There’s no fiercer advocate for sex workers’ rights, harm reduction and reproductive justice in the Bay Area than Maggie Mayhem.
Mayhem’s wide-ranging career started in college when she was an HIV counselor. She went on to work as a sex worker, served as a board member on the Sex Workers Outreach Project ― a national education and advocacy group focused on ending violence against sex workers and sex trafficking victims. More recently, she has advocated for distributing crack pipes to San Francisco’s homeless and marginally housed addicts to help prevent the spread of Hepatitis C.
Mayhem currently works as a full-spectrum doula ― meaning she’s there for birth, abortion or miscarriage. She’s entirely unafraid and unashamed of what our bodies do, and what our bodies need.
Mayhem spoke to HuffPost last week about the defining thread in all of her activism, how her experience as a queer woman sex worker has shaped her work, and what we can all learn from the sex workers’ rights movement.
How did your experience in sex work shape your activism?
Sex work actually really revealed to me a lot of the ways in which I was privileged, and it also revealed the way that privilege is so contextual. There would be times when I walk into a workplace and sometimes people find out what I did, and you could feel the air was sucked out of the room. And all the sudden I’m ignorant. All the sudden I’m a traumatized little girl.
Nothing in me changed! But it changes the way people look at you. So that was something that shaped my activism ― understanding what it’s like to have someone assume that you are less than what you are because of their own projections. That was a big linchpin moment for me to understand intersectional activism.
It was humbling, and it was a reckoning.
You identify as queer ― what was your coming out process like? Did you have one?
I went to an all-girls Catholic high school; I definitely had the experience of being lonely and isolated while I was there. I was the only student on my entire campus who did the Day of Silence. That was a day that was kind of intimidating ― that was definitely part of my coming out process. And I was able to connect to some of my faculty who were queer.
It was scary, and it was intimidating. That was definitely hard, and I knew the direction I was going, and that talking about it was going to be really important to me. As soon as I realized where my attractions were, I wanted to discourse about it. If no one was going to show up, then I was going to put out a banner and invite people.
The “coming out” process for a sex worker is similar to coming out as queer for some folks. What are your thoughts on that?
There were a lot more resources when I came out as queer than when I came out as a sex worker. There is no pride flag for sex workers, and in many ways I think our movement is always going to be stunted until there is a foundation of support for our friends and family members because they experience tremendous secondary stigma.
There’s the stigma that I faced as a queer sex worker, and I got to think about that and make my decision to come out ― but my family? They didn’t. They got brought along for the ride. And we look at the parents of sex workers as people who did something very, very wrong, and my parents didn’t. There’s a silent accusation that they have to face. And that’s something that’s always bothered me.
But I certainly found a lot of community, especially here in San Francisco. I come out strategically because I have so many different workspaces … I take it in steps.
What was your experience like coming out as a sex worker to your parents?
At first, it was a tough process. My parents found out about my movies before I told them. That was not fun. There were some hard times. We did find reconciliation ― we’re doing really, really good. We have a really good relationship now.
We have things that we don’t talk about, and that’s working for us. We’re at a place where we’re at a really good function. I don’t think there’s one model for what a really healthy, functioning relationship looks like.
I wish I knew more about what my family was experiencing; I really do. I can’t really answer it for them.
You’re active at so many intersections of the LGBTQ experience ― addiction, homelessness, sexual and reproductive health care, sex work and sex positivity and death. Why do you think it’s so important to focus on these issues simultaneously?
I actually feel like I’m focusing on one major issue, which is the sovereignty of the body.
I am a fierce defender of our bodies and the journey they need to go on. That’s going to manifest itself in our relationships to substance use, how we’re able to house and protect our bodies, what our experiences with reproduction are going to look like, and what our deaths are going to look like.
To know that there are people who are being dead-named, misgendered, and having their hair cut when they die absolutely breaks my heart, and I feel outraged that someone would be so disrespected. I think it’s necessary for us to get that kind of care and make sure we’re all respected in death as we were in life.
Your work started in HIV test counseling ― how did it snowball into so many other parts of the human experience?
HIV is in so many ways a disease of stigma. It’s one that spreads through bodily fluids like blood and semen. And so, when you work with those fluids, those are interconnected worlds! My office was in a homeless shelter for HIV positive youth. Harm reduction was a big part of what we did ― syringe access was right there. So those issues were clustered.
The reproductive health care came from being in a clinical environment, and I was starting to get curious about what my future with reproduction was going to look like. I had this moment of like, “I have never seen a childbirth!” I went about educating myself and found that the work was quite similar.
A lot of what I’ve done as a doula is built upon skills that I learned as a sex worker. Because I found so much similarity and comfort, I felt it was easy to add another star to my constellation.
What are some of those skills that you learned as a sex worker?
If you’re going to meet somebody on a set, you’re going to have intimate contact with them very quickly, and you’re going to have to find a way to find some comfort in that and find a connection. And that’s a lot of what I do as a doula. We’re about to have a pretty big experience together, so I have to build not just rapport ... I have to build intimacy.
