By Gerrard Winstanley
On January 20th, Shannon Williams, a great friend, a great mom, a sex worker, and a passionate and articulate advocate for sex workers’ rights, died of brain cancer. She was 48 years old. The illness was sudden and a large community of family, friends and comrades have been in shock and have been grieving for her. Lots of us in the Bay Area knew Shannon or would recognize her. We marched on the street with her, tangled with cops together, played with her sons, talked about anarchism, or teaching, or fucking, or cool science. We made s’mores with her around a campfire or swam naked in rivers together. The really lucky ones got to love her and be loved back. Shannon was a total knockout.
At two memorials for her, Shannon was remembered by family and friends for her openness and warmth, her wit and her bravery. Shannon was a person you wanted to get to know. She was a really grounded person but also adventurous and idealist. She didn’t hide her emotions and pretty much always told you how it was. She was a good talker and didn’t shy from an argument. (Unless it was stupid, and she’d tell you so.)
Shannon sometimes called herself an anarchist. I think her anarchism, like Emma Goldman’s, was based in an aggressive optimism about people and their ability to change or to just roll with something good. I’ll never forget how unfazed she would be when her then two-year old son would do things that would cause lots of other parents to freak out. Once at a restaurant, I saw little Gabriel go up to another table and take food from someone else’s plate. When I pointed it out, Shannon said “It’s fine, they’re adults, right? They can handle it.” And she was right. Like his mom, the kid knew how to make friends. At the time of her death, Shannon was also doing a beautiful job raising two other boys, aged 7 and 9.
Shannon’s advocacy for sex workers really picked up steam after her bust for prostitution in Oakland in 2003. At the time, Shannon was a public school teacher in Berkeley, and the right-wing discourse that blamed “bad teachers” for everything from poverty to violent crime was gaining momentum. After the press picked up on the “prostitute teacher” story, Shannon fought to get her teaching job back and asserted that consensual sexual acts between adults should not be outlawed. As she told the press at the time, “as a feminist, I believe in every woman’s right to self-determination, and that includes sexually and economically.”
She ultimately did not go back to teaching (at least not in a classroom) and decided to spend more time on advocacy. Aside from counseling other sex workers at Saint James Infirmary, Shannon worked politically to decriminalize prostitution and combat the agenda that equated sex work with human trafficking. She helped get the city of SF to stop the cops from the absurd and abusive practice of using the possession of condoms as evidence for prostitution. When she died, she was working on a campaign to gain immunity from prosecution for sex workers who report a violent crime against themselves or one of their comrades. It’s barbarous that a cop would try to arrest someone for prostitution who goes to the police in desperation after a violent assault or rape. Shannon’s fierceness and plain-spoken reasoning will be missed in that fight and in others to come. And her generosity and beauty will be missed by everyone who knew and loved her.