By the time I was in college I’d already been called a whore. I had been followed down the street, had my car broken into by a boy I’d rejected, and been harassed by a boss who “liked to see me sweat” while I stocked shelves. The first time I remember fighting off a physical attack, I was 18 years old, and wouldn’t become a sex worker for another year. I was at a college dance in the large student union building. It was the end of the night, the room had mostly cleared out, and I was crossing the floor to meet up with my friends. I was grabbed from behind, a huge arm encircling my neck, another around my waist. A menacing voice whispered in my ear, “I’m taking you home with me.” Instinctively, I elbowed as hard as I could, broke free, and ran. Within seconds, my friends, many of whom had seen the attack, were with me, and the boy who had grabbed me had run out of the building. I knew violence was part of the world I lived in, but that was the first time I viscerally understood it could happen so quickly, in a room full of people, without my seeing it coming.
As a sex worker I have worked in strip clubs, done out-calls with clients in their homes and hotel rooms, performed on camera, and taken in-calls in private dungeons. I began a path of self-defense training after years of both successfully and unsuccessfully fighting off boundary-crossing behavior from my sex work clients, schoolteachers, friends, friends of friends, and intimate partners. I’ve been through all of the common aggressions: following, stalking, grabbing, yelling, et cetera. I’ve also experienced some of the more horrible forms of violence, including rape, a rough arrest and illegal detainment, and being choked out. Over the years I’ve read the best-selling self-defense literature and taken a variety of self-defense classes, ranging from popular nationwide programs like Rape Aggression Defense (RAD) to a small local program called the Super Hero Experience (SHE). I’ve mostly found women’s self-defense training to be triggering, exhausting, and ultimately unhelpful as I forgot the techniques, struggled with PTSD, and felt alienated as a queer sex worker in classrooms full of heteronormative non–sex working women who expressed casual prejudice against me and my communities when they complained that men treated them “like whores.” Still, I wanted to feel safe in my body, to trust my capacity to perceive and respond to threat, and so I kept searching for training.
Despite finding my own path to a traditional martial art, I never stopped wanting to pass self-defense techniques on to my community. I began to envision a self-defense training by and for sex workers that was trauma-informed and did not rely on high-adrenaline scenarios with techniques that were difficult to remember—and also did the transformative work of real empowerment by offering techniques for violence prevention, support for our survival of violent encounters, and care for the trauma after the violence had ended. I knew I was starting a big project when I thought of it, but I had no idea what an incredible adventure the Hookers Army would become.
Why We Need Hookers Armies
Let’s start with what’s wrong with women’s self-defense classes, in general.1 Imagine a world in which there are affordable, accessible classes for cis men, trans men, and masculine-of-center people that teach how boundaries are communicated and respected, alternatives to boundary-crossing behaviors, and how to self-regulate intense emotions. Imagine there were as many of those as there currently are women’s self-defense classes. As a culture, we still behave as if our current rates of rape and violence against women and LGBTQ people are natural, biological effects of testosterone, and therefore unpreventable on a large scale. There is something wrong with this. We locate the responsibility of preventing individual violent experiences in the victims, after the fact, and then provide “women’s self-defense” as another level of responsibility that vulnerable populations are expected to take on. At the same time as I offer this critique, given the high rates of violence that do currently exist, I believe anyone who wants self-defense training should be able to get it. And the market for women’s self-defense classes has certainly bloomed.
From my perspective as a femme-presenting queer sex worker, the women’s self-defense industry can be understood as roughly 50 percent victim-blaming cops (or instructors who like to act like cops) teaching heteronormative women to rely further on the carceral state; 40 percent anti-violence activist feminists, some of them lesbians/queer people, sincerely trying to empower women but lacking analysis of how race and class intersect with gender violence or LGBTQ issues; and 10 percent absolute snake-oil bullshit that arrives with any money-making industry. In other words, women’s self-defense, as a profit-driven industry, is a reactionary entity that relies on an unquestioned belief in the gender binary and all the nonsense that arrives with it; and, it continuously reinscribes some of our most insidious cultural programming about why women are so vulnerable to violence while eliding the reality of queer, transgender, and nonbinary experience.
Women’s self-defense is mostly taught as a response to “realistic scenarios,” which often rely on an implicitly racist, classist cliché of “stranger danger.” Most women who have taken a self-defense class have been prompted to practice their new groin-kick and hammer-fist skills on a man wearing a large padded suit who has just cornered them at the imaginary ATM, broken into their home, or blocked them from getting to their car. This approach does not adequately address the most common forms of interpersonal violence.
