If you had been fighting cancer and your doctor told you that you had two weeks to live, what would you do? I'll tell you what one person did upon hearing this news: She called a travel agent and began booking flights. She went to Cape Town, Dubai, London, and anywhere else she could. The woman I speak of is the Patron Saint of all Sex Workers, none other than Robyn Few.
When Few passed away on Sept. 13, I contacted Shannon Williams, one of her colleagues and friends, to find out about this incredible woman.
San Francisco is a city filled with sex workers, and it is one of the few places in the U.S. where sex workers can be out about their work. Part of that reason is because of Few.
Few worked tirelessly for many causes, but due to the fact that she was a sex worker, and she saw how much discrimination existed for sex workers, she decided that there needed to be a better way. Few was born in Paducah, Kentucky and she ran away at the age of 13. Few began to do sex work in order to survive, but she also had traditional jobs that she held once she received vocational training. When Few turned 18, she began to strip and she loved everything about it. Few found stripping empowering and intoxicating.
She then began escorting, working in massage parlors and eventually a brothel. Few got married and had a daughter. Ultimately, the marriage did not work out and she moved to California. Few enrolled in college and immersed herself in AIDS and marijuana activism. Few returned to sex work in order to pay the bills, but like so many sex workers, she did not speak about her sex work, out of fear of discrimination.
"I would have been happy to deal with it quietly, but it was already all over the news. But the activist in me wanted to do some education on the issue. I was not a sex workers activist. I had done homeless advocacy. My lawyer called everyone she knew in the Bay Area. Robyn was one of the people she called. Robyn showed up and she was just this unbelievable vivacious person ... so much energy, so upbeat, so positive, all this fighting spirit. She was funny and bubbly and fun to be around. I was feeling like my life had blown up and she was just like, 'We're going to fight this and well take it the Supreme Court!' Robyn always thought really big and had very long term big goals."
Williams says during this time, she was very depressed and feeling sorry for herself, and then she found out that Few, the woman who worked tirelessly to help her, was also embroiled in her own legal matters: "Here she was out running around, holding protests, and helping me with my little case, while she was facing years in federal prison." Williams attended Few's sentencing, and the judge gave her six months probation, because he said her activism was too important.
When Few got sick, she fought long and hard. After she got the news in December that she had two weeks to live, she boarded a plane and went everywhere in the world she wanted to. Her nurse called at one point to remind her of an appointment and Few told her she would not be keeping it because she was in Cape Town. Few died much like she lived: cultivating opportunities and on her own terms.
SWOP now has several chapters in the U.S., and the movement continues to grow. When I asked Williams what she wanted Few to be remembered for, Williams start to choke up as she said: "I think that she moved the movement ahead, a bunch of years." Few's fearlessness and fight is what gives a lot of sex workers the bravery to be out about what they do, and to fight in the open about rights that sex workers should have.