On January 18, 2014, Alisha Walker and a fellow sex worker arrived at the home of a man named Alan Filan. A 61-year-old teacher at Brother Rice High School, an all-boys Catholic school in Chicago, Filan had already contracted Walker’s services through the popular classifieds site Backpage.com twice before. This time, after they talked terms, he agreed to pay the two women $150 each for a half hour of sex.
When they got there, Walker would later tell the police, Filan demanded the sex be unprotected. The women refused, reminding him that wasn’t what they’d discussed. Walker said Filan became upset and took back some of the cash he’d just paid them. An altercation ensued, and he punched Walker in the face, grabbed a knife from the kitchen, and charged. She intercepted his attack and wrestled the knife from him, she said, stabbing him several times before running away as he shouted epithets at her. By then, the other woman had fled, too.
Three days later, police discovered Filan dead in his home. A co-worker had called to check in on him after he’d failed to show for work. He was found having bled to death as a result of numerous stab wounds; a toxicology report showed that he had been drinking heavily that evening. Before long, Walker — who’s from Akron, Ohio, and had been in Chicago for a court date for a previous drug possession charge — was arrested at a motel in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and charged with first-degree murder.
“I’m in here for being a sex worker, even if that’s not what I was actually convicted of.”— Alisha Walker
In September of the next year, after Walker had been behind bars for 20 months awaiting trial, the local Chicago paper The Daily Southtown reported that the judge overseeing her case was working to get it underway by year’s end. The paper also found it worth noting that Filan comes from a prominent political family: his sister is a circuit court judge, and his brother is an Illinois lobbyist and former top aide to the Speaker of the Illinois House. Four months later, Walker’s case finally did go to court. The trial lasted only three days.
Walker’s defense attorney argued that her actions were justifiable because she acted in self-defense. Had she not, he said, “that could’ve been Alisha Walker there dead.” State prosecutors focused their efforts on portraying her as a “master manipulator,” intent on collecting payment by whatever means necessary. They painted an almost literally black-and-white picture: a 5’9” black woman who bullied, overpowered, and ultimately used lethal force against a frail, 5’5” elderly white man — despite the fact that Walker had no prior arrests for violent crimes. She was found guilty of murder in the second degree.
Walker was sentenced to 15 years in prison. At the sentencing, the judge blamed her “broken family” for her situation, saying that because Walker had a mother with “her own issues” and a father who “didn’t play any role in her life,” they “didn’t set her up for success, that’s for sure.” To Filan’s stepdaughter, Kelly, he offered praise and comfort, saying “you are the person you are today [because of Filan’s devotion to you].”
To many, particularly those who are themselves sex workers, the vilification and disposal of survivors like Walker comes as no surprise. Red Schulte, a founding member of Support Ho(s)e, a collective started in 2016 that works to provide financial, material, and emotional support to sex workers in the Chicago area, said that Alisha Walker is behind bars today for an act of “radical self-defense.”
I met up with Schulte at their partner’s apartment in Humboldt Park just a few days before Christmas. They were getting ready to host a dinner party in their home full of books (mostly radical literature, theory, philosophy, and history) and vinyl records. An overprotective pug sat between us throughout the entire interview. Red Schulte, a grad student and sex worker themself whose nickname is a play on both their brightly colored hair and their socialist politics, was wearing an unassuming yet striking pendant on their necklace: a miniature switchblade, a symbol for the self-defense their trade demands.
Schulte said the Support Ho(s)e collective had held a number of informal meetings prior to hearing about Walker’s case. It came to their attention in March 2016, the week of the sentencing, when they and their partner were in bed, scrolling through news stories on their phones, and came across the headline of a Chicago Sun-Times article: “Hooker gets 15 for stabbing Brother Rice teacher to death.” “We were both incredibly aghast at a title like that,” said Schulte. “I could barely believe the language they were using to talk about her.” (The title of the article was later amended.) They brought Walker’s story to Support Ho(s)e, and right away they decided hers would be the first issue they organized around.
Their first public action was the next week: a press conference and rally at Chicago’s Daley Plaza. Support Ho(s)e chose Daley Plaza because of its proximity to the office of Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart. In 2015, Sheriff Dart was successfully sued by Backpage.com, LLC, who said he had abused his authority when he wrote to three credit card companies demanding they stop working with Backpage unless the company barred people from advertising adult services. Though the judge in that case ruled Dart was infringing on the company’s First Amendment rights, continued pressure from the federal government, including a report from a Senate subcommittee that accused them of facilitating child prostitution and human tracking, led Backpage to shut down their adult services section in January 2017.
Sex workers around the country, including Support Ho(s)e, see attacks on sites like Backpage.com as direct attacks on their means of supporting themselves. “When you attack someone’s livelihood and their source of income, you’re attacking them, you’re attacking their families,” Schulte told me. They said that “having consensual sex work conflated with the atrocities of human trafficking is problematic to say the least,” adding, “it’s really a question of agency, which sex workers have and victims of human trafficking do not,” and that to conflate the two does harm to both.
