution was not even a crime until around the 1940’s, for San Antonio it became a criminal act in 1941. San Antonio also had the third largest Red Light District in America, called “The Sporting District”, coming in behind San Francisco’s “Barbary Coast” and New Orleans “Storyville”.
C.J. Asher – What are your thoughts on the Nordic Model, an effort to curb prostitution by making it illegal to buy, but not to sell, sex?
Ms. Sassy Sherry – This is just the stupidest law ever, I mean, really? This is like saying it’s legal to sell beer but illegal to drink it. It’s a contradiction, how can you make one half of a business transaction legal while making the other half of illegal? It’s just stupid and creates more harm for us. We do less screening, lessen our rates, and accept clients that we would usually deny our services to, just so we can keep paying our rent and feeding our families.
C.J. Asher – Can you tell me one or two positive experiences that you’ve had while working with SWOP-San Antonio?
Ms. Sassy Sherry – C.J., the entire experience of working with SWOP San Antonio (SWOP SATX) has been positive for me. It has renewed me, lifted me up, and given me something to fight for. My life has been full of adventure and well-rounded, I have very few regrets, my choice in being a sex worker for my entire career is not one of them, however, I do regret that I did not find out about the sex workers rights movement much sooner.