Alisha Walker has two notable birthmarks: one on her face, and one on her leg. When she was fifteen, she got a tattoo to cover the one on her leg. “There’s flowers, cheetah print, a bird; it says Envy Me on the back and there are bows,” she describes. (Her very first tattoo, which “hurt like hell,” is on her kneecap.) The second birthmark is on her forehead, and she told me it was a source of teasing in school and continued embarrassment—the reason for her bangs and concealer. It’s visible in the mugshot that accompanies the 2016 Chicago Sun Times story about her, headlined “Fifteen years for prostitute in fatal stabbing of Brother Rice teacher.” The birthmark is smaller than I thought it would be.
I learned about Walker’s case through Support Ho(s)e, a Chicago and New York City-based collective of sex workers and accomplices (as many of the activists call themselves) that has been a source of support and advocacy for Walker throughout her trial and incarceration. The year Walker was arrested, I attended a vigil in Millennium Park marking the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. There, the collective read and remembered the names of murdered sex workers from around the world. The lengthy list was spirit-breaking. Members of the collective were crying silently: some stood upright, while others were hunched in defense against the subzero weather. One used their lighter as a candle. The mood was one of resilience, but you could feel how much effort it took.
I wrote a story about the vigil for a local news organization and began to communicate regularly with Red Schulte, a nonbinary organizer with Support Ho(s)e. Schulte told me Walker had just been transferred from Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois to the Decatur Correctional Center almost an hour south, where rules for prisoners were tougher. Schulte and other Support Ho(s)e members visited Walker regularly and contributed funds to her commissary. They had also recruited a strong legal team for her. As I became more interested in the case—drawn in by the discrepancies between how Walker’s supporters described her and how popular media was portraying her—my desire to write about Walker grew.
I considered whether I was up to the task. Chicago’s queer and sex work communities overlap somewhat, but at best I was adjacent to the latter. Writers like Melissa Gira Grant, Juno Mac, Molly Smith, and Charlotte Shane—who have personal experience doing sex work—write with nuance and compassion about other workers. Yet most coverage of the world of sex work is patronizing and sensationalistic: voices of academics or government authorities are privileged over those of workers; articles are accompanied by hyper-sexualized photos of thighs in fishnet stockings and feet in high heels; journalists publish information about rape and HIV status without workers’ consent. And while there is certainly some strong, responsible reporting about sex work, many journalists still struggle to write accurately and thoughtfully about the stigmatized profession.
In her photo on the Illinois Department of Corrections website, Walker is smiling. Her hair is crimped, her eyebrows impeccable arcs, her green eyes warm and mischievous. Since she entered the corrections system, her body has changed. Prison food has caused her to gain weight, and sometimes her skin breaks out. She conceals her blemishes with the limited makeup she’s allowed to have.
Photos of her before her arrest, at her home in Ohio, show a woman who knows herself well enough to adjust her appearance to a mood. She’s five feet and ten inches tall, and manages to look shorter or taller as the situation demands. In one portrait, she wears a lacy white top and is turned toward the camera with an earnest look, as if someone has just said “I love you.” In another photo she wears white jeans, a striped sweater, and glasses, and she’s laughing in a bumper car, steering towards her friend. Another shows her in a car, checking her phone; she’s wearing a crop top and tights, and her legs are folded so her knees are a few inches away from her chin. Yet another shows the length of her body in a mirror, modeling a new outfit and holding her phone at the best angle to capture her full height. She is self-possessed in every image, her makeup expert, her skin smooth, her birthmarks invisible.
I wanted to write about violence against sex workers and the need for decriminalization, but I felt like the story of Walker’s life should be told as well. As I researched, Schulte kept me updated. Behind bars, Walker was giving her fellow inmates makeovers and poring over autobiographies by Angela Davis and Assata Shakur. She was reading Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me. She was eager to talk.
