14th International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers
Sunday, December 17th marks the 14th annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Citizens around the around the world will come together to show their support for those who are, or have been, employed in the commercial sex industry.
December 17th events are being organized in a number of cities worldwide, including Philadelphia, where a remembrance ceremony organized by Melanie Dante, Eris Vayle, and Anita DeFrancesco will be held on that date from 3-5 p.m. at the Thomas Paine Plaza, 1401 John F. Kennedy Blvd. across from City Hall. The ceremony will feature a series of speakers and include a reading of the names of individuals who have been killed while engaging in sex work. Textile artist and ally Kelly Eileen is creating a larger than life fabric puppet in the style of Vietnam-era political theater representing the collective voice of those who are unable to share their stories.
“Community working together works!” Is the motto of M. Dante, EPSU-Philly /SWOP Behind Bars, and D/17 co-organizer, adding that the event is intended to engage the community. “We hope we are making a positive difference,” she says. “We hope we can help heal the spiritual wounds left behind in our shared communities, help get cold cases solved or at least help create closure, and lessen, if not eliminate, the gratuitous serial violence and murder.” Ms. Dante herself was a transient teen and young adult living at street level for over 10 years.
December 17th was first envisioned by renowned sexologist, educator, and former prostitute Dr. Annie Sprinkle and several of her associates, who became the driving force the Sex Workers Outreach Project, now known as SWOP-USA.
The first December 17th observance was held in 2003 on the date that Gary Leon Ridgeway, the notorious Green River Killer was sentenced for his crimes. Between July of 1982 and January of 1998 he was responsible for the deaths of dozens of women and girls in King County, Washington, the county that includes the cities of Seattle and Tacoma. Many of his victims were prostitutes and others marginalized by society, such as runaways. Ridgeway was sentenced to 48 consecutive life terms for his crimes plus 480 additional years; a plea agreement eliminated the possibility of the death penalty.
In the wake of Ridgway’s case, Sprinkle and her associates created the December 17th event to raise awareness of concerns that are all too familiar to sex workers but are largely ignored by the public at large.
And those concerns are many. All who work in the sex industry, be they women, men, or transgendered individuals, live with the threat of physical violence. Many have been assaulted by their clients and some have been killed.
In other instances, sex workers have been threatened or assaulted by law enforcement officers. In a survey of New York street-based prostitutes for a study compiled by Katherine Koster for SWOP Chicago, 80 percent of the respondents indicated they had been a victim of violence. While many were attacked by clients or pimps, 27 percent of the respondents reported that the perpetrators of the violence were in fact law enforcement officers.
And when a sex worker is the victim of a crime, they often find the wheels of justice turn slowly. Bella Robinson is based in Rhode Island where she oversees the COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) organization which supports those who work in the sex industry and assists those seeking to leave it.
One of Robinson’s chief concerns is the attitude of those who contend that sex workers who are assaulted or killed are somehow responsible for their fate. “It goes back to the notion that bad women get what they deserve,” she says, “and it goes back to what’s divided feminists for years, shaming other women for their sexual choices, or being out of the norm. And it’s kind of ironic that people that hook up for casual sex themselves on regular basis seem to still believe in this hatred toward sex workers.
“I also think a lot of violence that happens to non-sex worker women stems from that effect; we teach society that it’s okay do this to (sex workers) with impunity. Nothing is going to matter, nobody is going to care; they’re disposable.”
But the challenges sex workers face go beyond threats of violence. Those who derive —or have derived— their living from the sex industry often face difficulties on a number of fronts. Because they may lack a conventional employment history, they may have difficulty establishing credit, receiving a loan, or obtaining housing. If they have children, their history in the sex industry may be used against them in child custody case.
“Fantastic mothers have lost custody or visitation rights to their children because their ex-spouse decided to get a bee in their bonnet,” Vayle says. “Sex work is generally the legal “low blow” that allows partners to extort and get the final word in court arguments or legal separations. It’s horrible. Regarding housing; obtaining housing and a job is the final frontier of my closeted life as a sex worker. All of my friends, lovers, acquaintances, and family know about that part of my life, but I will not disclose this information to a potential landlord or employer. Strippers and other sex workers often get denied opportunities to live decent lives unless they have a cover, and people willing to lie for them, regardless of potential histories of being good tenants and employees.”
Dante points out that sex workers, whatever their history, share the same hopes and dreams as their neighbors. “We want as workers to know how to be safer and better,” she says, “so we don’t contribute to crime and violence or health-related problems. “We just want to make money to pay what bills or debts we need to pay,” she says, “be safe and maybe even be happy. We want to be part of the solution and not the problem.”
There are signs that the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers is making an impact, that the public perception of sex workers is evolving. Derek Demeri is a co-founder of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance (NJRUA), which champions the cause of sex workers in that state. The group stages a December 17 event of its own each year. “This year’s event comes as sex workers across the country have made incredible and unprecedented political strides,” he says. “There are two pending bills in New Hampshire and Washington D.C. that would decriminalize sex work and Philadelphia has elected the country’s first politician (District Attorney-elect Larry Krasner) to run on a pro-sex work policy platform. This is all thanks to the committed and tireless efforts of sex worker advocates who fight for safer labor standards in the sex trade. As long as criminalization remains the law of the land, people in the trade will continue to die with impunity. As we close 2017, we look for a brighter future where these deaths no longer need to happen.”
That’s a mindset that Sprinkle would embrace. “Creating the first Dec 17 event was a group effort,” she says, “with Robin Few, Kimberley Klein, Michael Fowley, and myself. I am so very pleased that it is continuing.”
For more information please see: http://www.dec17philly.com
Facebook to RSVP: https://www.facebook.com/events/1742798332428475/