It seemed, during the early pandemic, that every neighborhood in the U.S. had suddenly formed a “mutual aid” network. Beneath the pall of Covid-19, the work of care — reminiscent of Progressive Era immigrant settlement houses Black Panther breakfasts — was on display. Strangers delivered free groceries, raised funds for unpaid rents, and collected masks for homebound seniors and people behind bars. But what did it all amount to? Was it mere charity or part of a program of social change?
To Emi Koyama, mutual aid necessarily fused sustenance and revolutionary politics. Since 2000, Koyama has worked as a writer and organizer with fellow sex workers, survivors of sexual assault, unhoused people, and Asian feminists. Years before trans politics became mainstream, she wrote an influential manifesto on “transfeminism,” arguing that “we construct our own gender identities based on what feels genuine, comfortable, and sincere.” She has used her skills as a zinester, website-maker, and fundraiser to get friends and neighbors what they need. Together, they have pushed for what they desire.
Koyama’s current project is Aileen’s, what she calls “a hospitality space” for women in the sex trade, in Federal Way, Washington, south of Seattle. On a Friday night in September, I met Koyama there, along with her constant companion, a brown chihuahua named Kitti. She told me about her childhood: born in Japan to Communist Party members, then raised in a “super Asian” area of California’s East Bay until her parents left the country and she was taken in by Southern Baptists in Missouri. She attended a high school so cloistered, the principal once banned Halloween costumes as Satanist. Koyama nonetheless found a kindred spirit in her band teacher, “a stereotypical butch woman” who cooked her Hamburger Helper after school and let her watch women’s basketball on TV. “When you’re in such a conservative place,” Koyama said, it’s rare to “see any women presenting themselves that way.” She has spent her adulthood extending this model of queer feminist care.
As we spoke, a few members of Aileen’s “peer leadership team” cooked beef and mashed potatoes and packed a red minivan with coffee and snacks, hygiene kits, condoms, and harm-reduction supplies destined for women at nearby motels and encampments. Mutual aid could mean dinner, political debate, sanctuary from an abuser, protests, a glamorous pair of shoes, babysitting, or a warm shower.
Seeing Koyama and her comrades in action reminded me of what law professor and activist Dean Spade writes in Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next). The team at Aileen’s “broke stigma and isolation, met material needs, and got people fired up to work together for change.” Koyama’s brand of radical mutual aid points to where Covid-era efforts could go.
My conversation with Koyama has been edited and condensed.
LUX In the mid-1990s, during college, you volunteered with domestic-violence survivors. What were the politics of that work at the time? Was it very liberal, mostly focused on social services?
EK I started college in Springfield, Missouri, in 1993, then went to a college in Maine. I worked on the student newspaper and got involved with a rape crisis center and started doing work around domestic violence and sexual assault. The center was pretty mainstream. It was like a United Way project. But the work was not very bureaucratic or professionalized; things were more relaxed than they are now in nonprofits. For example, I helped run the office at the rape-crisis center and put together a newsletter. The office for the residential shelter was next door, and sometimes women — survivors — would come in for services, and they would need a résumé typed up. Even though I wasn’t working for the shelter, I would type up résumés. Politically, it wasn’t radical, but because it wasn’t as institutionalized, there was a lot more flexibility.
I went to Oregon around ’97. I was still finishing school and doing sex work to pay tuition. I was in rural Oregon for a while, and then I moved to Portland, and that’s when I really met queer community. The day after I moved to Portland was Pride, so I got connected to people right away. In Oregon, I also found — do you know Lesbian Connection?
LUX I’ve never heard of it.
EK It’s an old-school magazine, like a newsletter that comes out every other month, and it’s been going on since the ’70s. They mail it to anybody who wants it, but I first saw it in a women’s bookstore in Oregon. Pre-internet, the magazine was doing a crazy thing: Lesbians around the country would send in their phone numbers to be printed in the magazine, and some people put in their addresses, so that any lesbian traveling to their town could come and stay with them.
LUX Whoa, it’s like the Green Book, the African American travel guide.
EK It’s totally crazy when you think about it now. Like, it was the social media of the time. And I saw the name of the director of the rape crisis center there. She never told me that she was a lesbian. I called her, like, “Hey, you never told me.”
LUX When you were in Maine and Oregon getting politicized around women’s issues, did you call yourself a feminist?
EK Well, I was a feminist. When I was young, I think I was calling myself a feminist. But I identified more as a survivor of sexual abuse in my activism.
LUX Was it in Portland that you got really involved in harm-reduction work and with sex workers?