Before the event that would land her in prison, Walker lived in Akron, Ohio with her mother, Sherri Chatman. Chatman describes her daughter as “very outgoing” and a “social butterfly.” For her part, Walker explains her high school experience by way of her friends and their quirks: Jessica was “thick” and stripped, Cassie had a “gangster” boyfriend. Walker clearly loves her family—her mother, her stepfather Derrick, her half-siblings Erricka and Derrick Jr.—and happily assumed the role of doting older sister.
But sometimes her passion led to conflict. During high school, her fights with Chatman escalated quickly and left both parties feeling wounded. After one such fight, Walker moved into the home of her best friend, and allowed that friend’s father to assume guardianship. He sold marijuana, and soon Walker was selling for him. She was sixteen years old.
Most of Walker’s customers were strippers at the local club, XTC. After she’d been selling there for a little while, she realized she’d look less suspicious if she worked there as a stripper herself. Cassie and Jessica had a friend who looked a lot like Walker and was of legal age to strip. Using her doppelgänger’s ID and social security number, Walker took a job at the club.
The place was an extrovert’s paradise, pulsing with bodies and flashing lights. Walker felt like a rock star moving in rhythm to the music, the pole a useful prop, a rapt audience at her feet. She wore a thong, miniskirt, and bikini top or a bra, or a panty set with a see-through dress, paired with tall Lucite heels. Some of the men wanted sex from her, and expected that in her position, she wanted it from them, too. But the house protected her. Patrons could leer all they wanted, fixate on her body and the way it looked, the way it moved—but they were not allowed to touch her. It was as if she were jewel-encrusted, sharp to the touch, her beauty weaponized against the men who wanted so desperately to possess it. “I never really felt pretty until I started dancing, having all the customers’ eyes on me, asking for my attention, paying to look at my body,” Walker told me.
It wasn’t long before Walker’s father pro tempore found out she was stripping and called her mother, who in turn called the police. Walker was arrested and held in a juvenile detention center for two hours until Chatman came to pick her up. When her court date arrived, Walker was fined and placed on probation until the month before she turned eighteen. (The month-long grace period suggested that the judge might have had some sympathy, given Walker’s age.) Chatman paid the fine.
“It is what it is,” Chatman said of Walker’s stripping. “I love my baby to death no matter what. But not at age sixteen.”
So began a new chapter in Walker’s life. She moved back in with her mother and in the mornings, worked toward her GED. In the afternoons and evenings, she worked a slew of minimum-wage jobs: at Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Ebsco Telemarketing, Smart Sense Cleaning. “I was so used to the money I was making before, working one job wasn’t enough,” she said, explaining why she juggled multiple gigs. “I wasn’t just going to go to school and sit there and be broke.”
Walker got her GED just before she turned eighteen. She kept living with Chatman, working at Ebsco and Wendy’s. Then, on her eighteenth birthday, she was sitting at a desk at Ebsco, staring at a computer screen. “I’m off probation, this job sucks,” Walker remembers thinking. “I’m tired of looking at this screen every day.” So she quit and called a friend who had stripped and now worked at a nearby gas station. The two got drinks and reminisced about stripping: the lights, the money, the way they could spend the entire night partying without going broke. The way it gave them the ability to provide for themselves, and to chip in at home. The next day, Walker returned to her old job at the club.
Once Walker turned eighteen, her mother didn’t oppose her working as a stripper. She would even loan her daughter her car so she could drive to the club. “I don’t judge what people do, how they live,” Chatman said. And Walker’s extra income was appreciated: during this period, Chatman worked first as a patient care technician at an assisted living center and then as a transportation specialist driving a shuttle at Akron-Canton Airport, providing not only for Alisha, Erricka, and Derrick Jr., but her husband Derrick, who was in and out of work, and Derrick’s daughter Brittney as well.
Walker worked at a club called The Spot, where she delighted in her youth and beauty. There, her life was becoming what she’d always wanted it to be: a non-stop party attended by a diverse crowd of friends, full of late nights and interesting people. She’d moved out of her mother’s house and into a duplex in Canton with Cassie, who was now pregnant. At night, she and Cassie bar-hopped, got invited to parties. When Jessica joined in, the three of them were unstoppable.
