The Roles We Play (part one)

Recently there have been more changes than there is consistency in the factors at play on our sidewalk.  We are paying close attention and adapting as best we can.  After starting to analyze the motivations and methods of escorts, anti-choice demonstrators(antis), companions and others I decided to start writing about what I’m seeing.  My conclusions on this piece have not been drawn, but I’m hoping that starting to post will help this work develop.  Please bear with me and offer any thoughts or feedback.

Louisville’s Clinic Escorts are present in part to support people and create space for them to feel empowered while accessing reproductive healthcare.  We are all volunteers, and are not agents of the clinic, or any other group.  We are organized autonomous individuals working toward a common goal.

Some escorts simply hold space, and try to give the people walking as much physical room as possible while protesters yell, push and sometimes grab at or block the paths of the people walking.  Other escorts watch for traffic (as we sometimes have to cross a busy street) and help steer the mass of people.  Escorts speak calmly to the client and their companions to give them something to focus on other than the chaos surrounding them on this already difficult day.  Escorts are trained in the details of each role, and assume a role based on necessity.  The players of each role are constantly changing based on the situation.  We all have to be aware of the clients needs, and everyone’s safety at all times.

Most clients of EMW Women’s Surgical Center receive general anesthesia, and are thus required to bring a driver with them to their appointment.  A supportive friend can also be helpful while walking into the clinic, as there is always an anti-choice presence on the sidewalk.

We see clients bring a variety of people with them for their appointments.  We have seen parents, partners, siblings and friends.  In some cases 3 or 4 people walk in together and there is no way for us to know who is there for an abortion.  The protesters don’t know either, they harass everyone.  No matter what the relationship is, the companion plays an essential role in the drama of the walk to the door.

I have seen companions react to the protesters in countless ways.  I’ve seen partners stop to talk to the anti’s, explaining how their situation is special.  I’ve seen siblings or friends stop to chat, sympathizing that they wish their friend would make a different choice.  I’ve seen parents, partners and friends become verbally and sometimes physically aggressive, yelling at the antis to leave them alone, and sometimes shoving, or making threats of violence.  Never have I seen the antis respond respectfully to these people’s requests for peace.

In analyzing the roles played out on the sidewalk, I am reminded of Karpman’s Drama Triangle.  The drama triangle is a psychological and social model of human interaction which has become widely used in psychology and psychotherapy.   Drama is defined as a conflict involving a number of people.  In each drama the roles played are that of the perpetrator (perp), the rescuer (sometimes called the enabler), and the victim.  Throughout a drama people can play any of these roles, and more than one at a time.  They can also switch roles at any time.  The only way to end the drama is to get off of the triangle without slipping into another role.  For example, if a person is being verbally abusive to someone else, the victim could react by getting in the perp seat and lashing back with their own insults and judgments.  This perpetuates the drama.

To get off of the triangle the victim could say something like, “you may have a point, but I don’t want to talk to you about this until we both cool down.” Or “I’m not going to engage in this aggression.  Maybe we need a mediator, or should start writing down our thoughts and feelings.”  The perp can get off the triangle just as easily, but it always has to be an intentional action that is not the way we are taught to deal with conflict.

There are lots of resources about the Drama Triangle, please do your homework to understand more.

We see the triangle play out at the clinic in fascinating ways.  With each client there is the potential for a unique drama, and each drama looks different from each person’s perspective.  There are clients, their companions, escorts, police, protesters, and passersby.  Inside the doors are counselors, nurses, doctors and other clinic staff.  They fit into the drama as well.

The anti’s behaviors seem to change with the demographics of the clients.  For example, the anti’s become particularly aggressive, almost ravenous if the client appears very young, or if they are visibly pregnant (second trimester).   In the case of an African-American client, there are some protestors who become very passionate about “saving that black baby” and others who seem far less motivated when the client’s skin color does not match their own.

Here are a few examples of drama on the sidewalk, and some demonstrations of role changes as the drama plays out:

One Saturday a young woman and her mother arrived together.  As usual their car was surrounded by protesters before they even opened the doors.  After identifying ourselves we asked if they would like an escort.  Having received verbal consent from both people we made a circle around them and did what we could to make the walk as easy as possible.

As we started to walk with this family, the mom went into a defender mode.  She inserted herself into rotation with the escorts and was doing what she could to deflect the people hurling judgments at her kiddo.  The client was in the center of the circle, in survival mode.  There was no outward distress, no visible tears.  I read her body language as saying “Let’s just have this walk be over already.  This sucks.”  Her head was down, her body introverted.

