Member Blog: International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers: We need to push for decriminalization now more than ever

This blog post was written by Youth Coalition member Ankit Gupta. Ankit is a queer feminist committed to working towards gender, racial and reproductive justice. They serve on the board of Sex Workers Outreach Project – USA and have been a member of Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights since 2013.

In 2001, Gary Ridgway was arrested in connection to the murder of 49 women in the 1980s and 1990s in Washington’s King County. According to Gary, these women were “prostitutes”, “teen runaways” and “women no one would care about”. Known as the “Green River Killer”, Gary later confessed to having killed almost 90 women.

Outraged by the slaughter of their whore sisters, friends and members of Sex Workers Outreach Project – USA, memorialized December 17th as the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Ridgway testified that he targeted sex workers because they are forgotten women who no one would look for, not even by the police.

Unfortunately, this incident is not unique. Sex workers routinely face violence and danger to their human rights, lives and well being.

Abolition or Rights?

During her trip to India during the spring of 2014, feminist icon Gloria Steinem described prostitution (sic) as “commercial rape,” derided the efforts to recognize sex work as a form of labour, and cautioned against the use of the term sex work. Steinem’s articulations of all sex work as commercial rape was quickly denounced by feminist activists and scholars in India, many of whom questioned her conflation of sex work with trafficking. Steinem does not want to criminalize sex workers, but advocates for the Nordic model, which criminalizes the buyers of sexual services. However, the Nordic model does nothing to reduce the number of people in the sex industry and instead continues to put the lives of sex workers in danger.

Working with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CAWT) in 2015, actress Meryl Streep along with other celebrities including Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson, and Lena Dunham demanded that Amnesty International reject their organization’s proposal to push for the decriminalization of sex work.

At the National Association of Women’s Studies Conference in Baltimore in October, a panelist commented that the subaltern can speak, but can we hear? The panelist was referencing the historic text by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” which critiques the exclusion of marginalized voices in discourses about them. Sex workers are often excluded from the conversations on the abolition of sex work. In fact, they are often shouted down and silenced when articulating their demands.

In 2016, Amnesty International published their policy advocating for governments to decriminalize consensual sex work and all activities associated with it, such as buying and soliciting sex, and sex workers organizing. This policy came after an extensive review of international mechanisms as well as consultations with sex workers. Their research, crossing four regions, found that laws prohibiting sex workers and activities associated with sex work puts the lives of sex workers in danger, increases police abuse and harassment, and reduces access to healthcare services.

The demand for decriminalization not only reduces violence and stigma towards sex workers, it also recognizes sex work as labour, just like any other form of labour. States should not be the deciding factor in who, how and where people can take part in sex work – a common outcome in countries that have legalized sex work.

Violence Against Sex Workers

Around the world, violence against sex workers is often unaddressed and undocumented. Women, men, trans, and gender non-conforming sex workers face violence at the hands of police and law enforcement, health care providers, and the general public. Prosecution is rare, with judges often acquitting perpetrators of violence, especially sexual violence against sex workers, citing “theft of services” or violence as an “occupational hazard”.

As the briefing paper published by the Global Network of Sex Workers Projects (NSWP) demonstrated, black trans sex workers are most vulnerable to violence, due to the intersection of anti-blackness, transphobia, HIV status, and migrant status. The Trans Murder Monitoring Project (TMM) reveals that 75 percent of all trans victims of murder between January 2008 and December 2011 were sex workers.

Laws and policies that criminalize the exchange of sexual services assure that violence against sex workers is carried out with impunity. Sex workers often even face arrest for reporting sexual violence.Fear of deportation for undocumented sex workers is another reason for not reporting.

The abolitionist push for criminalizing all forms of sex work does not eradicate sex work, but puts the lives of sex workers in grave danger, often forcing street based sex workers to work in more dangerous locations, and reducing their access to justice and healthcare.

What can we do?

As we remember our community that has been victimized, silenced, and murdered on this December 17, here are some of the things that we can do to change that:

  • Talk about decriminalization: Sufficient research has shown that decriminalization of sex work and activities associated with it has helped sex workers carry out their work in safety, report incidences of violence without facing discrimination, and access health care. Include the decriminalization of sex work in your advocacy and push for decriminalization with your elected officials.
  • Organize an event to commemorate December 17: Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) – USA has a website dedicated to the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. There you can find resources on organizing events, including infographics, fact-sheets, handouts and posters.
  • Support sex worker led initiatives: In 2012, Red Umbrella Fund (RUF) was founded as part of a conversation between donors and sex worker communities to fund initiatives for sex workers rights led by sex workers. In 2014, RUF in association with Open Society Foundation and Mama Cash commissioned a report on funding for sex workers rights. Sex workers are best placed to know what is best for them; so when supporting organizations that are working for the rights of sex workers, ask them if they are led by sex workers.
  • Sex Workers can talk, listen to them: As we remember sex worker community members who have been murdered or have faced violence, we need to protect and listen to sex workers who continue to work and advocate. When organizing panels, conferences, and discussion on sexual and reproductive health and rights, economic justice, and sex work,ensure that sex workers are not only invited to talk about their rights and issues but are also compensated for this labour.

Image: San Francisco 2013 Day of Remembrance. Used with permission from SWOP-Bay. Photo by Amanda Kershaw Photography. All rights reserved.