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Sex-worker activists have long voiced this concern, not to protect the sex industry (as anti-prostitution campaigners claim) but to protect themselves from the violence of arrest and the violence that results from widespread social stigma and discrimination. Defenders of sex workers’ rights want to stop those arrests, while the feminists who should be their natural allies are pushing for more.
‘Sack of Bones on Gilgo Beach’
Between 2010 and 2011, the remains of 10 people, many identified as sex workers, were found on Long Island’s Gilgo Beach. New York sex workers, including SWOP members, responded by reaching out to the families of the victims, attending vigils, and providing support to one another. Networks such as these are strong among sex workers, who cannot rely on cops, courts, or other institutions most people can turn to in times of crisis.
NOW-NYC’s response to these murders, still unsolved, came in a letter from its president, Sonia Ossorio, to the New York Daily News. Against the backdrop of NOW’s campaign to increase stings and raids in the sex trade, Ossorio complained that the paper was out of bounds for running a column questioning the public good in keeping prostitution illegal. She closed her letter by invoking the murdered women who “ended up as sacks of bones on Gilgo Beach.” For Ossorio, these women’s deaths are a justification for prohibition rather than a wake-up call to the dangers that prohibition creates.
It is not sex work that exposes sex workers to violence; it is our willingness to abandon sex workers to violence in an attempt to control their behavior. Prohibition makes prostitution more dangerous than it would otherwise be by pushing it underground and stripping sex workers of legal protection. The fight over that policy is about more than just strains between generations of feminism. It is about an unholy marriage of feminism with the conservatism and police power that many feminists claim to stand against.
Advocates for sex workers are making some headway in calling that alliance to account. In 2011, for the first time, sex-worker activists participated in the U.N. Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights (UPR), a review of all member states’ human rights records conducted each four years. It was also the first year that the U.S. government’s record on human rights was up for U.N. review.
Activist Darby Hickey, a transgender woman who has been involved in the sex trade and is currently an analyst at the Best Practices Policy Project, which defends sex worker rights, participated in the U.N. evaluation. Its findings reinforced what sex workers have been reporting for decades: American sex workers are vulnerable to discrimination and violence not simply because of their work but because of the ways institutions exclude and harm them. The United States signed on to UPR recommendations that “no one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on sexual orientation or their status as a person in prostitution.”
“Now we’ll see what they do with that,” Hickey says, “and what steps they take to address violence from law enforcement and systemic violence.” When it comes to criminalization and the prison system, Hickey says, “there’s a general recognition that we’re going in the wrong direction, but around prostitution it’s going in the opposite direction, where people are saying, ‘Arrest more people; increase penalties.’ ” Just as the war on drugs is in many ways a war on black people, Hickey says, the war on prostitution is a war on sex workers.
If we are going to call attacks on reproductive and sexual rights a “war on women,” then let’s talk about a war on women that has actual prisoners and a body count. It’s a war on the women engaged in sex work, waged by women who will not hesitate to use their opponents’ corpses as political props but refuse to listen to them while they are still alive and still here to fight.