In your mission statement, you make a distinction between sex workers and the sexually exploited. What do you see as the difference between the two?
Our decision to make this distinction was based on countless conversations with those in the sex industry as well as with the industry’s critics and advocates. This distinction can be a difficult one to understand because of the way the term “exploitation” functions in our society, particularly in contexts as emotionally charged as sex work and human trafficking. For example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on exploitation lists at least 16 different accounts of exploitation, many of which we’ve seen used in everything from blog entries to legislation against sex trafficking. (We highly recommend reading this article, by the way.) These different accounts of exploitation have shaped the way those involved in the sex industry–participants, critics, advocates–view themselves and the activities in which they are engaged. For us, sex workers are those who view their profession as the result of a rationally, informed choice. They understand the decisions and choices they have made and don’t see themselves as victims in need of saving or rescuing. Many of these people don’t like the choice they have made and wish they could make other choices. Part of our mission is to help them in their quest to make different choices. The sexually exploited are others who did not make rationally, informed decisions about entrance into sex work. These individuals were tricked, manipulated or forced. In short, they were victimized. Because these two groups exist within our context and both are in need of resources, we have chosen to explicitly include both groups in our mission statement.
Many organizations in the anti-trafficking movement use the term “rescue” for the work in which you are engaged, but you are hesitant to use such language. Why?
When we think of rescue, our minds immediately go to the first Taken movie featuring Liam Neeson. Neeson plays a father whose daughter is kidnapped by an international sex trafficking ring and he does whatever it takes to get her back. This story is prototypical of rescue in that it involves a person in danger who cannot get out unless someone else frees her. The person being rescued is completely powerless. We think most people have this picture in mind when they hear of people being rescued from the sex industry. In most cases, however, sex workers and the sexually exploited are fully capable of changing their circumstances. They just need help harnessing their power and understanding their capabilities. This isn’t to say that we’ve never done a rescue. We’ve done two. But it’s not the norm for us. We may go pick a woman up who has just left her pimp and take her to a safe place or even go get a woman out of a crack house and take her to her appointment at a rehab facility, but these examples don’t qualify as rescues for us. It’s only rescue if she cannot get out of danger without our help. We function more like a personal trainer or coach. We assist women in making the changes they choose to make. They do the work. They are the heroes.
What makes Serenity’s Steps different from similar programs in Atlanta?
Before we address our differences, let us say that each of the programs play very important roles in providing services to sex workers here in Atlanta. We really do function like parts of a machine with each organization contributing necessary elements for holistic care. With that said, there three things that make us distinct:
1st We encourage friendships and familial relationships with sex workers and the sexually exploited. Most organizations maintain client-clinician relationships which often precludes deep friendships. The friendships that are formed are accidental. We’re not saying these approaches are wrong. We have a counselor on our staff and she maintains more traditional boundaries with those in our program. In order for her to support the women properly, she has to do this. But the typical boundaries enforced by other organizations leaves sex workers without a vital class of relationships that most non-sex workers take for granted. We want to fill in that gap.
2nd We don’t have any requirements for support other than being a sex worker or sexually exploited. You don’t need to accept our religious beliefs. You don’t have to be willing to leave the sex industry. You just need to be open to the possibility of an authentic relationship forming between us. True friendships are life-giving and amazing.
3rd We offer a paid vocational development program as an option for those considering career paths other than adult entertainment. We aren’t the only vocational development program available but often they are either short in duration, unpaid, or both. It’s our belief that most people do better in safe, supportive learning environments that allow time for new habits to form rather than short classes designed to just give people more information. This is especially true for sex workers. Many have learned skills for business environments that look more like Pirates of the Caribbean than The Office. It takes time, and sometimes counseling, to retrain and relearn who they are. They need time to learn the soft skills needed to transition. We also think it’s important to pay the women as they matriculate through our program. Our Executive Director knows firsthand how hard it is to go to school and work at the same time.
I often didn’t have the energy to devote to my studies after working all day. Things got even crazier when Janelle and I added kids to the mix! I can’t really imagine what it’s like for these men and women to go a development program all day, go home, feed, bathe and facilitate homework for their children and still have to figure out how they are going to pay the pile of bills on their kitchen table.
It makes much more sense for us to combine dignifying work environments with supportive learning environments. It gives the women a space to practice the skills they are learning in class and counseling while earning an income to meet their financial obligations.
Serenity’s Steps is also a faith-based organization. What role does faith play in what you offer to women? Does advocating a particular faith conflict with your commitment being unbiased and nonjudgmental?
Being faith-based means three things to us:
1st It means that everything we say and do is informed by our faith. This does not mean that everything we do will reflects that which is exclusively Christian. Most of what we do does not, but everything we do should be traceable to the tenets of the teachings of Christ. For example, in our 3-month, finance course, we discuss the benefits of saving, the dangers of payday loans and the importance of budgeting. These ideas are not uniquely Christian, but they can be traced back to the Christian belief that we are merely stewards of the resources God has entrusted to us and we should manage these resources wisely. Christianity is our life philosophy. This philosophy touches every element of our lives and therefore speaks to how we interact and care for others.
2nd Because different philosophies and religions have different ways of reaching similar conclusions, we wanted to make sure that not only our way of caring and interacting with others was preserved but also our particular why. By safeguarding the why behind our way, we hope to ensure that both will endure as long as Serenity’s Steps is needed.
3rd Being faith-based means that we encourage faith in others. Contemporary philosopher and legal scholar John Finnis, has outline what he calls the seven “basic goods” of humanity, one of which is religion. These seven goods, for Finnis, are observable and universal. Their cultivation is necessary for a good, full life. Therefore, we want to create environments that allow women to discuss, develop and pursue faith. For us, these means exposing women to various religious traditions and helping them understand their particular faiths. We do not shy away from expressing and arguing for our own tradition, but we do not make acceptance of our position a requirement for help or friendship.
We readily admit that being faith-based can appear biased and judgmental. In one sense, it is. All philosophies and religions are biased and judgmental. That’s because truth is exclusive by its nature. To say that it is true that 2 plus 2 is four, means that all answers to this math problem that are not four, are incorrect. But it’s been our experience that most people are fine with others having different beliefs and philosophies. It’s more of how those philosophies are argued. It comes down to how we treat those with whom we disagree. We expect and welcome disagreements with our friends, but we still treat them with respect and dignity.