Sex Work, Survival and Identification

Nikki had been chronically homeless from early childhood through her young adult life. She never finished high school and had been trading sex in order to survive from the age of 15 after giving birth to a daughter by a much older man who was exploiting her. Now almost 30, she had been in and out of programs from Arkansas to Georgia to Florida and although she had managed to avoid being arrested, she had never even seen her birth certificate and had never had any kind of ID. Nikki didn’t even know what her social security number was even though she had been receiving disability benefits and food stamps, ironically, that were fraudulently being collected by her mother.


She was “rescued” by a faith based anti trafficking organization and we were asked to assist with providing services to her because she wasn’t “acting like a victim”. To be clear about "intentions", priorities for faith-based anti trafficking organizations who provide services to victims of exploitation often use their clients food stamps and social security payments to pay for their “room and board”, and this particular anti trafficking group knew that they weren't going to be able to get those benefits without making some changes at the administrative level. And they had no clue as to how to get started.


Nikki was invisible. Her invisibility made her an easy target for people who exploit and also for people who think they are jut trying to help. In less than a week after our first meeting, our team was able to drive out to the anti-trafficking shelter and deliver – not only Nikkis birth certificate, but her daughters birth certificate, just in time for her daughter to enter kindergarten.


Without an ID, people are unable to access many of the public services that can keep us healthy and safe. Nearly every service we seek to provide requires some sort of Identification. Applying for public benefits to help rent an apartment, open a bank account, get an education, and sometimes even getting your identification, requires that you verify your identity with a valid government ID. Lack of access to identification can stop social service provision in its tracks and completely stall a clients ability to provide literally anything for themselves. Sex Workers are especially vulnerable when they are without identification because it is the one thing that can often mean the difference between being arrested or walking away from an encounter with law enforcement.

You need a State ID to fly on an airplane, obtain a public library card and cash checks but many people don’t know that identification is required for simply checking into a motel room, getting an HIV test, opening a CashApp account and not having one can impact your ability to get emergency medical treatment, get into a homeless shelter or buy food from a food bank. According to a survey by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, in a given month in 2004, 54 percent of homeless people without photo ID were denied access to shelters or housing services, 53 percent were denied food stamps, and 45 percent were denied access to Medicaid or other medical services.


Many prisoners – especially women – are released from prison with nothing more than their prison ID. Domestic Violence Survivors, Victims of Exploitation and Migrant Workers often have their identification “held hostage” by abusive and controlling intimate partners, meddling or uncaring family members, abusive “managers” and unethical employers. Some homeless and domestic violence shelters even hold the original documents and only provide photocopies to clients in order to minimize the expense of providing new documents if the client loses their originals. And losing original identification documents is a hard reality for vulnerable populations, Its difficult to keep track of the things you own when you don’t have a safe place to put them.


We are a society that is plagued by bureaucracy. In many case, getting identification requires that you have identification. The Real ID Act of that was passed in 2005 required an enormous amount of paperwork to be compliant to get a State Identification Card. The list of documents needed was exhaustive and included – but were not limited to an original or certified copy of a birth certificate, a social security card, 2 pieces of mail to prove you had an address and another state issued photo identification card. Migrants or immigrants had to prove legal residency and employment. Trans and non-binary people would often rather have no ID than to have identification documents in their dead name, but getting original documents is a brutal necessary part of making gender marker and name changes and requires a complete commitment to honoring privacy, dignity and respect. It has become a huge burden to social services and many simply don’t offer this service or try to farm it out to someone else. As sex workers, survivors and service providers to other sex workers and survivors, especially those who are vulnerable and marginalized, we can’t emphasize the importance of making sure the people who come to you for services have access to getting their identification documents.


Its not sexy. Its not fun. And it can be a huge pain in the ass. Pretty much everyone can agree there isn’t anything less appealing that to spend any time in line at the DMV.


To that end, we have created this video about getting identification documents for our community members who have been incarcerated. This is a critical service that SWOP Behind Bars has been providing people who are released from prison or jail for more than 5 years.


We are excited to announce that, in partnership with JPay and Getting Out, two of the largest providers of electronic mail to people who are incarcerated, we will be providing this same instructional video and technical assistance for FREE to incarcerated people on these electronic platforms in the fall of 2022. Additionally, we hope to be able bridge the gap as people are released from prison in assisting them to access these vital documents on a much larger scale in 2023 and beyond.


Sex Workers, survivors and people who have be incarcerated deserve to have their identification documents and we are excited to be able to expand this necessary service in the coming years. Only when we are ALL armed with the tools we need to access literally EVERYTHING we need, can we truly say we are accountable to each other.