Civil Liberties

On 'International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers,' Women Around the World Demand Rights, Not Rescue

The criminalization of prostitution is at the root of the risk sex workers face.


Bella Robinson/Flickr

Each December 17, sex workers and their allies around the world commemorate the "International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers," joining together for memorial vigils and demonstrations from Alaska to Ireland to India. The day was launched in 2003 in response to the sentencing of the "Green River Killer," who murdered dozens of sex workers in Washington State throughout the 1980s and 1990s. But it's not just psychos and serial killers who put sex workers in danger—a large share of violence against sex workers comes at the hands of cops

In the U.S., police officers like Oklahoma City's Daniel Holtzclaw (convicted last week of sexually assaulting eight women, including several sex workers) and NYPD detective Kenny Chin (who "hooked up with" massage-parlor workers he met while investigating their jobs) target sex workers for assault because they have an easy bargaining chip (do what I say or I'll throw you in jail) and they know the stigma around prostitution makes people less likely to believe these women. But even cops who are just doing their jobs commit violence against sex workers every day, by arresting and locking them up in jail just for trying to earn a living. Then, when sex workers suspect clients are capable of violence, we wonder why they didn't go to the police? Please. The bottom line is that the criminalization of prostitution is at the root of the risk that sex workers face. 

But enough from me. Here's what sex workers around the world want you to know about risk, violence, and the state, in their own words. We'll start with U.S. sex worker TS Piper Darling at the blog Black Girl Dangerous:

The criminalization of sex work in the United States is largely the reason why it can be so dangerous. Many people hold the idea that harsher policing will 'save' more sex workers, but that approach actually serves to continue violence and destroy many of our tactics for safety. The more that sex work is pushed underground and harshly policed, the more unsafe the work becomes. Instead of relying on the (in)justice system, many of us depend on ourselves, our sex worker communities, and our solidarity networks for support and safety.

Several years ago, I received a violent message from a potential client. He lashed out at me for disclosing that I have sex with men of color. This obviously raised red flags so I immediately stopped responding. While it's common for me to have white clients who are overtly racist, nobody had ever been verbally violent with me before.

Almost a year later, I heard that he'd harmed other trans women sex workers by robbing, attacking, and stalking them. I heard he's even killed a girl. If you are someone who trusts the police, knowing that this happened without anybody stopping him may seem like a fluke. But the truth is, most police really don't take violence against trans women seriously, especially those who are sex workers. The first thing I learned, from the very first time a client put his hands on me, is that you take your lumps, patch yourself up, move on and add him to a blacklist to let other sex workers know.

From Ngo of the Vietnam Network of Sex Workers (via Huffington Post):  

Some sex workers get beaten up by brothel managers, drivers and agents and have to divide earnings up and share with others.For now, sex work is still not recognized as a job in Vietnam. But luckily we suceeded in getting rid of the Decree 05 which led to the imprisonment of sex workers, and now we only face administrative penalties.

But there are still no rights for sex workers yet, so sex workers like us still suffer from sexual violence…and that is why we are calling on the Vietnamese community to open up an entertainment street so we can work openly, so we can access regular health healthcare, so we can pay taxes and not divide our earnings with others. If we can work in such an area, our lives will be better and we will be protected.

From Anna of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective:

It's dramatically different through decriminalization, sex workers can report violence to police…police have really really excellent relationship-working relationship with the NZ prostitutes collectives. And in other cases, we've just had individual sex workers go and access the police without our support.

 From an anonymous Indian sex worker

One night, after making a deal with my client I took him in a car and we were headed to his place. Once we were at his place, I noticed that there were a bunch four other men there, all drunk out of their minds. I had started to protest but by then it was too late, I was physically beaten and gang raped by five of them despite telling them that I had HIV. They taunted me saying that I was lying and were in a hurry to go between my legs.

