If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together
Lila Watson, Aboriginal activist, Australia
As workers in the sex industry we are often denied a voice, we are considered only passive victims, we are taught to be ashamed of our work, we are made invisible by discriminatory laws that illegalise our work and us, and we are spoken for and about but rarely are we allowed to speak for ourselves. As migrants even more so. Sometimes our voices are not heard even amongst each other because we don’t speak the same languages.
The x:talk project is a sex worker-led workers co-operative which approaches language teaching as knowledge sharing between equals and regards the ability to communicate as a fundamental tool for sex workers to work in safer conditions, to organise and to socialise with each other.
We understand language to be a politically and socially charged instrument of power, which we aim to teach critically and thoughtfully according to the specificity of our classes. Our English classes are organized to create a space where sex work as work can be openly talked about and does not have to be concealed or hidden. Through providing such a space we aim to challenge the stigma and isolation attached to our profession while at the same time we guarantee confidentiality and respect for those involved.
In addition to providing free English classes to migrant sex workers, we support critical interventions around issues of migration, race, gender, sexuality and labour, we participate in feminist and anti-racist campaigns and we are active in the struggle for the rights of sex workers in London, the UK and globally.
We consider confidentiality to be crucial for everyone involved in the x:talk project – including for students, teachers, teaching assistants and allies. We understand confidentiality to mean not only that all personal information about people involved in the project remains private but also that information is on a need to know basis. If students feel in a position to share personal information we welcome the exchange – however no one in the classes should ever be required to answer questions about who they are or what they do. As is usual in the sex industry – students are welcome to use their working names if necessary.
Our project comes from our experiences as workers in the sex industry. x:talk is sex worker-led not because we think that being a ‘sex worker’ is a fixed identity, but because those who have experienced the material conditions of the sex industry are in the best position to know how to change it.
We do not wish to participate in a politics that creates individual ‘celebrity’ superstars. As a result we use the collective identity of Ava Caradonna (which roughly translates to ‘Eve the Good Woman’).
Ava Caradonna is a migrant, a sex worker, a student, a mother, a citizen, a transgender, a person of colour, a teacher, a lesbian and a militant- she allows us to speak from different positions as sex workers and as allies, without the stigma of using our ‘real’ names and allows us to speak to the different realities in the sex industry and beyond.
Respect for a diversity of experiences:
We are interested in organizing to radically transform the sex industry so that sex workers have more control over their lives and work. We are not interested in passing judgement on what type of work people do. We recognize that many women, men and trans people have a diverse range of experiences in the sex industry – good, bad and ugly. Our project is open to people who sell sex or sexual services – including workers in brothels, escort agencies, outdoors, flats, independents, bars, on the phone or internet, strippers, dancers, models, porn stars and glamour models. We respect people’s choices or circumstances about continuing to work in the sex industry or exiting the industry.
Combating the desire the help and save sex workers:
x:talk was born in a brothel in south London. The project grew out of the experiences of a prostitute called Alice who was working in a flat with many women from Thailand. They had paid £20,000 to come to the UK to work, they did not have their passports and they earned less money than Alice who was considered to be ‘European’. One reason they did not earn as much money as Alice was because they couldn’t negotiate with English speaking clients very easily. When Alice asked the women how she could help them – they expressed very clearly they did not want to be ‘helped’ but instead that they wanted to learn English. So began the first x:talk classes – in between clients and during the long hours of waiting. It was clear to Alice that we need to be able to speak together to be able to organise at work. x:talk is not about helping people, but about collective action and solidarity.
In order to gain the trust of the people we are working with and teaching we need to be clear about what the x:talk project can and cannot do – we teach English and offer a space for peer-to-peer networking, translation and information sharing. We are not lawyers, social workers, immigration agents or charity workers.
The Politics of Language
The content of the x:talk classes, the examples, language and words used are chosen with an understanding of the following:
- Language is a powerful tool in shaping the meaning of the way things are in the world.
- Language is a tool used to communicate, empower and also to oppress.
- If it matters what we say and how we say it, then it matters how we teach it.
Guidelines for x:talk classes
1) Teaching to a variety of people from a variety of language backgrounds, x:talk uses the method of full-immersion, i.e. our teachers will only use English in class. However, given the multi-level nature of our classes, we encourage the participation of assistants with second or third language knowledge to assist specific students if and when needed (and to the jurisdiction of the teacher).
2) Our teachers are invited to loosely follow the 12 weeks x:talk curriculum, and also encouraged to contribute their own material and lesson plans. Most importantly, however, they are expected to be receptive of the students needs.
3) In the first two or three classes (or when new students are present), teachers should avoid asking direct questions like ‘where do you work’. Teachers should first of all make clear that students are not required to give ‘real’ details about themselves, even if asked for a pedagogic purpose. If and when this is too difficult to communicate, it is advisable that teachers make use of role-play and fictional characters to be assigned interchangeably to different students.
4) In order to maintain x:talk as a space of knowledge-sharing between equals, it is important that the teachers are, or have been sex workers, and that they constantly position themselves as such while teaching—rather than only as ‘the teacher’ by profession.
5) x:talk wants to share knowledge and create a space for sex workers to organise and socialise, and it does not aim to preach or pass on judgements on the different choices within sex work. Hence, teachers are invited to always brainstorm with students when teaching language related to sex work (e.g. how to say which services we do not offer, and why)
6) In their teaching material teachers should avoid, as much as possible, a normative use of language, i.e. a language which would reproduce hierarchies or oppressions. We are aware of the impossibility of neutrality, and we do not have the magic formula to wholly avoid oppressive language. However, we have learnt from our politics and experience where to locate certain hierarchies and oppressions in language, and the following guidelines provide a framework in which our project seeks to encompass.
examples or images in the teaching material must not include: racist insults or stereotypes -prejudices against certain nationalities (e.g. girls from X-land are driving down prices in the industry)
- exoticising judgements against certain nationalities (e.g. girls from X-land are more beautiful than from Y-land) -negative judgements on specific physical appearances (e.g. weight, hair type etc.)
examples or images in the teaching material must not include: sexist insults or stereotypes -gender stereotypes (e.g. all female sex workers like shopping)
examples or images in the teaching material must not include: -implicit or explicit alignments with the racist and criminalising migration policies of the state (e.g. you have to do what the government tells you to)
Homophobic or transphobic language
examples or images in the teaching material must not include: -homophobic or transphobic insults -judgements on more valuable relationships than others (e.g. only using straight examples) -negative judgements on genderqueer or trans person (e.g. she is really a man)
A note to researchers and media workers:
The x:talk project is a political effort to organise and empower sex workers. The majority of our time and work is spent teaching English classes to migrant sex workers. The vast majority of x:talk co-operative members are unpaid workers. Whilst we understand that people may wish to research the x:talk project and the work we do, under no circumstances can researchers or media workers use the x:talk classes to recruit research participants, interview students or gain access for academic research. Nor will we hand out surveys to the students. Being the subjects of research and media stories is not always a positive experience and our main priority is providing a respectful, confidential and safe space.