EK Somehow I got to know Danzine, a sex-worker organization, and I started volunteering for them. I hadn’t encountered a sex-worker movement before, and they were making a magazine, so I was able to use my newsletter and journalism skills to do layout and some writing. In 1999 or 2000 I went to the Sex Workers’ Art Show in Olympia, Washington, with people from Danzine. I remember I went with someone who was a really super experienced phone-sex person, and she taught me how to do it. I’m not good at it, because I can’t handle actually communicating with people. (Laughs.)
LUX What did you see at that show that so touched you?
EK It was just a celebration of sex workers making art, doing performances and all that. And there was a conference afterwards, so we stayed overnight in Olympia, I think at the K Records building. This was around 1999 or 2000, the Riot grrl era. There were lots of skill shares about sex work, even a self-defense class taught by a sex worker. That was really amazing, having that kind of community. I’d never had that before.
LUX Was it that you felt accepted? It was a very open community?
EK Yeah. And when Danzine started working with the Multnomah County public health department to visit the streets where women were working and do harm-reduction outreach, I volunteered once a month. We gave out stuff. We tried to get food to give out.
Portland had a lot of lazy pimps, so I would try to help women learn how to put their own ads on Craigslist so that they didn’t have to depend on someone else — someone who made them think it was a highly specialized computer skill to post an ad on Craiglist every morning. I also had a digital camera that I would share so sex workers could take their own photos for their ads. This was before everyone had a camera on their phone. That’s a means of production they are holding, right? (Laughs.) The pimps were monopolizing.
LUX And Danzine eventually opened a physical space called Miss Mona’s Rack?
EK Yeah, in 2001. It was everything. It was a thrift store, a place where sex workers could build their résumés. It was also a space for people to get clean syringes without having to go to a public-health van — because sometimes cops will just park across the street and watch and then nobody can come. It’s not so stigmatizing if it’s a thrift store. People could just walk in. We had good clothes and good stuff, though some of it was kind of sketchy, like previously-owned sex toys. (Laughs.)
LUX Maybe not the most hygienic?
EK They were cleaned! One problem we did have was that sex workers who never wore underwear would sometimes just donate pants without washing them. If we had sold them on Craigslist, we probably would have made more money.
LUX How have you supported yourself through all these years of organizing and mutual aid?
EK I was always doing sex work and giving presentations and publishing some stuff. I don’t know how I survived, but it’s in large part thanks to my friend Leslie Bendjouya, who took me in and is like an aunt to me. Because of her, I had a place to live. I started working at the Coalition for Rights and Safety three, four years go. That’s my first real, stable job. Before that, I didn’t have a credit history, because nothing was in my name, so I didn’t even qualify for cell phone service on my own. It was totally informal. When you have zero credit history, they don’t think you even exist.
LUX When did you move to Washington, and how did you decide to start Aileen’s?
EK There were precursors to Aileen’s. In Portland, we had a hospitality space for women on 82nd Avenue to fight the anti-prostitution panic in the neighborhood. We made it open for people to come and hang out. That’s the whole idea of “hospitality spaces.” When Leslie was working in Portland she also helped start a group called Savvy, which was basically a place open once a week where sex workers could hang out and give away clothes and stuff.
Leslie was in school to get a drug counseling degree. Then she moved to Washington and finished school, and in order to get her full license she had to work a certain number of supervised hours. She was getting into the reality of the field: how all the organizations doing substance-treatment programs are horrible, and how they are not harm-reduction-based, even if they say they are.
LUX What were the missing pieces?
EK When they say they’re harm-reduction-based, what they mean is that they won’t kick people out for relapsing. But there’s no respect for people’s autonomy. It’s still about controlling people’s lives and how people “should” live.
LUX So there’s an expectation in these programs that people would not use drugs, that they would change their behavior?
EK That’s the goal, whether it’s sex work or drug use or whatever. So much of the field is part of the state and the criminal justice system. That’s a fatal flaw of so many social services, especially substance-use programs — they exist because people are mandated to attend. And when people are mandated to attend, they become part of the state apparatus that monitors and controls people’s lives. And then, based on what social workers write in their progress notes, people can lose their kids or their freedom. That should be against the professional ethics of social service providers. We don’t have actual health-based treatment programs. And when people actually want to stop using, there aren’t enough services available to people that can actually help. The whole thing is designed to monitor and fail and punish people.
Leslie wanted to quit her job, and then we did this thing called The Church of Harm Reduction, on a very, very small scale. Then, when I found out that there was the money from King County to start a case-management program for people who are doing the sex trade, and there was an opportunity to actually create something bigger.
LUX Tell me about Aileen’s — and why you named it after Aileen Wuornos, the sex worker who shot and killed seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990, and was eventually executed by the state?
