Robyn Few, innovative sex worker revolutionary and a part of the soul of San Francisco, passed away Sept. 13.
Robyn was a mother, a grandmother, and a wife. She was a leader. She died in her hometown of Paducah, KY after a long battle with cancer.
Robyn ran away from home when she was 13, and started survival sex. When she was 18, she became a legal sex worker. In a 2008 interview, Robyn remembered how much she loved stripping: “I loved it so much; it was so empowering to be able to get up on the stage…I came alive, and for me being paid to dance and to show my body [that] I was so proud of anyway…it was just an amazing experience.” She worked in massage parlors, as an escort, in an illegal brothel. She got married and had a child. After her divorce, Robyn moved to San Francisco.
Here, she got immersed in activism to legalize marijuana, and continued to do sex work, although she wasn’t out about it to most people she knew. But when she was arrested in 2001 in a nationwide sting, she couldn’t hide it anymore.
"When I was arrested, of course, everybody found out about me, and they treated me differently. They absolutely treated me differently. And here I was, the same person before I was arrested as I was after. I mean nothing had changed about me. Yet I was treated differently because people thought that I shouldn't be a sex worker. So that made me very angry. And I became a major activist," Robyn remembers in the 2008 interview. "Just because you’re a sex worker doesn’t mean you’re not a great community citizen. And that’s what I proved. And once I proved that, people began to trust me. And being a sex worker wasn’t so bad for them."
After her arrest, Robyn remained dedicated to marijuana activism and dove into sex workers' rights activism. She founded the Sex Workers Outreach Project, which now has chapters all over the US and around the globe. She helped create the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, observed annually on Dec. 17. She spearheaded campaigns to decriminalize prostitution in Berkeley, Measure Q, and San Francisco, Prop. K. She consulted with members of the New Zealand Parliament during a successful bid to decriminalize prostitution there.
Yesterday, a loving ceremony in honor of Robyn took place outside City Hall, and people from throughout her family and community shared their memories of her. Here are some of the stories.
“Robyn was one of the only people I’ve ever met to turn every party into a political rally and every political rally into a party.”
“She always brought whores to the stoners and pot to the hookers. And as you can imagine both parties very much appreciated the matchmaking.”
“She was fierce, forceful, amazing.”
"My mom was a really amazing person, and I will always miss her so much...She was so vibrant and amazing. She always was ready to do whatever she could. She was just an amazing person, and I will miss her.”
“The one thing that Robyn blows me away with more than anyone else on this planet is her ability to love absolutely anyone. Somebody a long time ago told me that the sign of a good sex worker is to be able to love absolutely anyone. And Robyn had that down more than anyone else. I have never seen someone give the same respect to every single human being she met. She had a light that shone through her eyes. She was an angle on the planet, and we’re all very, very blessed to have known her.”
“We were having a panel on coming out, should you or shouldn’t you. And she stood up and she proudly said, ‘I’m a whore!’ and I was just so shocked. And she just started screaming, ‘I’m a whore, and I’m proud! I’m a whore!’ It looked like she had just gone through chemo. And I was just so shocked and touched by her....In honor of Robyn, I would like to stand on the steps of City Hall today and declare my whoreness! There’s nothing to be ashamed of. And she was really inspiring. She was a really inspiring person.”
“She taught me so much, especially about the power of people of color in activist movements.”
“I first met Robyn because she was one of the original bitches of ASA (Americans for Sex Access). That’s what they called us, because all the drug policy groups were mostly men. And they were all very single-issue.”
“I, like a lot of educated women, like we like to call ourselves, thought I was a feminist until I met Robyn Few. Then I realized how full of shit I was. I always thought, well, sex work is exploitative right?... Violence against women is constantly tolerated and legitimized by the whole idea that what somebody chooses to do with their body- right, pro-choice- that what somebody chooses to do with their body is the purveyance of the state. Why do you think that the state should be able to tell you what you should do with your body?”
“I grew up in a very conservative place in Idaho, and Robyn has had a huge impact on my life, in just a mindset of things. And the biggest thing that I’ve learned from her is that all my preconceived notions about the way people should behave and the way things should be have been learned. And they can be learned again, or unlearned.”
“I had been arrested for prostitution, and because I was also a teacher at Berkeley High, it made the national news…. Even though I really just wanted to wear a big, enormous hat, huge glasses, and sneak in and out of court to avoid the whole thing…the activist in me said, OK, well the fucking cameras are on me, and they’re wanting to talk to me, so I need to say something and make use of this opportunity….so my life’s falling apart, I’m never going to be able to teach again. I can’t work because my clients are afraid to come see me, I’m all over the fucking news. I’m totally depressed…and Robyn! Every time I see Robyn she’s like, we’re going to take it to the Supreme Court! Because it was right after Lawrence vs. Texas had settled in the Supreme Court. So Robyn was like, the precedent’s been set, the language is there, we’re going to go for it, this is the case!...Robyn was just so happy. She was so supportive, so happy and so fun. She had sign making parties for my press conference, and every time I saw her she was so happy. OK, but here’s the thing. I eventually found out that she was in the middle of her own court case, a federal case, where she was facing time in prison, and didn’t know yet if she was going to prison. Her sentencing hearing was coming up….And here she is, she’s just this ray of sunshine and positive energy, and so happy and buoyant and supportive. And she never mentioned that she was possibly going to be going to prison for her own case.”
“As you all know, her laugh is one to treasure, and her charisma pulls in strangers….When Robyn and I talked about her opting out [of continuing treatment], it wasn’t a gamble on life. It was to choose an end to life, filled with travel and friends and love rather than life’s end governed and shaped by treatment and sterile institutions.”
“She was proud of her whore sisterhood, pleased with what had been accomplished, and confident that the younger SWOP members would continue what she started.”
“She’s created a whole movement. And her tenacity and her drive and her fight and her inspiration is so contagious. It was so contagious.”
“I dedicated a good month trying to help Prop. K pass. And so the day that the decision was going to come down, she rented a limo regardless. She was like, I’m renting a limo, we’re going to party, it’s going to be great. And then I’m hoping, hoping, hoping, I’m all come on Prop. K. We’ve worked so hard on this. Blood, sweat and tears, blood, sweat and tears. And then we hear on the radio the result. And I’m about to cry, and here’s the miracle part. Robyn Few jumps out the top of the limo and she’s all, ‘Yeah! 41.2 percent motherfuckers!’ And that is the miracle mindset…because you did lose the proposition but we won so much….we didn’t lose anything, we gained.”
“Robyn Few died on the same day as one of my other favorite activists, Tupac Shakur. On September 13. And people still remember Tupac’s legacy. And there’s certain activists like that, like Robyn, like Bob Marley. They’re all pot smokers. And I just feel really, really fortunate to have met her, because she is a special activist.”
Robyn Few will be missed.