Shannon Williams died this week, catching us all off guard. During the MLK long weekend, she had a bad headache. She went to the emergency room, a tumor was found in her brain stem. It was inoperable. Almost immediately she lapsed into a coma. On Tuesday January 20, 2015, her family removed her from life support. This had been her wish. Contribute to her memorial fund to support her children.
We are her friends at Red Umbrella Babies, a forthcoming anthology developed by sex workers who are parents and our children. When we learned of what had happened, we called each other, torturing ourselves with questions: did she know that she wouldn’t wake up? And, did she have time to say goodbye to her sons who are twenty-one, nine and seven years old? One of our children, Blaze who is seven and knows Shannon’s younger kids asked through her tears, “who will take care of the boys?”
Although our hearts ache we know the answer, because we knew Shannon. She was dedicated to the beautiful art of raising children in the most thorough and thoughtful way. We know that those boys will be okay because Shannon has laid the groundwork for them and because their dad is there too.
Shannon did everything in her life with such grace and apparent ease. She was a gorgeous, sensual babe. She dressed in cool, funky outfits, radiating raw energy. But her casual demeanor was underpinned by thoughtfulness and steely determination. She was completely grounded, practical and not given to pointless abstraction. She was a successful sex worker, proudly taking courses in techniques—such as Bondassage and Tantra—to hone her skills. She created a schedule that allowed her to live her life on her terms and bring up her children well.
“I’ve been asked if the fact that I was a parent made me more hesitant to do sex work,” she wrote in her contribution to the Red Umbrella Babies anthology, “ It didn’t. I never felt like being a parent and being a prostitute were at odds with each other. In fact, I thought it was absolutely the most perfect job for me BECAUSE I was a parent.”
But a nosy parker neighbor and the law did not see it that way. In 2003 Shannon’s house was raided. “Seventeen of Oakland’s Finest came crashing into my bedroom with their guns drawn,” she recalled. When the press found out that a Berkeley High School teacher had been arrested for prostitution, “it instantly became a national news story and blew my life to pieces,” Shannon added. Her case was a catalyst for organizing in the Bay Area. Other sex workers like Robyn Few and her compatriots took to the streets in protest, wearing leopard skin-patterned lingerie in solidarity. The cops had dragged Shannon into a police car in her underwear in order to humiliate her.
The powers that be still have yet to figure out that sex workers are a force to be reckoned with, and that shabby attempts to sexualize a woman like Shannon will always be subverted by the sex worker rights cause. The leopard skin lingerie turned into an emblem of freedom.
Shannon—with her certification as a teacher and her mentoring heart—turned the public nature of her arrest into a “teachable moment” when communicating with her then nine year old son. “The story was running in every local paper, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh featured segments about me on their shows, and everyone around us was talking about it. I took my son up to one of our favorite parks up in the Oakland hills to have the conversation,” Shannon recounted. She had only six months before explained her job to her son when other kids had taunted him saying that his mother was a whore. ‘You know about my job, spending time with people who are lonely,’ I began. He said, ‘Yes.’ I went on. ‘You know how I told you that I might have sex with them sometimes, if we both wanted to.’ He said, ‘yes’ again. ‘Well, I’ve been arrested because of my job.’ ‘Why?’ he asked and I said, ‘Because it’s illegal to have sex with someone for money.’ And my brilliant, wonderful, nine year old son said to me, ‘Well that’s dumb. You should be able to have sex with whoever you want.’ And that was the end of that.”
So very few of us are as brave and as open as Shannon Williams when faced with arrest and public humiliation. So very few of us could have laid the groundwork for this conversation with our children. How many of us can speak to our children frankly about sex at all? How many of us would be proud of our child’s candid answer? We are so lucky to have had Shannon Williams in our lives, we are so lucky to have her example. All parents must find their own path, but knowing how others have handled devastating situations with poise and affirmation, strengthens us. Enlightens us.
Rest in Power, Shannon Williams. We imagine that you are with Robyn Few, Gabriela Leite and all the rest from our movement who have passed after giving us so much of themselves. Our other mothers, that we hold so close in our hearts. Your children will proudly carry their memories of you for the rest of their lives, we are sure.
The Red Umbrella Babies Collective