Featured image is a painting by UK artist Ewa Czarniecka
Content warning for violence (including murder) against sex workers and discussion of police.
Every December 17th we mark International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (IDEVASW), a day where sex workers around the globe gather and turn their attention to honor and mourn those of us lost to violence over the last year. This day is often punctuated by events, gatherings, direct actions, vigils, and the compiling and reading of the names of sex workers lost over the last year.
IDEVASW (aka D17) began in 2003 when Robyn Few (founder of Sex Workers Outreach Project USA) and Annie Sprinkle organized a speak out in San Francisco to memorialize the victims of Gary Ridgeway, also known as the Green River Killer of Seattle, Washington, who was convicted of killing 49 sex workers (though it is estimated he took over 90 lives over two decades). When asked about why he targeted sex workers, Ridgeway specifically cited that they often weren’t reported missing right away, if ever, and he’d be less likely to be caught. This highlights the ways in which the stigma we face negates our humanity by convincing power holders that we don’t matter, even when we’re faced with deadly violence. (If you really want to understand the extent to which law enforcement doesn’t care about sex workers, google the term NHI—or No Human Involved.)
For me, this day represents a day of grieving and an opportunity to shed light on how our lives are impacted daily by stigma, criminalization, and the unique violence we experience. I also like to take any opportunities to share how non-sex workers can be our accomplices in the struggle for liberation.
Sex workers experience myriad forms of violence, largely because of stigma and criminalization. We face both interpersonal violence (from other individuals or groups of people) as well as institutional violence (from the state, NGOs, etc). We are a group of workers who are disproportionately composed of LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, disabled people, women, people of color, and indigenous people; all groups who lack institutional power to varying degrees. Thus making it easy for us to be ignored, scapegoated, and stigmatized—especially when an individual worker exists in more than one of those groups.
We are subject to interpersonal violence. That may be from dangerous clients who wish to harm us physically, emotionally, or materially. It may also come in the form of intimate partner violence. Far too often abusive partners, friends, or family members of sex workers seek to “punish” us for what occurs during work. It can be very difficult to leave an abusive situation, particularly when perpetrators threaten them or have control over material assets, children, or can call law enforcement.
Violence may also come from perpetrators at large or in public spaces. We are frequently harassed and scapegoated for societal problems such as HIV, dissolution of relationships, and the general “moral undoing” of the world. There is also violence faced from health care providers, banks, academia, and landlords. NGOs are also a big perpetrator of violence, particularly “rescue” groups and religious organizations that aim to remove us from sex work in order to save us. There are even extortion groups and militias that have been known to threaten sex workers.
Sex workers may also experience workplace violence—particularly those working in brothels or massage parlors—from support staff, clients, or managers. But we even face these problems when working out of hotels, bars, Bnbs, etc.
State violence is a massive and prevailing form that we face in a very ubiquitous way. Any sex worker that doesn’t live in the few parts of the world where the work is decriminalized faces state violence (even those working in places where it’s legalized are living under state violence, in my opinion). Most commonly it comes from police and prosecutors who arrest, detain, charge, and imprison us. But it can can also come from military personnel, prison guards, and border guards. Apart from being extremely disruptive to a sex worker’s life, violence by state actors sends a message to society at large that such treatment is not just socially acceptable, but appropriate. Even legislators who write bad policy represent a threat to our safety and well-being.
All of this paints quite a grim picture. But despite all of this, we are some of the most resilient people on the planet! Why? Because we build networks and community based on care and mutual aid. We keep us safe. But there are ways that you can also help us! I often prefer the term “accomplice” over “ally” when describing people who fight with us in the struggle for liberation. Here are some things you can do to be an accomplice.
Address your prejudices around sex work/workers—especially before engaging with us. We’ve all been inundated from day one with whorephobic messaging, so it makes sense that at some point or another you’ve had prejudiced thoughts or actions about sex workers. Often times those come from your own internal discomfort with sex, power, and financial capital/material resources. Unfortunately, those prejudices can set the stage for doing harm or violence to sex workers. So work on that discomfort for the good of us all.
Respect that sex work is real work. We’re workers and deserve the same rights as any others. (And shout out to the late Carol Leigh for coining the term “sex work” and for being an amazing human and advocate that I had the great pleasure to do some work alongside.) People enter into the sex trade for a huge variety of reasons, and erotic labor deserves the same respect as any other laborers.
Be supportive by being an open-minded ear to listen or shoulder to lean on without any entitlement or expectation. Learn about sex-worker-led resources and share them with sex workers that have expressed they need help. Avoid playing rescuer by assuming that any problem or challenge we have in the industry means we’re dying to get out or need to be swept away from “the life.”
Educate yourself about our struggle by seeking out trusted, vetted sources (and primarily those that come directly or indirectly from sex workers). The more you know, the more empathy you’ll have. Empathy is so incredibly important for connection, and we need connection to change hearts and minds!
As you learn more, stand up for sex workers! If you notice friends or family expressing bigotry and stigma, speak up. Share what you know (whether through your own personal experiences with sex workers, or what you’ve learned second hand) to reduce ignorance. Avoid speaking for sex workers and ESPECIALLY do not out anyone while you’re speaking up! Rather, share what you’ve learned from us. Follow sex workers and organizations on social media to look out for political calls-to-action. Be aware of policy briefings created by sex work orgs so you can become familiar with the issues.
For a longer toolkit on how to be an accomplice to sex workers, please visit this list compiled by SWOP Chicago.
I hope you take some time today to further educate yourself or even find and attend an IDEVASW22 event. Be sure to look up the hashtag #IDEVASW to learn more. We need people to amplify our voices if we hope to decrease the stigma and criminalization that fuels violence against us.