Obviously the surprise stranger-danger type of attack does happen, and it is worthwhile to train for it. However, the majority of self-defense classes for women perpetuate a myth that the most dangerous person is a man (of color, or poor) out there in a “bad” neighborhood, who you could avoid if you just don’t go to “dangerous” places by yourself—especially not dressed like that. While no one speaks of it directly, often the attackers in stranger-danger scenarios perform aggression in racialized ways. They put on voices and personae of men of color, such that women are attacked in scripts like “Give me that money—I know you got enough, white girl,” or “Come here, baby, you Asian girls look sweet, but I know there’s a tiger in there.” Instructors often call their model attackers “bad guys,” and encourage self-defense students to see themselves as warriors, soldiers in a war against rampant “urban” attacks.
Consider the fact that the vast majority of violence against people identifying as women, transgender, queer, and nonbinary—of all races—comes from intimate partners, family, coworkers, friends, and other people we know. A philosophy of self-defense training that takes this into account would begin with psychological preparation for the precursors to physical violence: behaviors that exhibit control, the crossing of personal boundaries, possessiveness, a devaluing of the student’s capacity to make their own choices about their body, betrayals of trust, isolation, and so on. While many self-defense books do spend time on these issues, they still often resort to victim blaming that can sound like a bad country song: “Decks are loaded. Wild cards are scattered across the board. Big-time gambling is going on. Life and death are the stakes.”2 Even the best-selling Gavin de Becker writes in The Gift of Fear, “An axiom of the stalking dynamic: men who cannot let go choose women who cannot say no.” He and many other self-defense industry writers exhort women to cut people out of their life or leave troubling relationships without any analysis of how financial dependence, addiction, family dynamics, or other cultural factors may be adding complexity to their decision making.
A favorite refrain from self-defense instructors is to “trust your gut.” The goal is to get students to listen more to the signs of fear in their bodies, to stop talking themselves out of taking steps to protect themselves. While we definitely all need more somatic intelligence, more connection to our bodies, and more awareness of our feelings and sensations, our guts don’t always tell us the truth about our safety. Simply telling people to trust their gut fails to address the concerns of many people who have experienced violence and felt like they didn’t see it coming. (There must be something wrong with my guts!) After getting attacked at my college dance, I spent months berating myself for not feeling my attacker approach, not sensing his intention before he grabbed me. That self-criticism was a hindrance to my healing.
Another twist: the command to trust your gut also erases the ways in which racism and classism are felt experiences—for example, the way white women unconsciously hold their purses tighter to their bodies or cross the street when they cross paths with Black men. Structuring women’s self-defense programs around a belief in “women’s intuition” gives permission for women to both cling to unconscious prejudice and blame themselves when they are surprised by the onset of violence.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, mainstream women’s self-defense writers and teachers, as a rule, have absolutely nothing to say about violence against LGBTQ people or within LGBTQ communities, against sex workers, or violence that comes from the police. A philosophy of self-defense that demands I reduce my risk of violence through preventive measures like staying in packs, not going out late, not wearing revealing clothing, and so on, is not only a recipe for victim blaming and slut shaming, it is structurally unsound advice for sex workers. Because most women’s self-defense involves this implicit blaming of the victim, sex workers are positioned to be the most blameworthy of all victims. Not only do we deliberately wear skirts like that, we want a safe exchange of money for our performance of sexiness, an act already stigmatized and criminalized. The models of self-defense that rely on purity narratives about women’s sexuality or fragility simply do not allow for sex workers to be protectable, especially under the current regime of criminalization in the United States.
Of course, not all sex workers are equally vulnerable to violence. For example, Black women are vastly overrepresented in arrests for prostitution in Los Angeles.3 Police have historically been a major source of violence in the lives of sex workers, and there have been verified accounts of police using “No Humans Involved” to classify murder cases involving Black sex worker victims. It may seem like training sex workers to defend themselves is asking for trouble. Many sex workers already carry weapons and plan to defend themselves because they know no one will value their lives more than they do. At the same time, studies show that self-defense training does work to reduce incidences of violence, which is why I want anyone who desires the training to be able to get it.
Thus, developing a self-defense system for sex workers requires more than compiling a list of techniques that can be performed in close proximity, in heels, with nails, or in a car. It requires a philosophy of self-love for sex working populations that asserts our right to bodily autonomy and self-protection in a culture that treats many of us in media and in law as disposable people.
The Birth of Hookers Army Los Angeles
Outside the for-profit women’s self-defense industry, there are radical queer collectives teaching each other how to use kitty knuckles in cute, home-printed zines. There are women, nonbinary, and queer martial artists who exit the mainstream path and create their own LGBTQ-inclusive intersectional feminist spaces. And there are occasional grassroots groups and nonprofits like Girl Army in Oakland, California, that teach self-defense for women, queer, trans, and nonbinary people from both a martial arts and anarchistic organizing perspective.
