My interests in the intersections between gender and labor, along with research on sexuality, led me quite naturally to the history and representation of sex work, a topic I’ve now studied for over twenty years. In 2007, having recently moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, I began teaching a course on the history of the sex workers’ rights movement. Through this, I got to know some people at the St. James Infirmary (SJI). Recognized internationally as a model for peer-based, nonjudgmental health care and founded by the sex worker icon Margo St. James, the clinic offers free health care to sex workers and their families. The clinic also leads and participates in campaigns for changes to public policy and police practices in support of sex workers’ rights, advancing harm reduction as the primary methodology of care.

I quickly realized that I also wanted to pursue a visual project with the clinic, one that would continue my practice of using photography and public art to highlight labor activists whose work often renders them invisible. I contacted then director Naomi Akers and offered to volunteer in the clinic. My hope was to meet and get to know sex workers there. My preferred approach in such projects is to get to know a community of activists by contributing to their efforts in some way, only then considering how to represent them. I was up front with Naomi about this ultimate goal.

Naomi interviewed me to be a volunteer, asking me about my history with sex work and with activism, why I wanted to volunteer, and what skills might I bring. Naomi reviewed my qualifications and told me that what they needed most from me was graphic design. So for the next few years, my volunteer work was done without ever working at the clinic. I designed club cards to distribute promoting the available services; business cards; the clinic’s newsletter; a three-hundred-page resource guide; countless T-shirts, tote bags, stickers, and other swag; banners for Pride parades; and even a condom wrapper. (The condom wrapper was used for a campaign to insist that the SFPD stop using possession of a condom as evidence of solicitation.) What became clear to me those first few years was this: SJI is almost entirely peer run, and I was not a peer. I understood implicitly that, before allowing me to spend time in the space of the clinic, a precious space that needed to be diligently guarded because it is a safe space for sex workers, they would need to get to know me very well, to understand my motivations and my disposition toward sex work, and generally come to trust a person who would be engaging with clinic participants, most of whom relied on livelihoods that are criminalized and deeply stigmatized.

Somewhere around two and a half years in, I again broached the subject of volunteering to work in the clinic, and was told (finally!) there was a need for someone to staff the “community room” on Wednesday evenings during drop-in clinic hours. I gladly accepted. My tasks included putting out the hot food that restaurants would drop off on Wednesday afternoon (and cleaning up at closing); organizing the food pantry and clothes closet (participants were free to take what they wanted from each of these); assisting participants in the use of the one computer for internet, printing job applications or résumés, or any other purpose; and anything else that needed to be done. To a large extent, my role was also to keep people company while they waited for medical appointments or peer-to-peer counseling sessions. Once, I was asked to keep a participant company while we awaited city services to arrive after the participant agreed to a wellness check—they had been speaking of harming themselves. While others scurried around to make the arrangements, I sat on the floor under a table with this person, holding their hand and making small talk just to keep them occupied until the help arrived.

About four years in, Naomi and I agreed that I would produce a public media campaign for the clinic, with the theme “Someone You Know Is a Sex Worker.” For this project, I enlisted the collaboration of my dear friend and mentor Barbara DeGenevieve. Barbara and I conducted interviews and photo shoots with twenty-seven sex workers, their care providers, and their partners. The entire community was involved in the project. Naomi and I held meetings open to community members to decide on the quotes that would appear under the photographs, the wording of the release form signed by those photographed, the details of the opening event, and more.

It was at one of those meetings, around 2011, that someone first described me as an “ally.” The term had clearly existed prior to that, but it was the first time I had heard it. I liked the term, and adopted it proudly. It was useful to me, because I did not want to be disingenuous when speaking of my work with the SJI community. That is, when I would explain to someone—whether a friend, someone at my workplace, or someone within the sex workers’ rights community—that the clinic is 95 percent peer run, I realized quickly that that person was wondering if I was a sex worker in addition to being an artist, designer, historian, and full-time academic. The people I had gotten to know at SJI self-identified as sex workers, a title they understood to confer pride, dignity, and political solidarity. I never wanted to give the wrong impression or appear to be claiming something that I was not. So now I could say, SJI is 95 percent peer run with the additional support of some allies, such as myself.

In the years since, the term ally has gained currency in a number of circles around a wide variety of issues, perhaps most centrally to describe white people who join the fight for racial justice. More recently, some have been accused of “performative allyship,” defined as the expression of support for a group or a cause with the sole aim of increasing one’s own social capital. Within the sex workers’ rights community, questions have arisen around who can claim to be a sex worker, an ally, an advocate, or an activist.

Regarding the term sex worker, I appreciate the definition that circulated among the activists at SJI. Quite deliberately, that community proclaimed a sex worker to be anyone who has sold or traded sex (defined as broadly as possible) for money or sustenance of any kind—a big tent that brings together in political and social unity everyone from highly paid escorts, to adult film stars, to marginally housed individuals who might choose on a given night to trade sex for a bed to sleep in. The ability to self-identify as a sex worker had a practical imperative at the clinic as well, as it defines eligibility for services. The intake form includes a simple question, “Do you identify as a sex worker?,” and if one ticks the box for yes, they are admitted.

As for the usage of the term ally, what does it mean to be friend or advocate? To some extent, it’s fair to say that there are no unselfish acts. I recognize that my work in support of SJI, for example, accrues advantage for me in the form of publications, exhibitions, or other recognition in my career as a researcher and academic. And yet I wouldn’t do this work if I didn’t also believe in, and hope to further, its political, social, and cultural aims. I do understand the importance of centering the voices of sex workers in all decisions that impact them, from policy and legal matters to any forms of representation. “Nothing about us without us” is a key phrase that sex workers’ rights adopted from the disability rights movements. I therefore see my role as an ally as being to amplify the voices of the sex workers with whom I work, while never claiming to speak on their behalf. That is my definition of allyship.