Sex Workers Need Your Help To Prevent Violence

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This past Friday was December 17, the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers. Events including vigils and readings were held around the world in remembrance of sex workers who were killed because of their work. The day was created to increase awareness about the violence faced by sex workers around the world. The day was created in 2003 when an American serial killer was sentenced for murdering scores of women. He explained that he targeted sex workers specifically because missing persons reports would be slow, police investigations lax and therefore, he could get away with it. And he did for a long time despite being questioned by police after his car was reported to police as the last place a missing person was seen by the boyfriend of a victim. Tracy Quan points out that it’s not only sex workers but also their loved ones and associates who have difficulty being taken seriously by police and others.

Violence against and harassment of sex workers by law enforcement has also been documented, including across the Middle East and North Africa. For example, in Lebanon, the morals police were reported to be the most problematic for sex workers. In Egypt, problems with the police are especially difficult for men who sell sex in part because both sexual activities between men and selling sex are criminalized. Compounding problems, being HIV+ is seen as proof of guilt of same sex and commercial sexual activity. An Algerian health program described problems with police arresting peer educators for sex workers.

The Day has succeeded in increasing awareness, as demonstrated by mainstream feminist coverage and other media from Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. Sex workers take pains to avoid violence, too, sharing information about “bad dates,” developing anti-violence campaigns, and working with projects that work with police to ensure that crimes against sex workers are investigated. Craigslist deserves praise for making it possible for people who commit crimes against sex workers, particularly murder, to be apprehended: The murderer of Julissa Brinkman was arrested in part because he was traceable through Craigslist. However, American feminists and right-wing conservatives have successfully called for the elimination of this advertising venue, making it harder for sex workers to work knowing that if they are harmed, that the last person they saw as a client will be identifiable. Ridgway’s quote above demonstrates that this attention is itself a deterrent. It is ironic and sad that feminists and others who should be against violence in all its forms refuse to listen to sex workers about what kind of help would be truly helpful to them.

Melissa Ditmore. Amal el Karouaoui offered invaluable assistance with the section about the Middle East.

Here is a brief excerpt from Melissa Ditmore’s soon-to-debut Prostitution and Sex Work about violence against sex workers, focusing on queer sex workers:

Homophobic and transphobic violence

Sex workers face [many] causes of violence, including homophobia and transphobia. In the lead up to the 2009 Transgender Day of Remembrance, commemorating transgender people killed because of who they were, there was speculation among organizers that all transgender people murdered in the US in the previous year had been sex workers. Tara Sawyer, a member of the board of directors of The Diversity Center in Santa Cruz, said, “We believe all the transgendered murders this year in the United States were sex workers.” Cyndee Clay, director of Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, an organization that promotes harm reduction for sex workers in Washington, D.C., said, “Violence against Transgender Women and violence against sex workers in our country is epidemic, ignored, and sadly deemed acceptable by many communities.  Both communities are seen as outlaws, gender or otherwise and somehow deserving of blame. If a woman is both transgender and a sex worker, she is doubly at risk for violence from those who would commit violence against those that society chooses not to protect.”

BIO: Melissa Ditmore has written and edited numerous books on sex work. Her other publications include peer-reviewed journal articles, research reports, advocacy materials, and short pieces. She has spoken at the International AIDS Conference, the United Nations and many academic and informal meetings, the International Harm Reduction Association, and events convened by sex workers. Her research includes investigations into law enforcement practices, violence against sex workers, research ethics, and assessments of harm reduction programs.

Amal el Karouaoui is a consultant working with marginalized populations including sex workers, men who have sex with men, and people who use drugs. She is based in Cairo.

– Contributed by Melissa Ditmore

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