The mission of Girl Army is to offer peer-taught and affordable physical and psychological self-defense for women and trans folks. I was in recovery from a relationship that had ended in violence while also experiencing the fallout from an intentional community that had broken up because of violence, and I was searching for ways to heal during a temporary stay in the Bay Area. For a year, I took every class Girl Army offered, went to their anarchistic collective meetings, and learned to teach middle schoolers how to throw an elbow while yelling “NO!” at the top of their lungs.
What Girl Army did differently from mainstream women’s self-defense classes was create space for scenario-based training that involved truly uncomfortable situations that weren’t physically violent. Girl Army makes a practice of introducing the notion of a continuum of violence that begins with basic boundary crossing. For example, you practice keeping your boundary when a friend who wants to borrow your car pressures you after you’ve already said no. Instructors with Girl Army acknowledge that most violence occurs between people who know each other. While we did role-play a few stranger-danger situations—including sexualized and transphobic catcalling, getting cornered at a bus stop, and other common aggressions—what stood out to me was the way Girl Army prioritized processing the difficult reality of violence between intimate partners and family members.
I remember sitting on the mat at one of my last Girl Army classes, looking at the circle of people I’d come to feel such affection for, and realizing that I wanted something else; something specific that had been inspired by my training there. I wanted to be in a room of sex workers, to offer these techniques to sex workers, and to get a collective of sex workers together who functioned as a peer support network dedicated to each other’s safety and well-being in an ongoing, sustainable way. The key was that we would care for each other in a holistic way via peer support—not just training. The self-defense training was to be a part of a larger vision of sex worker community skill shares. It felt huge and absolutely impossible to create.
After moving back to Los Angeles, I decided to continue my training in the martial art from which Girl Army drew their techniques. I found a dojo and came out as a sex worker to my sensei. I shared my dream to train sex workers in self-defense. My sensei made it clear that self-defense was a specific use of the training, and that what I’d be doing in the dojo was a classical martial art with some self-defense application. Although I didn’t yet understand this distinction, what mattered was that I had found a teacher who was a true ally to me and to my project. I started training as hard as I could so I could quickly and effectively pass on self-defense techniques to my community. Now, I consider myself both a student of jujitsu and of self-defense, and know they are related but separate spheres of training. I consulted with a few community organizers whom I respected, and they advised me to just hold a meeting and see what happened. I pitched the idea to a few other sex worker friends, we decided on a day and time to meet at a park, and Hookers Army of Los Angeles—HALA—began.4
Danny Cruz, one of HALA’s founding members, remembered the list of names we went through, trying to decide what to call our experiment. One was “Prostituted Persons of Los Angeles,” a dig at the way sex workers are often characterized by those who want to “save” us—as if we have no agency, as if the action of prostitution has been done to us, rather than by us of our own bodies. We joked, “Prostituted Persons: trafficking each other, together.” Danny said with a wink, “That phrase will never leave me.”
We have to laugh, or we’ll break something—because under the currently overbroad laws, what we’re doing to protect ourselves could be considered trafficking. We share safety information. We talk about our work. We buy each other food and offer each other rides. In order to receive the meeting location information, you have to be vouched by a current member, so the group grows slowly. HALA is not a policy advocacy group or a nonprofit; while many of the participants are sex workers’ rights activists, many are not. Being an activist is not a prerequisite to participation. The only requirement is that someone has to self-identify as a person with lived experience in any facet of the sex trades.
The HALA statement of purpose was cocreated early on with founding members:
members of Hookers Army take active steps to care for ourselves and each other in this climate of predatory policing and sexist, racist, classist attacks on our bodies. We meet twice a month to offer each other peer support and exchange self-defense skills, which we take to mean any skill that protects us, enhances our capacity to live as we choose, furthers our healing from past trauma, and strengthens our community. We are committed to enjoying our sex working lives. In a spirit of honest, open kinship building and mutual aid, we help each other.
In the words of Lauren Kiley, another founding member, “We work to actively take care of and be good to whoever shows up, however they show up. And we ask people what they need from the group and try to meet them based on what they say.” Our first meeting was at Kenneth Hahn Park in South Los Angeles. Three of us sat on a blanket in the late afternoon light during the first week of June. We checked in with each other, asked each other questions about work, chatted, and then practiced a set of wrist escape techniques and went over some basic principles of breathing, finding a stance, and using your voice to set boundaries. We’ve since met in three parks, three homes, a community center, a coffee house, an art gallery. Sometimes the group is very small, sometimes it’s up to eight people. I’m grateful for the times when only one participant shows up—I get to know that person much better. HALA met the night Trump was elected. The light was strangely orange in Plummer Park that night, and one member remembers me saying, “Welcome to the apocalypse. I’m glad to be with you all.” HALA met the night FOSTA-SESTA sailed through Congress. We cried and processed and went out for drinks and supported each other through our fear.
