Mutual aid were words I had never heard in my entire life. It sounds as if you give to get back, but I realised it actually meant helping the community to which you live or exist in, which in turn benefits everyone. I suppose in working class communities, this isn’t called mutual aid, this is just called helping someone out. It doesn’t always work out that way though, and my views of it were tainted when I was young; my little sister died suddenly and the taxi drivers done a ‘whip around’ to help us with the funeral costs. The man who collected the money ran off with it all the way to the bank. He got his reprise, but I grew up with the idea that selfish pricks exist everywhere and helping others means there is someone who will be selfish or steal.
Writing this blog now, I googled what the actual terminology is for mutual aid and quickly became disengaged when I read that it is an organisation theory, because I hate the concept of theory and it never fits my experience. When I discovered sex work twitter, I was gobsmacked. I was in hospital with sepsis after infection caused by an assault from street sex working. I was taken into hospital wearing tight skinny jeans, but I left the hospital with a catheter piss bag strapped to my leg which couldn’t fit over the bag, and I had no means of getting home. People were offering to give me money to get a taxi home, and I couldn’t understand why – they didn’t know me, I was not a charity and what were they getting out of it? I also felt stubborn accepting help, as if it defeated the very reason I became a sex worker to begin with.
Strength in mutual aid
I thought this was just people helping me out, but I quickly realised this was common in marginalised communities and the longer I stayed on Twitter, mixed with the pandemic, I continued to see fundraisers for trans people undergoing surgery, for single black women struggling to feed their children and for sex workers often left destitute and desperate. You often found these were the very poorest communities in society, the most discriminated against or live on the fringes of society. I was told about the concept of micro-financing in black communities, where everyone puts in a little bit of money and gives the total sum to an individual for a purpose, and I thought it was an incredible concept, but also saddened that this was a recognised need.
When BLM movements swept across social media, we saw the need to support black owned businesses and reflected on the financial extraction from such communities. The impacts were immense; I watched a fundraiser reach $3,000,000 to house 40 homeless black trans women, and Melz Owusu reach almost £150,000 in her fundraiser for the Free Black University. There is nothing better than giving people money in their hands to create their own solutions, to create resources for the communities they know, serve and exist in. Policy change takes years, societal attitudes take decades and local and national representatives are often white, and do not reflect the areas or people to which they serve. Funding is a political game, to which marginalised groups are already on the backfoot. In the meantime, immediate needs need to be met.
Marginalised people can not rely on people in power to help them or find solutions, because these very people in power have created the conditions which have made them marginalised, poorer or more at risk.
When I moved into my home on the 2nd of June 2020, I stared at the exposed floorboards realising I didn’t have anything. I slept on a single, plastic wrapped bed given by the council, and was awoken at 4am by the sun because I didn’t have curtains, nor any black bags to cover the windows. I posted a picture on Twitter to say how beyond happy I was and immediately, people reached out to me wanting to help me. They were people I never knew, met, had spoken to or will never meet. They were simply anonymous or unknown people online. A sex worker sent me £600 out of the blue, and I was gobsmacked – that’s a lot of money and I had no idea who she was, she didn’t want it to be known publicly and never said a word to me afterwards – I couldn’t understand. I immediately bought a mattress and washing machine, two things I feared the most buying due to their high cost.
What was the human impact to this? Well, first of all, I cried a lot. I was really touched by people’s kindness but above all, it kept me out of sex work as long as possible and soothed my mental health a lot. It is frustrating to hear all the time that sex workers who push for decriminalisation are called pimps, abusers and that we have a vested interest in women becoming sex workers – that putting up a friend who is working makes you a pimp by law, and your home now a brothel. However, it is these very people who are supporting you and we are barraged by abuse by radical feminists for being sex workers, but they never put money in our hands to stop us working.
The truth is, I owe a lot to the sex work community. I owe a lot to the women who were there for me when mental health services weren’t, to the fellow street sex workers who warned me about dangerous cars, the safest places and would raise the alarm if you was gone too long, or wait for you to return. I used to believe ‘fuck off, it’s my money’ but I think drug use and poverty entrenched this way of thinking, but I realise it isn’t mine, it’s ours – I wouldn’t have made this money without them. When I work with homeless sex workers, I often find they are sleeping on the sofa of another sex worker, and it is sex workers who give each other condoms, lube and at times, drugs when you’re withdrawing.
A change for good
The concept and practice of mutual aid has changed my attitudes to the world around me, in ways I never expected. For once, I realised people give to help others, rather than to give to help themselves. A friend helped me move into my home, she brought her colleague with her who had never met me. He turned up in his van, moved my stuff over, brought over his power tools and put up my curtains for me, and I have never seen him since. I couldn’t understand why he did this, but he explained he just wants to help out and has been doing things like this for years.
I used to refuse to give money to homeless because they might spend it on drugs, but now I argue against the opposite – you should give people money, especially if they spend it on drugs, because they will have to find the means of getting it somewhere else and this leads to exploitation, and people taking advantage of their desperation. I think overall, it made me reflect on my own thoughts, experiences and criticise the upbringing I had and the ideology of those around me.
Sex workers and other marginalised communities are so used to holding each other up, but it can be exhausting. The financial and emotional burnout is high because we know that without it, people are directly hurt and harmed – they go homeless, without food, clothed or sadly, take their own lives which you see more often in trans communities. It is us, it is not just me, it is we.
Remember to give back
I am in a better position now, and it’s important to remember to give back. Mutual aid works where people are up and down, but those on the up should give to those on their way down to lift them back up again. I’ll be honest, I never imagined myself being in this position, because I always feared there are those who would abuse the system, and I know people who do, but I also think if someone feels desperate enough to try and milk the system, then it’s the circumstances around them that are broken, not them – and I can’t get angry about that. I get it.
As I watched Stormzy face criticism for opening a black scholarship fund, a £500,000 donation and £10m commitment over a decade to help black students from disadvantaged backgrounds, I didn’t understand the backlash – it seems to me that he was working to address not only the financial barriers, but giving equity rather than equality to black students. For me, this was the purest example of something I truly believe – when you’re on the way up, bring people up with you.
Myself and Kate Lister are currently fundraising for a street sex worker for dental implants, after she lost her teeth in a violent assault. Although the fundraiser has been shared amongst the sex work community, I have not posted it online as she wishes to remain anonymous, and fears being identified. Any money made from donation from this blog post will go directly to the fundraiser, which I am pleased to announce it currently is on £1710 as of writing, with the goal of £5000. Thank you to sex workers and allies for making this become a reality ❤
To donate: paypal.me/graceyswer