Why Sex Workers Need Their Own Day

To this day, sex workers are targeted by serial killers and other criminals and are afraid of going to the police.

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Dec 17 2014, 6:36pm

Photo via Flickr user Steve Rhodes

Today, December 17, is the International Day to End Violence Against SexWorkers, and groups all over the world are gathering to memorialize victims. The occasion was launched by Annie Sprinkle after the "Green River Killer," Gary Ridgway, confessed to killing dozens of women, and explained that he chose sex workers as targets because he thought they would rarely or never be reported missing. In fact, many reports had been made to the police, but they didn't seem to care—Seattle sex workers knew who Gary Ridgway was for years before he was arrested.

I grew up in the shadow of another serial killer, Robert Hansen, who flew kidnapped sex workers to remote locations in his airplane and hunted them, literally. The older glamorous burlesque queen I lived with as a teenager had escaped from Hansen after being kidnapped and tortured. Like Cindy Paulsen, the main character of the documentary about Hansen's killing spree, my friend had gone to the police and been made fun of and threatened with arrest herself. People on the street knew who Hansen was for years before the police arrested him.

The police practice of not taking reports from—or investigating the deaths of—prostitutes continues to this day. In 2010, a sex worker on Long Island named Shannan Gilbert called 9-1-1, frantically reporting that she was going to be killed. The police wouldn't respond without an address, so she ran and banged frantically on a stranger's door before resuming her flight. When cops arrived, instead of investigating, they wrote her off as a hooker who was probably on drugs. A year later, Shannan's body was found less than a mile from where she'd dialed 9-1-1, along with the bodies of several other sex workers thought to be victims of a serial killer. The police maintain that Shannan likely drowned, accidentally, after leaving her clothes and purse and wading, naked, for a quarter-mile through waist-deep water, though a recent autopsy found no drugs in her system. As one author put it, "Against all common sense and with willful ignorance of Shannan's own words that night, the police seemed to be saying that Shannan Gilbert had died because her soul had been rent asunder by a life in the streets."

On Wednesday, there will be candlelight vigils in remembrance of these murdered sex workers. Many of us will also be thinking of the sex workers we've known who've died in less dramatic, but tragically preventable, ways because their lives did not seem to matter to people in power. Sex workers' lives often don't seem to matter to police, hospitals, shelters, doctors, disability eligibility officers, or cab drivers.

In September 2013, I attended a sex trafficking seminar where Alaska's then attorney general explained that his primary goal was to boost trust between victims within the sex industry and law enforcement by increasing arrests. He seemed unable to understand why victims wouldn't come forward to police. Apparently the problem was the tragic state of their souls rather than their previous experiences with police.

I decided to devote my master's research and thesis to investigating Alaskan sex workers' lived experiences with the institutions that are supposed to help them. In the beginning, I expected to find that police didn't take reports, and that was true: Of those who'd tried to report being the victim or witness to a crime, police had taken reports from only 44 percent. A third of those who'd tried to report a crime were threatened with arrest. Much more chilling, though, was the amount of violence from police. Over a quarter of those surveyed reported being sexually assaulted by police officers, and the assaults by police were concentrated among those who had also experienced abusive working conditions in the sex industry and therefore might be most in need of protection.

Just 50 years ago, it was not uncommon practice for police and criminals to target gay men, lesbians, and gender non-conforming folks with violence. Today GLBT people are not only able to report crimes, but there's legislation protecting them from discrimination. It's time to do the same for sex workers.

Tara Burns is the author of Whore Diaries: My First Two Weeks as an Escort and Whore Diaries II: Adventures in Independent Escorting. Follow her on Twitter.

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