Erica Friscioni, another member of the collective and a longtime sex worker, added that because violence against sex workers is so rampant, it is hard to keep track of the number of victims anymore. “We are part of a profession that lacks the ability to be seen and recognized without criminalization,” she told me. “For us to be counted in national labor statistics would mean the right to exist as workers and humans, and neither of those rights currently exist for sex workers, since our labor is not considered work and our existence is not considered valuable.”
“The most serious task for us is for people to believe that we’re human.”—Red Schulte, founding member of Support Ho(s)e
Today, there is plenty of research to support these claims. The Sex Workers Outreach Project, also known as SWOP, reported that according to a study published in 2004, “the homicide rate for female sex workers is estimated to be 204 per 100,000,” making the occupational mortality rate of sex work the highest of “any other group of women ever studied.”
Just this past Christmas Eve, a 16-year-old sex worker named Desiree Robinson was murdered by a 32-year-old man in a suburb of Chicago for refusing to have sex without pay. The man, who had successfully solicited her services through Backpage.com the night before, met up with her again and demanded free sex. According to prosecutors, when she refused, he punched her in the face. When she tried to yell for help, he strangled her, stripped off her clothes, and left her dead in his garage.
Outside Sheriff Dart’s office, the Support Ho(s)e rally was attended by some 30 people, and garnered enough press to put them on the radar of Walker’s mother, Sherri Chatman. Soon after, Chatman reached out to Support Ho(s)e to thank them for their work and offer to collaborate. Since, Support Ho(s)e has crowdsourced funds to help Walker with legal fees, and they’ve deposited money into her commissary account so she can purchase adequate feminine hygiene products that the prison fails to provide: “We asked Alisha, ‘What do you need?’ and we went from there,” Schulte said.
“People are really really quick to hate hoes,” they continued. “We’re an easy scapegoat because we have to carry out so much of our labor in secret. And when you have to hide, there are all these misconceptions about what it is you’re doing.” Scapegoating sex workers for their clients’ infidelity and other such moral transgressions is the inevitable result. Scapegoating leads to hate, which leads to dehumanization, and once dehumanization has happened, both physical and state violence not only become easier to justify, but rather, it becomes inevitable. “The most serious task for us,” Schulte said, “is for people to believe that we’re human.”
In December 2016, I received a phone call from Alisha Walker’s mother, Sherri. It was a three-way call; the third caller was Alisha.
After her sentencing, Walker spent eight months at a maximum-security prison, where she said she was kept in solitary confinement for 21 hours each day. “They treated us like animals there,” she recalled. In March 2016, around the time Support Ho(s)e started advocating for her, she was transferred to Logan Correctional Center, a medium-security facility. A few weeks before we spoke, she was moved from a single-person cell to a housing unit, where she now lives collectively among the other women prisoners and is able to move about.
Walker told me that while it’s no walk in the park, she’s doing a lot better at Logan. “The food is still disgusting, but I get to do things here.” She plays bingo, paints her roommate’s toes with makeshift nail polish that she fashions out of ingredients available to her, reads everything she can get her hands on (she’s currently reading Men Explain Things to Me by the feminist author Rebecca Solnit, Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian Slaughterhouse-Five, and Assata Shakur’s autobiography), and draws. For Christmas, she sent hand-made personalized holiday cards to all of the members of Support Ho(s)e.
Before long, our conversation moved on to her conviction. “I’m in here for being a sex worker,” she said. “Even if that’s not what I was actually convicted of, that’s what I’m in here for.” I asked her what she thinks are the barriers to safety and justice for people in her field. “Well, there is no safety,” she said. “There is no respect. We are the bottom of the barrel, and the justice system won’t change until someone who’s been in our shoes works within it.”
“Just because we’ve chosen a profession that’s looked down upon doesn’t mean we’re not normal. I’m still a normal person with a family that loves me.”—Alisha Walker
Throughout our talk, Walker drove home the idea that sex work is work, and that at the end of the day, sex workers are providing a service just like any other service worker. “We are the oldest profession, yet we still have to work underground,” she lamented. “But we work just as hard. We should be able to file taxes and be protected like everyone else is.”
I asked if she thought legalization would be enough to curb violence against sex workers: “No,” she replied without hesitation. “Even if it is legalized, police and people in general will still look down on us. It needs to be normalized, not just legalized. Just because we’ve chosen a profession that’s looked down upon doesn’t mean we’re not normal. I’m still a normal person with a family that loves me. Being a sex worker does not define me.”
Walker’s case is currently in appeals, thanks to a new legal team that Support Ho(s)e helped get to represent her, pro bono. “I thought it was all my fault until I heard about everyone coming together to support me,” she said. “I am so thankful for all the people who’ve stood by me through it all.” As the automated operator announced that we had just 30 seconds left, I scrambled to thank her and her mother and ask for any last thoughts before the call cut off.
Walker paused briefly. “I just know that if we stand together we can win,” she said, and the line went silent.