“Cassie and Jessica made me into a go-getter,” Walker said. “They made me want to be better at everything I did. I love being competitive. I love to win.” The three complemented one another’s personalities perfectly: Cassie was the responsible one, with a child to provide for, while Jessica couldn’t get enough of the party, or the money to be made. Next to them, Walker was a kaleidoscopic presence; her friends’ ambition inspired her to turn her joyful energy into something profitable. She and her friends liked dancing for customers at clubs and playing a game they called “Big Bank Take Little Bank”: the friend who made the most money got to keep everyone else’s. The winner was whoever ended up in highest demand among customers, bombarded with requests for dances.
Walker and her friends worked the club circuit. More patrons meant more money, which meant freedom and the opportunity to add to their families’ incomes. But they knew that if they started having sex with these men, things would change; the protection they enjoyed in public would slip away the moment they were alone with a client. Not that dancing doesn’t have its own perils—aggressive patrons, police surveillance, physical injuries, paying house fees to club owners—but a worker can walk away from a dance performance much more easily than a “full-service” sexual encounter.
Recreational marijuana use was not uncommon in Walker’s community, and she was able to supplement her income by dealing marijuana on the side—as long as she was stripping, she had a guaranteed clientele. So in December 2011, when Walker’s cousin asked her to do a drug drop in Chicago, she piled into a car with Cassie and two other friends and made the six-hour drive. Once the task for her cousin was done, she was determined to leave Chicago with no less than double the money she’d arrived with. This meant finding a strip club that would allow her and her friends to work without submitting to the bureaucracy of applications and background checks. They drove through the city and into the suburbs: no luck. Eventually a stranger pointed them in the direction of a club on the West Side, a “lockdown” that shut its doors after a certain hour and would only allow patrons out, not in.
Walker and her friends slid into the lockdown and wandered through the crowd. Around them, ragged baritones announced their intentions to “choose up”: they were pimps in the process of selecting women to work for them. Walker heard choruses of “daddy” echoing from every direction. She was out of her element, but she pushed forward. She knew she looked striking, probably one of the few biracial women in the club. The four friends made their way through the maze of bodies, trying, as they always did, to read the room: Who had money? Who wanted a dance? Who was the least likely to grope them? Who was the least likely to be dangerous? Then Walker felt someone grab her arm.
“You so pretty, you need to leave here and come with me,” a man’s voice said in her ear.
“A shock went through my body,” she told me. “It was like love at first thought.”
Walker loved Chicago. She loved the noise and the crowds and the opportunities to make new friends. Despite her earlier concerns about full-service sex work, the transition from stripping had come naturally. She saw full-service workers earning much more than she had dancing at XTC and wanted a part of it—so she learned the basics from another worker and found she was skilled at providing the combination of sexual contact and emotional labor necessary for a full-service encounter. Soon she branched out to fetish work and role-playing.
Now, instead of dancing for more than eight hours, nearly naked except for high heels, waiting for patrons’ money to hit the stage, she watched as clients placed hundred-dollar bills directly into her hands for far less time and work. And when she went home to Akron, it was with cash to spend. “I have always helped my family out financially, but stripping didn’t give me enough to help with all their bills or rent for five people,” Walker told me. “[Before], I could only help out here and there. If my mom called and asked for $20 or $50, I would give it to her immediately; dancing allowed me to do that. But it wasn’t until I moved to Chicago and started making real money that I could send large amounts. Then there was nothing they couldn’t ask for.” She was a major source of income for her family.
The guy Walker met at the lockdown, whom I’ll call Tycoon, had become her pimp. He was capable of adoring love as well as brutal violence. “Anything he said, I was down,” Walker said. He adorned her with designer gifts and told her she looked beautiful. More than once, she ran out of Tycoon’s apartment barefoot, terrified that he would hurt her. Chatman begged Walker to consider her safety, and bought her bus tickets back to Akron. Walker couldn’t quite explain why she stayed with him. No matter how many times she left, she always went back.