When someone new joins the meeting, we have a special check-in to welcome them. Everyone shares something of what brought them to the group, including the new person. We learn what everyone’s needs and expectations are. If someone has self-defense or martial arts training, they are invited to share their techniques. Depending on the level of energy and comfort with training in the room, on someone’s first day we usually go over a series of basic moves to escape a few common attacks—being grabbed by the wrist, for example, or a choke hold.
When I first started training with Girl Army, and even at the beginning of my more dedicated dojo practice, I would have an uncomfortable adrenaline response to feeling a training partner’s hands around my neck. Just a few years before, I had been violently choked to the point of passing out by an intimate partner, and my body held that traumatic memory very close to the surface of my skin. Sometimes I couldn’t even do the technique without needing to sit down and fight back tears. My sensei allowed me to go at my own pace, to train choke escapes slowly and carefully, until I learned to feel safe doing them. It turns out that escaping a choke is not only doable, it’s one of the simpler sets of techniques to teach. One can raise an arm, turn to the side, and drop their elbow down on their attacker’s arms. One can hit the middle of their attacker’s neck and then turn to the side to escape. There are so many options. Once I’d moved beyond the painful intensity of my trauma symptoms, I felt grief and sadness doing the technique. If only I’d known how easy it is to break a choke hold before . . . I blamed myself for my lack of preparedness until I realized I was continuing the harm of the attack. The fact is, I didn’t stop that person from choking me in the past. However, now I know how; and when I imagine someone coming at my throat today, I think, “What an idiot.” To me, this is a major healing benchmark, achieved through dedicated, slow, repetitive practice and supportive training partners. This story also illustrates an important part of physical self-defense: there are always more options, and the main predictor of your survival is that you keep trying stuff, keep going, until you are safe.
Many women’s self-defense classes acknowledge that there are likely survivors of violence already in the room, but do not treat the presence of those survivors as a gift to the collective. HALA prioritizes the experiences of the people in the room: when someone has a triggering experience or a painful memory, the group shifts to support them in whatever way feels best to them. The support for healing that HALA has provided me and others has been remarkable.
Since HALA has been meeting regularly, I’ve started to receive feedback from participants about how the group has affected them. Some of the stories involve the use of actual self-defense techniques—one member stopped a person from choking her, another used her training to get out of a hug she didn’t want, many have been able to hold physical boundaries through their stances. Other stories are about the effect of HALA’s peer support component. On our two-year anniversary of regular meetings, I asked everyone to share something about what HALA meant to them. One person said, “I feel better just knowing this group exists, even when I can’t come.” More said, “I am grateful to have something to look forward to.” This was one silent promise I had made to myself after years of other activist work had burned me out: I had to look forward to HALA. I had to want to do it. And I can say now that I have never left a HALA meeting without feeling better than when I went in.
At HALA meetings, we don’t simply insist on “trusting your gut.” We talk about ways to train our guts to be more trustworthy—to balance our desire to believe in our own feelings with our capacity to analyze risk factors and take responsibility for our choices. We listen to each other’s stories and uplift one another. We notice when a person is blaming themselves for another person’s behavior and we intervene, gently. Sometimes, we just eat chips and laugh, relaxing together and swapping stories the way people in other jobs take for granted.
Danny says that since HALA began, “the worlds we navigate in sexy time are a little less dangerous and a lot less isolating.” Even if only one other soul shows up, it’s a place where you know someone will. People keep showing up. And telling their friends. And this mission of HALA—to provide real-world, self-defense training for sex workers—continues to spread.
I do not wish to offend the people who have gone through these trainings and felt helped and empowered by them, and I’m glad any time I hear that’s happened. But for many of us, these classes cause some harm and I’d like to explore why they are not a workable model for a self-defense system designed specifically for sex workers. ↩
Lori Hartman Gervasi, Fight Like a Girl . . . and Win: Defense Decisions for Women (New York: St. Martin’s Press), 129. ↩
Amira Hasenbush, Bianca Wilson, Ayako Miyashita, and Madeleine Sharp, “HIV Criminalization and Sex Work in California from 2017,” Williams Institute (October 2017), https://williamsinstitute.law. ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/HIV-Criminalization-Sex-Work-CA-Oct-2017.pdf. ↩
Sex workers who feel comfortable using the word “hooker” started this group, but we’ve always maintained that we’d change it in an instant if someone in the group didn’t feel good about it. We settled on the name “Hookers Army” because we intended to keep much of the vision of Girl Army and wanted to offer an homage. It is also an acknowledgment of the fact that we intended to build a real fighting force in an oppressive system. We use “HALA” to refer to the group outside of our sex workers–only space. ↩