Unemployed, overwhelmed by bills and struggling to feed herself, a young woman from Little Rock turned to sex work to make a living with no prior experience. 

When Godiva, who has requested to be identified by her work alias to protect her career and personal safety, began working in Little Rock as a prostitute, she did not know how to protect herself and was often taken advantage of for her lack of experience, she said.

“When I got into the business, I didn’t know anyone else that was doing it,” said Godiva, a 31-year-old Arkansas-based prostitute. “I made a lot of mistakes because I didn’t have any guidance.” 

Godiva has joined forces with fellow sex workers to form the Arkansas Sex Workers Union – something she thinks will keep people from making the same mistakes she did when she was starting out, she said. The union’s core value is prioritizing the needs of the most marginalized workers in the community. 

Though the union is still in early stages of development, Arkansas Sex Workers Union President Clay, who prefers to go by gender-neutral pronouns and is identified only by their first name to protect their career, has furthered the union’s progress by hiring union builders to create a community for the union. Clay is a dancer at a club in Central Arkansas.

Godiva’s role in the union is to provide fellow sex workers with advice on how to stay safe in their workplaces. Her focus on safety stems from her past experiences with aggressive clients, as well as the experiences of other sex workers, Godiva said. 

“There is no room in my house that doesn’t have some form of weapon that I can get to if the worst should happen,” Godiva said. 

The main focus of the union is to create a better quality of life for those in the sex work community either by choice or circumstance, Clay said. Members of the union aim to achieve this by hosting workshops, free HIV testing and connections to different healthcare providers. 

The definition of sex workers includes exotic dancers, webcam models, escorts and prostitutes, Clay said. 

This inclusive definition of sex work allows the union to conduct the majority of their outreach via word of mouth by members of the union. This style of outreach would help build the much-needed community for sex workers, Godiva said. 

By developing a community among sex workers, the union hopes to create a safe space for members to share advice on safety from experiences those who’ve been in the sex work industry have had, Godiva said.

Clay’s experience working in exotic dancing, which they think is the safest field of sex work, has opened their eyes to a lot of the issues that sex workers face in the industry, they said. These issues range from not receiving proper healthcare, because sex workers are independent contractors, to stigma placed on them by misguided outreach programs.

“I wanted to take some kind of action that is both for us and by us,” Clay said. 

By developing the union in Arkansas, rather than working through an out-of-state organization, Clay wants to build a union that truly represents those in the sex worker community, they said. Though Clay predicts the union will develop partnerships with other out-of-state organizations, the immediate goal is to focus on the needs of sex workers in Arkansas. 

“Current sex workers in the industry in Arkansas are the number one experts on what we need and what we don’t need,” Clay said.

Though the union’s current goal is to provide tools for safety and education to sex workers, members want to eventually decriminalize all forms of sex work, Clay said.

For now, Godiva wants the union to focus on resources they can offer that will make an immediate difference, she said. 

I’ve heard a lot of horror stories and I don’t want that to be the norm. I want people to feel safe,” Godiva said. “ I want this to be somewhere where people feel safe and that has their best interest at heart.”

Nathanael Davis is the photo editor for The Arkansas Traveler, where previously worked as a reporter, photographer and associate editor.

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