Also just feeling comfortable with bodies and what they do. There’s so much comfort I have with that. I was attending a birth once where I was in the splash zone. The nurse was looking at me because I didn’t even flinch ― it wasn’t the first time I’d ever been hit, high velocity and close range, with bodily fluids. I was ready! And because I was comfortable, no one had to waste their time on shame.
I don’t think anyone should have to waste time on shame when they’re having a major transformative experience. I don’t waste my time on it. I feel comfortable so someone else can feel comfortable too.
Plus, the queer community doesn’t have the same trajectory with reproduction. When I did my doula training, it was with really great people but by and large it was pretty cisgender heterosexual. Queer and trans folks have been having babies and starting families in all kinds of ways. I wanted to be there for my community because I can’t imagine going through an abortion while being misgendered or having a birth and not having your partner recognized as your partner. Those are hard things to face.
Changing the language and changing the obsession with the “natural is best” concept is important. If there’s a queer couple, that baby might be conceived using the best scientific and medical technology ― and that’s just as sacred.
I imagine this work can be really tiresome or emotionally exhausting. Do you have any moments or stories that you hold close that remind you why you do what you do?
I’m thinking about the times when I have been with a big group of people, and we have been the underdogs, and we go to a big civic building. What those buildings tend to have in common is very cold floors … they’re designed to be intimidating. The process is not welcoming.
Times when I’ve come together with the community, and we’re in an overflow room, and there are not enough chairs, and people are sitting on cold floors drinking terrible kiosk coffee, and maybe getting some pizza, and finding a moment of powerful community and holding people accountable … sometimes we win. Sometimes we capture the flag.
Sometimes we don’t. But I always value those moments.
I’d love to hear a little bit more about your harm reduction work. You distributed crack pipes and needles and other supplies to homeless and marginally housed folks in San Francisco. Can you tell me about it?
I started it in particular because someone who worked at a different project site was fired because they gave somebody who asked for it a crack pipe. At that moment, I felt so much anger. A pipe is a seven-cent piece of glass, or Pyrex. In any other context it would be a straw, or a piece of glass. But because of the law, we have this magical spell we’ve done over this little piece of glass that means it’s drug paraphernalia.
I was angry. Every part of me wanted to go straight to the media. This is San Francisco! We are one of the birthplaces of the harm reduction movement. We were ready for the opioid crisis; I remember when the fentanyl crisis hit in San Francisco, and we had hundreds of overdoses and very few deaths because people were ready with Narcan.
It was appalling to me that we would take this archaic view of the consumption of another drug. I wanted to go to the media and express my anger and pontificate on the injustice of it ― but I talked to people I knew in the community [instead].
We had a hard time getting funding [for crack pipe distribution] … I did move sex work funds to make it happen. That was the best grant application I could find! I found people who wanted to hand things out. No one can do it openly or publicly yet. I hope that’s not the case forever.
It was another way to connect to people. I think it’s going well ― I don’t have as much of that sex work money coming in so I’ve had funding difficulties, but I hope to keep telling people why it’s necessary, why having pipes is as necessary as having needles. Not just because it’s a supply but because it’s a point of contact. And this is what people are asking for.
You want to meet people where they’re at, not where they should be at.
You can order thousands and thousands and thousands of pipes for a fraction of the cost of one Hepatitis C treatment. If you give me a few thousand dollars I can buy crack pipes for everyone, and we can see the Hep C rate continue to go down.
You emphasized the word “should” ― there’s this idea of what a person should or should not be doing with their body. I feel like even for well-meaning folks there’s an overuse of that word.
I try not to “should” on people. Once you get into “should” you’re moving into assumptions. You’re in the realm of judgment once you’re in the “should.” You’re not listening anymore.
I try to keep it out of my vocabulary as much as I can.
Let’s talk about sex workers’ rights. So many activists like yourself have been organizing for years. In the last year or so, and especially with the passing of FOSTA-SESTA, the issue of sex workers’ rights and the conversation of decriminalization has been brought more to the mainstream. What do you say to people who are new to the cause or just sort of learning what’s going on?
One important thing I would recommend is learning about the models of decriminalization and legalization. A lot of our newer allies really love the word “legalize.” Most sex workers are opposed to legalization because it still puts something on a penal code. It has a lot of government involvement that we don’t necessarily see as advantageous. It allows for people who are going to make money off of sex workers to have more power.
And then with the Nordic Model ― where we decriminalize sex work for the provider but not for the purchaser ― I think people need to understand that any form of asymmetric enforcement of a law will violate the fundamental rights of the non-criminal party. It’s still going to involve surveillance, coercion to testify and to cooperate. Police make terrible social workers! That’s why I want to move things away from being regulated.
And also ― listen to sex workers! There are so many. We are not a monolith. Know that just because you know one sex worker doesn’t mean you know the whole story. Keep checking in. Keep finding new sources.
For LGBTQ Pride 2018, HuffPost is highlighting 30 different cultural influencers who have shifted the narrative when it comes to queer issues and whose work has contributed to building a more inclusive and equitable future for us all.
#TheFutureIsQueer is HuffPost’s monthlong celebration of queerness, not just as an identity but as action in the world. Find all of our Pride Month coverage here.