Once the ordeal was over, I escaped by hiding myself in a truck and went to the nearest police station. I had shown the bruises I had on my body and private parts, and asked for the help. Their reaction was, "You are a sex worker, how does this classify as rape when you are whoring around town for money?" My case was never registered and investigated. The men were never convicted and they're probably out infecting HIV to other women. I now work closely with NGOs and lawyers to help other sex workers like myself.

From SF Weekly's Siouxsie Q

Seventeen percent of sex worker murder cases this year were linked to serial killers, who often target sex workers because they assume they will have a better chance of getting away with it. Under the current criminalized system, sex workers' access to justice is incredibly compromised, and when law enforcement is involved, they often cause more harm than good. In rape cases involving Chicago street prostitutes, 25 percent of victims identified the rapist as a police officer. Thirteen percent of the United States is black, and only 0.3 percent are transgender, and yet 41 percent of the sex workers murdered this year were black, and one third of them were transgender.

From Australian sex worker Tilly Lawless, chastising that hoary old strain of feminism that says all prostitution is rape: 

Author Yasmin Nair said sex work is integral to feminism and forgetting that has "devastated" the cause. I firmly believe that is true. So much time has been spent by well-meaning feminists infantilising, attacking, speaking over and for and 'saving' sex workers that an already marginalised group becomes even further marginalised.

When prohibitionists speak of us selling our body, not a service like any other job, and state that our job is by definition 'rape', it means that when we are actually assaulted, it is made void. If you do not believe in my ability to give consent, then you do not believe in and support my ability to not consent, or to consent to this or not that, or consent with that much extra money.

It's also important to remember the concept of 'enthusiastic consent' is more complex for sex workers. Sometimes I definitely don't feel enthusiastic about sex. Sometimes, like everyone, I am not in the mood for work that day. Sometimes my skin crawls and I wish a client would stop touching me. But just because there is a money incentive and I wouldn't do it without being paid does not invalidate my consent.

As sex workers, our negative experiences are often used against us, to hack away at our autonomy and prevent us from earning money to survive. Photos of murdered sex workers are shared on the Internet to protest the sex industry. To me this is as offensive and illogical as sharing photos of murdered wives to protest marriage, seeing as the issue is the greater problem of male violence in society, not my job.

From a Dutch magazine interivew with a South African sex worker, Sasa, about her being raped by a client and whether she reported it to police: 

… she looks at me mockingly: "The police catch sex workers and put us in jail."

[…] "Especially on Friday , I am afraid of the police," Sasa explains. "When they catch you on Friday you're stuck until Monday. Who should look after the children at such a moment? The only way to get out of here is to provide sexual services to the police and thereby you are often financially extorted . "

From the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland

Although it is legal to sell sexual services in Ireland, almost all other aspects of sex work are criminalised. Sex workers risk arrest simply by working with another person for safety. Kate McGrew, sex worker and SWAI Coordinator, stated "Irish laws are already putting our lives at risk… We gather today to remember sex workers who have been the victims of violence, and to tell the Minister for Justice that it is unacceptable to sacrifice sex workers' safety for a moral crusade. Our lives are worth more."

Criminalisation is a legal strategy which purports to 'end demand' for sexual services in order to abolish sex work entirely. This approach, commonly referred to as the 'Swedish Model' has been heavily criticised by sex workers, support workers, medical professionals (the Lancet) and international organisations such as UN AIDS and the World Health Organisation for increasing the marginalisation and victimisation of sex workers. Due to their clients' risk of arrest, sex workers are pushed further into isolation and away from support services and protection. This law has been rejected in other Nordic countries such as Denmark and Finland and was rejected in France and the UK.

From Dutch sex worker Hella Dee on Twitter:

If you think police should regulate sex work, please read this research on violence against sex workers.

I'll summarise it for you. When you're a sex worker, you are at the mercy of police. Violence, extortion and unlawful detention are common.

Police will force intrusive 'medical exams' on you. They will intimidate and out you. They will take your children. They will rape you.

Police will not help you when you have experienced non-police violence. When you ask for help, they will raid and shut down your work space. 

From the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers: