There is no doubt that people engaged in sex work—dancers, escorts, porn performers—are compensated at market value for a necessary service that an overwhelming number of adults have consumed. But it is also true that, even in an age in which Lindsay Lohan posing for Playboy was just a matter of time, that the profession is stigmatized and its practitioners are often frustrated in transitioning out, getting help through a rough patch, or simply being heard.
There are a number of organizations which purport to help sex workers in need; I found SolaceSF to be one that delivers on the promise.
A former escort, pro-domme, and phone sex operator, Laura Lasky thought of sex work as a community of thousands who didn’t talk to each other.
“We had an insulated community we were protective of,” she says from her home in San Francisco, where she founded SolaceSF three years ago this month. “But when we complained about something, people would say ‘You brought this on yourself.’ Or if we were happy and said so, people would say, ‘Oh, you’re glamorizing this profession.’ So it resulted in a business where we couldn’t talk.”
Lasky moved to San Francisco six years ago from Arizona, saying that it was easy for sex workers to feel isolated in both places.
Yet San Francisco is one of the most sex-and sex worker-friendly cities in the world. There are unionized strip clubs, plaques in the sidewalk commemorating its infamous Barbary Coast period, rainbow flags on city streetlamps, Kink.com housed in an historic building, and its annual Folsom Street Fair which rivals (and overtakes) Mardi Gras in New Orleans for its celebration of sex, commerce, and pride.
“But this is not a job people retire comfortably from,” says Lasky. “There are no residuals or pensions.”
I met Lasky through Hollie Stevens, for whom the Solace team provided, in addition to post-op healthcare following her mastectomy, rides, partial funding for her recovery location, and raucous dinners. By way of introducing Lasky, Stevens just said, “You have to meet my friend.” Solace also helped January Seraph coordinate fundraisers for Stevens.
But it was difficult for me to get on board; the past few years of watching allegedly faith-based or otherwise altruistic organizations use porn performers to prop up a self-enriching agenda left me dubious of groups that professed to help but in practice came with a number of strings.
I asked Lasky if she thought of Solace as a ministry.
“Well, I’m a Christian,” Lasky says. “But I’ve got horns holding up the halo.
“My faith is part of my identity. But I don’t carry around a cross on a kickstand. It just propels me, because the tenets of my faith are to serve people. And I don’t know anyone who can’t use encouragement. But we never force our faith—or mention it, unless we’re asked—to anyone.”
It’s true: Lasky defied every cultural stereotype I hold dear by not wishing me “a blessed day.” She said that, having been a sex worker (“and my husband is my biggest cheerleader,” she adds), she knew a community she was capable of serving.
From a “room at the end of the hall” of her home, Lasky and a staff of about a dozen volunteers provide help navigating medical, dental, and psychiatric services, financial counseling, recovery program assistance and referral, and a suite of what are loosely known as “transitional services” that may include financial aid research (and/or actual financial aid) for schools, job prep, and resume and GED workshops.
On any given day, Lasky or other SolaceSF members will bring cupcakes, muffins, coffee, candy, and even makeup to dancers at one of San Francisco’s dozens of tightly-clustered strip clubs. They currently have relationships with six clubs and are working on more.
“We totally got the stinkeye [at some places] at first,” Lasky says. “But I’m the least threatening person you could meet [Lasky is a petite African-American woman with an easy smile; she looks more like a TV cookie chef than a pro-domme] and people figure out that there aren’t strings attached.”
Without wanting to put words in her mouth, I mention to Lasky that the implosion of anti-porn opportunist Shelley Lubben (as well as dozens of so-called philanthropic organizations that seem to exist to pay the rent of their founders) makes it hard to take seriously groups that claim no agenda but to help.
“And that gets tiring,” she says. “Perception of what we might ‘want’ from sex workers is another uphill battle. It’s unfortunate that some people will manipulate some of the most wonderful people I know to adhere to their dysfunctional agenda.
“But you reap what you sow< " she says. "I know I have."
How is SolaceSF funded?
"We're getting the not-for-profit paperwork finalized," Lasky says, "And a lot of private and corporate donations are sustaining us. I can't tell you who is giving us money. I'd like to shout it from the rooftops. But maybe in six months we can get the go-ahead to talk."
Lasky is up by 4:30 a.m., checking emails and social media input from sex workers who might have just finished a shift. She is on the phone by 9, and later makes several coffee and lunch runs ("We are highly caffeinated as a team," she says). At night, her team visits strip clubs and drops off business cards and food. When her husband drives her, Laskys says he waits outside chatting with the general managers.
"We have gotten to a point where people trust that we're just there to be a resource," Lasky says. "We're not trying to force people out of those professions—I think they're necessary professions—we're just trying to make today better, and maybe tomorrow better."
Previously on Porn Valley Observed: Hollie Stevens—Cancer, yoga “for pussies”; Gram’s Summer Reading List for Porno-Americans; Love Army, San Francisco—Carol Queen and the Center for Sex & Culture; January Seraph—your kinky friend
See also: SolaceSF