I first talked to Walker about Tycoon in 2017, during one of our initial interviews. The relationship had come to an end, and she was struggling to understand the lapse in confidence and self-direction she’d experienced while she was with him. She could barely stand to share details about Tycoon—what he looked like, how he spoke—and I had to phrase my questions carefully. I was aware that I was asking her to rehash her trauma without the ability to offer real succor. “He brainwashed me,” she told me. “I was gone.”
In order for me to talk to Walker, Chatman had to call me first. Then, through some mysterious mechanism of the prison phone system, I’d be “transferred” to Walker. We spoke for twenty-five-minute intervals, an automated voice interrupting to inform us that we only had five minutes, and then thirty seconds, left. When we were disconnected, Chatman would reconnect us quickly. She would do this as many times as funds allowed—though calls were relatively affordable at around 16 cents per minute, those minutes added up. During our calls, Walker didn’t talk about the books she was reading as much as the confidence lessons she was providing other inmates, and the entrepreneurial projects she wanted to pursue once she got out of prison (among them: a line of beauty products, a “gentleman’s paradise” where men could both watch sports and receive lap dances). Sometimes she was effusive, sometimes quiet.
In Chicago, Walker told me, Tycoon had other women working for him, too. They felt like Walker was stepping on their toes. These women would send Walker on full-service outcalls to dangerous neighborhoods—where she would have sex with clients in their homes—for $100. “If I didn’t have street smarts about me, who knows what would have happened,” she said. “But I didn’t want Tycoon mad at me, so I did the best I could.”
Once, in a Quality Inn, Walker gave a hand job to a client who paid her $150. Then the client demanded more sex, but refused to pay. When Walker reminded him that they had agreed upon certain services at a set price, the client became enraged. He grabbed her and threw her across the room, and as she fell she hit her head against the bathroom sink. He took her phone and left. Walker called the police, who chased the client down and took possession of her phone. Then they returned to the hotel room and arrested Walker. She was charged with prostitution because, she said, “the client had put his hands on me.”
“Most of the time girls have pimps, it’s for security,” Walker told me. “If something goes bad, you can’t tell the police. So who do you call? The guy who’s willing to go to hell and back for you, to protect you, because you’re his moneymaker.” The only thing standing between Walker’s body and the violence of clients was Tycoon. He was her safety, her bodyguard, even when he turned dangerous himself.
Walker told me she didn’t want to say anything about the night that had landed her in prison, not only for legal reasons, but because she felt she might break down.
Over the spring and summer of 2017, I talked to Walker, Chatman, and Schulte frequently. Through court documents and secondary sources, I reconstructed the night Walker didn’t want to talk about.
On January 18, 2014, Tycoon was in jail in Pennsylvania (no one can remember exactly why). Walker and a Chicago friend, whom I’ll call Dia, were trying to help him make bond. The two women were staying in a Chicago hotel and needed more money. In response to an ad they’d placed in the personals section of Backpage.com (which has since been seized and shut down by the FBI precisely because sex workers like Walker and Dia were using it to make a living) they got a call from Alan Filan, a past customer of Walker’s who lived in the Chicago suburb of Orland Park. He had always been kind, calm, and courteous—the ideal client.
According to court documents, Walker and Dia drove to Orland Park. When they entered Filan’s home, he seemed agitated. He had a problem with the way Dia looked; he kept consulting the Backpage ad and complaining of a discrepancy. The whole mood in the house was off: Walker knew that Filan, a schoolteacher in his late middle age, wasn’t normally so twitchy and worked up. His breath stank; he had been drinking. The women began to feel anxious.