EK Our space at Aileen’s operates in an area that was targeted by Gary Ridgway, who was known as the “Green River Killer” in the ’80s and ’90s. He was a serial killer who was going around and picking up a bunch of women doing sex work and killing them and escaping prosecution for years and years because the local authorities didn’t really care about these women going missing. Aileen Wuornos is also considered a serial killer, but she’s a response to men like Gary Ridgway. There was so much danger, so much assault, robbing women. And even if they are killed, their deaths won’t be investigated until dozens or more than 100 die. So I think “Aileen’s” is named that in the spirit of fighting back, and hopefully without bullets. (Laughs.) But some of the women who come to us actually carry a gun, they’re so scared of what happens to them in the streets. Because even if it’s self-defense, it’s very hard to prove and you can get railroaded and get punished.
LUX Why was it important for Aileen’s to be a women-only space?
EK Aileen’s isn’t really a “women-only” space, because when people are non-binary or trans-identifying, it’s not like they can’t come. And also, I think we would try to provide services in some way for cis men doing sex work if they came. The reality is that lots of women have to have men for protection, but lots of those men are themselves not safe.
LUX Why do you need to have a physical space when you do this kind of mutual aid?
EK Initially, people come to Aileen’s because they want something; they want supplies, they want clothes, they want food, they want some other kind of support. But when they come, they realize that it’s a space that is accepting and non-judgmental and end up staying the whole time we’re open. We want people to build support networks for each other, so that, for example, when they’re back in their encampments, they will have other people to rely on for help. And also, when women come to us and they take supplies from us, they are getting them for their men, too. And that’s fine, because that puts them in a position of having resources, and that gives them more power in that relationship. That’s why some of the men get really upset about us, and tell women not to come to Aileen’s, because they get too empowered. The men sense that their power is being undermined.
LUX Aileen’s is in an area of King County that has historically had a lot of street prostitution. How did you choose this particular location?
EK It’s close to where we live, it’s where people are, and there’s a bus line that people can easily get to. Supposedly there’s street prostitution, but I don’t see much. Because of the hatred they face, the women working here have to hide, and of course are pushed to places where there are fewer people — and are less safe because of that. It’s like when we have police doing a bust or shutting down a website. It doesn’t make it safer. For example, in Seattle, you can see tents from the street. In South King County, you can’t see any tents, because people have to hide. Police are so much quicker to come in, take tents down and harass people and destroy their property. Also, sex workers in the Northwest — Portland or Seattle — aren’t dressed any different way. It’s not like LA or some other places where people are dressed more obviously.
LUX In addition to Aileen’s, you helped activist and writer JM Wong get the Massage Parlor Outreach Project started. When a mass shooter targeted three Asian massage parlors in Atlanta last March, MPOP was one of the few groups already doing outreach to those workers. The organization has gotten a lot of attention — and donations — since the attacks. How has this affected MPOP?
EK After the Atlanta shootings, we got so much money. Some people in the group are saying, ‘I feel like we need to give this money to the workers,’ because it doesn’t seem right for us to hold on to it. I think that, if we are happy with giving people money and people benefiting from that, and that’s the end of relationship, then we should just give away everything we have. If that’s not the goal — if the goal is to build longer-term relationships, and support people in the long-term, then that kind of money can destroy that relationship. That happened with Aileen’s when we tried to give people stipends. Certain ways of doing a stipend can backfire. But you also know that people really need it. That’s really hard.
LUX Since the pandemic began, people have been talking a lot about mutual aid. Given all your organizing over the past 25 years, what do you think about the way the term is being used?
EK I think that “mutual aid” is such white language. People think that Covid made the need for it, but this is something that people have been doing forever, right in their communities. When people start organizing around “mutual aid” when there’s no community in the first place, it becomes really bureaucratic. I’ve seen that, especially with sex-worker and community mutual aid projects, there’s a tension between focusing on people who need it — prioritizing people of color, Black people, trans people — versus making people prove who they are and prove that they’re worthy.
LUX All this pandemic mutual aid seems well-intentioned, though, and people need resources right now.
EK Right, but — and I’m mostly familiar with the sex-worker stuff — the people who fund it and the people who need it are not in the same community. In a crisis like this, anything helps, so I don’t want to discourage that. But at the same time, it’s like, ‘Where were you before all this?’ If they weren’t actively building community with Black trans sex workers, and then suddenly you realize, ‘Oh, Black trans sex workers need to help,’ and you just go around looking for things, that seems really weird to me. (Laughs.) Instead, we should be in community with people in the first place, and then, when hard times hit, you can be like, ‘Oh, this is so and so. I already know them. They need help.’
E. Tammy Kim is a Lux contributing editor and a NYT contributing opinion writer.