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A new center offers sex workers much-needed assistance

Located down a sunlit corridor in the Historic Y on Fifth Avenue, there's a small office suite that doesn't feel like an office at all. The room has deep-brown wood doorways and flooring. A window supplies natural light, and a high ceiling adds character. There's a desk, a bookcase, a storage dresser and a red chaise-lounge chair. It's homey.

The Robyn Few Sex Worker Resource Center is dedicated to Robyn Few, a sex-worker activist and founder of SWOP (Sex Workers Outreach Project). It's a place where sex workers—dancers, webcam actors, escorts, adult-film actors and so on—can get together, receive assistance, be themselves and feel at home.

"We want to be able to provide support and community to sex workers," says Juliana Piccillo, a sex-worker-rights activist and former director of the Tucson Sex Worker Arts Festival. "With this space, we are a player in the social sphere. We are not going to hide in the background. We are a legitimate group, and we have rights."

Piccillo says the purpose of the center is not political, and there is no "us versus them" mindset. "We act as a conduit for services that are out there. We provide connections ... and help (sex workers) get health services, mental-health services, (and) connect with clinicians, lawyers. ... We are inviting members of the community to come and offer their skill sets."

The center is an extension of work that has been done informally. "We've worked with SACASA for years," she says about the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault. "We've trained hotline volunteers. We've worked with sexual-assault nurses. We've worked with the sex-crimes department of (the Tucson Police Department) and the County Attorney Office."

One of the motivating factors to create a physical center was to help sex workers who want to leave the industry. "More recently, some sex workers have reported that they contacted anti-trafficking, anti-prostitution religious organizations. They were desperate and really wanted help. These people had no help for them. ... One woman looking for resources called an agency, and they offered to sell her a book or video they published. This was a triggering incident. We thought: We could do better than that."

During an open house at the center on June 9, "We had at least 50 to 60 people here," Piccillo says. "All different nonprofits came, and members of the sex-worker community came. ... It was beyond what we expected. A lot of people want to have joint projects together, to volunteer and work out partnerships."

Piccillo says the center will be open three days a week this summer, and five days a week in the fall. It will be a nonprofit, non-tax-exempt organization on the state level, she reports. It will be funded by donations and grant money.

Offerings will include a mobile health clinic, parenting classes and a yoga class. Volunteers will also help sex workers who want to leave the profession, offering assistance with college applications, financial-aid forms, résumés and more. "We want to provide connections. It's far emotionally healthier to be amongst people where you can be honest about all the things that you are," Piccillo says.

As sex workers meet at the center, there is likely to be much discussion about what they face on the job. "It is an intense job. There are certain stigmas and risks, and it's not for everyone," Piccillo says. In the end, she says, the decision to become a sex worker is often a financial issue. "People do what they have to do to survive," she says. "Some people would rather do a couple of appointments a week than be in front of a fryer 40 hours a week and still not making enough for rent. (Being a sex worker) is more palatable to that person."

In the end, it is about choice. A person carrying a large number of condoms is often at risk of arrest on suspicion of prostitution. Because of this, some sex workers do not carry condoms. Having to choose between physical health and arrest is a choice none of us should have to make, regardless of profession.

At the Robyn Few Sex Worker Resource Center, sex workers won't have to face such tough realities alone. Says Piccillo, "We want to know what they want, and what they need, to have the best life they can have."

More by Irene Messina

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