Filan said he wanted to have sex without a condom. This was a violation of Walker and Dia’s terms, and they told him so. Like Walker’s earlier client at the Quality Inn, Filan refused to accept this. Walker says he became argumentative, aggressive, threatening to sexually assault them. Before she knew what was happening, Filan punched Walker in the face, then grabbed a knife from the kitchen and lunged at her. With terrifying clarity, she understood that this man could kill her. While Dia escaped outside to the car, Walker wrestled the knife away.
According to court testimony, on January 21, 2014, a patrol officer found Filan dead in his kitchen. A crime scene investigation revealed a cell phone in which Walker’s number was stored, along with printouts of the Backpage ad she’d made with Dia. The police traced Walker’s number to a new cell phone in use in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Three days later, that’s where Walker was arrested. She cried when she learned that Filan had died.
During Walker’s 2016 trial, prosecuting attorney James Papa described an “altercation” that led to “Alisha Walker getting a knife and stabbing Alan Filan…literally 14 different stab and incise wounds to his body.” Patrick O’Byrne, her defense attorney, argued, “Filan started the fight. He made the first contact, and he’s the one that pulled the knife.” The trial lasted for three days. “Everything was all scripted out…it was sickening,” Chatman said. A teacher at Brother Rice High School, Filan had also been a soccer coach, and the prosecutor portrayed him as a model citizen. His sister was a Cook County judge. “It was one-sided because of who he was and who his sister is,” Chatman said.
Judge James Obbish accused Walker of caring more about making money for Tycoon than about Filan’s life. “You’re going to protect your criminal associate, your pimp, that animal that sucks the money from you while you humiliate yourself, embarrass yourself, endanger yourself engaging in that kind of a business,” he said. “Because the kind of people that you deal with when you’re a prostitute, you’re lucky if you run into an Alan Filan. That’s the best thing that could probably happen to you.”
“Because [protecting my pimp] is all I could have possibly been worried about, right? Fuck my life! And fuck the risk! $300 is way more important,” Walker wrote to me later, sarcastically reflecting on Obbish’s words. She’d pled not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder, claiming self-defense. After her short trial was over, Walker was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for second-degree murder. The Chicago Sun Times initially used the word “hooker” in the headline of a story about the sentencing. CBS Chicago reported, “Alisha Walker’s final meeting with the man that the prostitute called ‘a really good trick’ turned deadly when she said he wildly lunged at her with a kitchen knife in his Orland Park home.”
The American justice system has a history of criminalizing sex workers’ bodies. Sex work is against the law in all states except Nevada, which in some counties allows for regulated work in brothels. “Outdoor workers,” who look for clients on the street, are more likely to be trans, queer, housing-insecure, and/or people of color. They are also more vulnerable to abuse by clients and police. “Indoor workers” have the advantage of conducting their operations from a home base: they may see clients in their own apartments, a client’s apartment, or another space rented specifically for sex work. Because they are more likely to have access to the Internet than outdoor workers, indoor workers also have access to worker-run websites that allow them to screen clients and determine who is likely to be dangerous and who is not. But with the passage of bills such as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)—both intended to make it easier for the state to seize websites and prosecute individuals involved in sex trafficking—websites where workers can screen clients, advertise their services, and communicate with one another are being shut down. As a result, indoor work is becoming more and more dangerous.
It goes without saying that sex workers have little recourse against violence, including when that violence comes from the state: Support Ho(s)e members told me several stories of police harassment. And as Walker experienced, when sex workers defend themselves, their actions are rarely met with compassion or understanding.
Sex work, Walker said, will happen whether the law wants it to or not. “If the justice system really cared about keeping people safe and reducing violence, the only answer is decriminalization,” she told me over the phone. If sex work were decriminalized, the world would look very different for workers. Instead of the deadly vagaries of outdoor work, workers would be able to entertain clients in safe spaces and perhaps even employ trusted services to screen them instead of relying on vulnerable whisper networks. When we spoke, Walker imagined working in a brothel where sex work is “safe and legal,” where workers don’t have to answer phone calls or walk to meet clients.