The whole time we walked I was going through my normal script, “you’re doing just fine… most of these people will be gone when you leave… we’re almost there…”  As we made it to the clinic side of the street, with the prayer gauntlet still ahead of us, I decided I really wanted to offer her more than verbal support, as her mom was still occupied with the chasers.  I said to her in a low, calm voice “if you’d like, I can put my arm around you and help you walk.”  She accepted my offer with a “yes” and a nod that conveyed a good bit of relief.  I put my right arm around her shoulders, pulled her to me a bit and tried to give her some of my confidence as I quickened our pace a little.  The rest of the walk seemed to breeze by.  At one point I felt someone leaning on my left side, the way I am used to escorts doing as they are pushed by aggressive antis.  I glanced to my left and was surprised to see that this ‘escort’ was actually the client’s mom.  By now we were almost to the clinic’s property line (after which there are 11 long feet to the door).  I kept my arm around the client until we had passed through the clinic entrance.  After mom and I traded roles back she thanked me and they took their places in line.

One way of looking at the roles in that drama is the young woman as the victim, the aggressive protesters acting as perps and the client’s mother and the escorts as rescuers.

I have seen similar dramas evolve differently.  On that same Saturday we walked with another family.  This time, mom had her arm around the client and they were both surrounded by escorts with hands linked.  The client’s dad was a few paces behind the escort ring, talking with protesters.

This young client seemed to be fine.  She walked with her head up, face forward and did not seem to be bothered by the cacophony.  The protesters were reacting to their perception of the client’s young age and displayed extra vigor as they leaned, pushed, and reached between the escorts.  All the while the client remained cool.  Her mom, on the other hand was in an all out “mama bear” moment, which gradually escalated.  She started by verbally asking that they be left alone.  Her requests grew more explicit and loud as we went down the sidewalk to our street crossing point.  As we were in the street, mom was actually reaching past her daughter, across the escort’s arms and was shoving an anti while yelling “SHUT UP! SHUT UP!”  There were all of 20 steps to go, and we all made it through fine, but again I see an apparent role reversal.

One way of looking at this drama could start with the anti as the perp, and the escorts and parents as rescuers.  At some point, however, mom began perpetrating against the anti.

The perception of the roles played will look different to each player.  This is where it gets tricky.

Each person on the sidewalk (that is not going to the clinic that day) is there because they feel passionately about the thing that gets them out of bed around 6am on a Saturday morning.  Whether we’re motivated to defend reproductive choice, or to oppose it, we are there to stand strong and bear witness.

Each person experiencing a drama has their own valid interpretation of what is going on.  Everyone has the ability to be abusive to other people.  At this point I think it’s all in the person’s motivation.  This is where I still have work to do in developing my analysis of all the drama.

I have a scrap of paper with about a dozen triangles sketched on it.  A number of them have role assignments similar to the ones I’ve described here.  All of what I have described has been based on my own perception of what was happening.  How would it differ if I asked the anti’s to label roles in the dramas we play out?  I’d imagine they would put fetuses in the victim seat and view themselves as rescuers. The perps would probably range from the clients and their companions to the doctors and escorts.  In my 10 + years as an escort have been told all of this by anti’s.  However, I do not want to assume that they all share motivations and ideas.  It’s similar to how I want each escort, and client to be granted their autonomy by outsiders.

Each person in each drama has the agency to do what they feel is right for them.  On the sidewalk, that could be terminating a pregnancy, or supporting a friend or family member.  Where the anti’s motivations fall short is when they take away the client’s agency, and decide that THEY get to make the decision for another person.

This Saturday will be the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby, therefore the clinic will be closed (yes really).  While we are glad to get the weekend off, we are NOT looking forward to the following Saturday which will be the day before Mother’s Day.  If you read this blog, or pay attention otherwise, you know that we tend to see between 200 and 400 EXTRA anti’s for this holiday.

This year we are using their numbers to our advantage and collecting pledges based on the number of protesters that show up.  All money raised will benefit the KY A Fund which provides financial aid to poor people accessing abortion services.  The A Fund is in serious need of funding right now.  To pledge-a-picketer, email  To make a flat donation please click here

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About wench

Wench is based in Louisville KY. What started as a Selfcare Health Education Collective in 2005 has bloomed and flourished and exploded and re-rooted and bloomed again and again. We now wench (verb) all over the US and beyond. Many are still in KY fighting for abortion access, repro and racial justice, and bodily autonomy for all.

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