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41 Sex Workers Were Murdered This Year—We Can Prevent Those Deaths in 2016

On the 12th annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, we talked to an expert about how and why we should make safe sex work a priority.
All photos courtesy of SWOP

With a red umbrella as their uniting symbol, sex workers and their allies rally each year on December 17 to raise awareness about the dangers that sex workers are up against in countries where they are considered criminals. According to a 2012 study, sex workers have a 45 to 75 percent chance of experiencing some form of career-related violence in their lifetimes. What's more is that they are not likely to seek out or receive legal justice. In 2015, at least 41 sex workers were murdered in the United States alone, and the majority of that violence was racist or transphobic.


In a blog post today, the adult performer Stoya, who earlier this year alleged that she was raped by fellow porn star James Deen, writes about the importance of an annual day of recognition: It encourages us to work toward creating systems that "cater to the needs of the most vulnerable to an extent that equals the extent to which existing systems reinforce the power and control of those who already have most of it."

"Today is December 17th, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers—all sex workers," she continues. "Not just pornographers. Not just white cis-women… I'll be doing a lot of listening to others under the red umbrella of sex work. I believe that their safety is important and that it can be improved."

Broadly spoke to Katherine Koster, the communications director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), to find out why we should all work to make safe sex work a priority.

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BROADLY: How did the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers start?
Katherine Koster: The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was started by SWOP and Annie Sprinkle [a sex educator and former sex worker] in 2003 around the trial of Gary Ridgway. Ridgway was a serial killer who was convicted of murdering 49 women, but he's said he has murdered as many as 70 women. Most of his victims were sex workers.


In the US, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers stemmed from his trial in November 2003. It started as a memorial and vigil for Ridgway's victims and took off simultaneously around the world. In December of that year, the Sex Workers Action Network, which is an Eastern European and Central Asian organization, started recognizing a day to address and raise awareness of the violence against sex workers in the region. Since then, those two events unified, and it has become a global event, reaching from Canada and the US to Europe, Hong Kong, and Cambodia.

Would you say that one of the goals of today is to bring awareness to the lives and deaths of sex workers that are often not talked about or covered in the news?
Yeah. That's definitely part of it, especially this year. We also want to highlight that sex workers are a valuable part of communities. They're students, they're mothers, they're daughters. They will be missed by lots of people. They're not just a bunch of names on a list. Sex workers' lives are not disposable.

Another thing is that 65 percent of trans women who were murdered globally, in instances where their occupation was recorded, were sex workers. And of the total amount of sex workers who were murdered this year, 25 percent were trans. It's really important to look at how the marginalization of trans women is linked to the marginalization of sex workers. It's really important to talk about transphobia and the criminalization of sex work in the same messaging.


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What are some of the actions that are happening around the world today?
In Prague, an organization called Bliss Without Risk is issuing ID cards for sex workers on Palackého Square to highlight the negative affects of proposed regulations that would mandate identification cards and mandatory health checks for sex workers. This is a big issue in Europe. In Germany, they're introducing a nationwide legislation that would mandate sex workers register with the state and comply with regular check-ins with social workers. In the Netherlands they already have this in place; cops pose as clients and perform undercover check-ins. It basically works how a legal summons would; sex workers think that they're engaging with another client and then it turns out to be a cop who tells them they need to register.

There are a couple issues with this. The first is global migration. The United States, for example, still has a [travel] ban in place on anyone who has engaged in prostitution within the last ten years. That means if someone has to register as a sex worker in the Netherlands, or in Germany, if this ends up happening in Prague, they won't be allowed to enter the United States. The second is data security—is there a way that your employer or your landlord will be able to find out that you're registered as a sex worker? Sex work is still highly stigmatized, even where it is legal or decriminalized, and this can lead to discrimination.


Above all, these laws just mean more state surveillance. As we just saw in Oklahoma with the Holtzclaw trial, police can and do take advantage of their position of power. These regulatory laws just open up more opportunities for police to harass and extort sex workers. We already see this happening. There's also the issue of clients impersonating cops or regulatory officials.

International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers demonstration in South Africa, 2014

Elsewhere around the world, like in South Africa, sex workers attended a congressional parliamentary hearing on the needs of sex workers, pushing for decriminalization. In San Fransisco, the Sex Worker and Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project is organizing a lawsuit challenging the criminalization of sex work in California and rallying in front of [the US federal courthouse in Oakland]. In Cambodia, sex workers and allies are distributing posters to governmental offices and NGOs that highlight how certain laws in the country are harmful to street-based sex workers. And in Budapest there's a press conference about police violence and sex work.

Are there ways that sex workers can alert each other to clients or cops that they've had bad experiences with?
At each of our SWOP chapters in the United States we have peer-led hotlines and bad date lists, where sex workers can describe dangerous clients they've had experience with. On the site Vocativ, [the reporter] Tracy Clark-Flory analyzed the National Blacklist and found that there were four times as many reports about police than actual clients. Right now, SWOP is also working on a way to make these lists available to more than just indoor sex workers with laptops.


Sex workers aren't just victims. They're actively resisting and reacting to systematic violence.

Sex workers obviously face not only physical violence, but legislative violence as well. What's the best thing that lawmakers can do to actually end the violence against sex workers?
I think addressing the criminalization of non-violent crime in the United States is a huge, huge, huge, one. When people are criminalized for drug possession or sex work—and a lot of people who do street-based sex work are also drug users, and vice versa—they are going to be afraid of reporting violence to the police. Criminalization creates an entire group of people who are really vulnerable to extortion; police officers can threaten arrest if a sex worker doesn't agree to coercive sex acts, for example. Criminalization and how it alienates people from accessing justice absolutely needs to be addressed.

The second thing, especially in the US, is that we need to address the exclusion of sex workers from rape victim compensation. In most states, the statutes around victim compensation specifically deny victims' compensation to people who were victims while engaging in, or seeking to engage in, criminalized activity. Under these laws, the population that is arguably the most vulnerable to sexual assault isn't able receive financial compensation for things like medical bills, lost wages, and mental health counseling.

To end on a positive note, what are some of the ways sex workers are resisting violence and discrimination?
Sex workers aren't just victims. They're actively resisting and reacting to systematic violence. They're operating peer-led groups around the world as well as lobbying for their rights. What's positive is that we know ways to greatly reduce violence. Short of full decriminalization, we need to create immunity for sex workers who are victims of sexual assault and rape. We know what needs to happen.

Since Amnesty International voted in support of decriminalization of sex work, increasing numbers of organization in the US, as well as globally, have followed. I think that mainstream solidarity and support for fighting violence against sex workers is starting to come together in a real way.