“If sex work was decriminalized (and destigmatized), I might not have been incarcerated,” Walker wrote in a recent email. “I might have been perceived as an ordinary woman who, while working, was defending herself from a man who tried to rape and kill her. Instead I was cast [in court] as a ‘manipulative whore’ who ‘shouldn’t have been selling herself anyway.’ I was demonized and looked down on from the moment they said ‘prostitute.’ I didn’t stand a chance in that courtroom. I know that I still might have faced discrimination because of the color of my skin, the criminal legal system does hate Black people, especially Black women, but still, they REALLY hated that I was a Hoe.”
Incarceration has not diminished the bond Walker shares with her mother. On the Mother’s Day shortly after Walker’s sentencing, Chatman posted a statement on the website of the Sex Workers Outreach Project: “Our family needs Alisha home. Alisha has a very close relationship with her younger sister and brother. We all miss her terribly. There are nights I don’t sleep because I ache to hold my child. There are days I cannot function normally because I miss my daughter so much it hurts.” In the years since, things have gotten more difficult for Chatman. Because resources are limited, it’s hard for her and her family to make the commute from Ohio to Decatur to visit Walker. Chatman has been seeing a psychiatrist to cope with the grief.
Over the two-and-a-half years I was reporting this story, a lot changed for Walker. When we talked again this year, she was no longer angry and confused about Tycoon—her attitude toward him had softened. When I pressed for details she demurred, telling me that he was incarcerated again and facing legal action. She didn’t want to tell me anything that would affect the outcome of his trial, but cheerfully offered to do so once his case was settled.
Walker’s interests had changed, too. Gone were the daydreams about makeup lines and the gentleman’s paradise; now she was writing poetry and making visual art. She has access to email, and in one exchange told me that she had acted in an inmate performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. She was reading even more radical literature, and was tearing through books about the abolition of the carceral state, the rights of women of color, and the daily struggles of sex workers. Her recent reading list: Revolting Prostitutes by Juno Mac and Molly Smith, Invisible No More by Andrea Ritchie, Playing the Whore by Melissa Gira Grant, and Prostitute Laundry by Charlotte Shane. Along with the heavy-hitting political theory, she was reading fantasy fiction to supercharge her creativity.
When I told Schulte about my recent emails with Walker, I could almost hear them nodding over the phone. “She’s told me, ‘I have grown. I am not who I was,’” Schulte said. Walker has become a Support Ho(s)e collective member—according to Schulte, “things go to her to weigh in on just like any member of the collective.” Those things include decisions about potential protest actions, zine publications, vigils, how information will be presented to the public, and who will present it. Consulting with Walker is a slow process, her communications dictated as they are by the prison system. But the connection has been fruitful: Schulte has organized actions featuring Walker’s statements and poems, enabling her to contribute to teach-ins, newsletters, and the Incarcerated Mothers’ Day Vigil in Chicago. There, Schulte read Walker’s statement about what caregiving as a sex-working person looked like, and how criminalization has affected her family.
When I asked how the experience of being incarcerated has changed her, Walker was remarkably upbeat. “I know that I am stronger, mind and body!” she wrote in an email. “I am a better person—not because of incarceration, of course not, but because of my circumstances that have brought me here and the people who continue to push me to survive and thrive….I am more determined than ever to push for change. If I had to go through this to help people grasp what it is that we face as sex workers, then ‘OH WELL!’” She continued, “Until we are not seen as below the rest of the world and criminalized, we will never be safe from clients who wish to abuse us or from the law that wishes to persecute us.”
Earlier this year, Support Ho(s)e members celebrated when Cyntoia Brown, who was serving a life sentence for shooting and killing a man who bought her for sex when she was 16 years old, was granted clemency. (At the time of her arrest, she was doing what she described as “survival sex work.”) After fifteen years in prison, Brown was released in August. While cases like Brown’s offer some hope for Walker and others in her position, they are unlikely to cause a sea change in the way Americans think about sex work. Brown was granted clemency in large part because she was convicted and sentenced as a minor: Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam focused on her attempts to “rebuild” and “transform” her life, making no mention of the stigma suffered by sex workers or the many thousands of other lives harmed by criminalization. Brown won support from celebrities like Rihanna, Lebron James, and Kim Kardashian West—but would that support have come as readily if the media hadn’t characterized her as a “child sex slave,” or if she had been convicted and sentenced as an adult? Meanwhile, selling or trading sex remains a taboo, and sex work is so often conflated with sex trafficking that public figures like Lena Dunham have used their considerable platforms to advocate against decriminalization under the mistaken assumption that it means siding with “buyers of sex, pimps, and other exploiters rather than the exploited.”
Recently, Schulte sent me some photos of a zine Support Ho(s)e had printed, called A Survivor: Alisha Walker. It featured an extensive collection of Walker’s poetry, prose, and drawings, ranging from confident musings on the emotional intricacies of sex work (“A safe outlet to express all your wishes / and fears / I keep secrets, play my part / think of me as your personal, sexual shopping cart”) to exhortations to “HEAL THE WORLD” and “Stand! In solidarity!” But one poem in particular caught my eye. Entitled “to a younger me,” Walker offers hard-won insights to her younger self, including, “Don’t look for someone to validate you,” and “No one should touch you / Only if you want them to.” It concludes:
Let the world see you as you are
Those aren’t scars or ugly imperfections
They are birthmarks
Gorgeous markings from your heritage
You can laugh loud and free
You don’t have to hold it in.
I love you.
The ranks of sex workers swell with the marginalized: queer and trans people, people of color, working class people, immigrants, housing-insecure people, and women. This marginalization means that they face discrimination and violence in their lives apart from their status as sex workers; decriminalization will not erase their vulnerability. While pimps can offer protection, they can also abuse and exploit. While clients can be kind and mindful of boundaries, they can also turn violent. And while the state has the ability to put forth policies that support the safety and autonomy of people working in high-risk industries, when it comes to sex work they offer mostly presumption and punishment.
In a 2017 Appeal article about Cyntoia Brown, Schulte and New York prison abolitionist educator and organizer Mariame Kaba cautioned against a “perfect victim” narrative that flattens the experience of workers by depriving them of agency. “Trauma and resilience are often ignored in favor of the driving desire by the media and public to support only a perfect victim,” Schulte and Kaba write. “Perfect victims are submissive, not aggressive; they don’t have histories of drug use or prior contact with the criminal legal system; and they are ‘innocent’ and respectable.” When a worker acts in self-defense but doesn’t fit the “perfect victim” stereotype, that worker is punished and denied access to resources. Her story is wrenched from her hands.
Walker’s story is a complex one: like most in her position, she does not fit the narrative of the perfect victim. She is an autonomous adult, not a trafficked child. She chose sex work, with its attendant stigma and risks, over jobs that offered her less financial security. She has both triumphed and suffered as a result of her work. And because she lives in a world—and more specifically, a country—where sex work is criminalized, with laws in place that make it difficult for workers to screen clients, she was vulnerable to violence and her dignity was denied.
Like any profession, sex work does not exist in a vacuum. Workers who have the social privileges of being cisgender, straight, or white have the relative advantages that those identities bring in any line of work. Meanwhile, patriarchy indulges violence and possessiveness, and takes it for granted when displayed by male pimps and clients. Decriminalization is essential. But the only way to address the deeper problems that haunt this dangerous industry is to focus on the underlying structures that put and keep women of color like Walker behind bars.
Walker is due for parole in 2021. Regardless of what happens, she’s committed to being an activist: fighting against stigma, for the rights and autonomy of sex workers, and ultimately, for decriminalization. “What people need to understand most is that sex work is work! It’s hard work!” she says. “We need to decriminalize sex work, but also decriminalize all ways of survival if we want a chance in hell at living in a world that doesn’t punish and cage the most vulnerable.”