The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was created to call attention to violence and other hate crimes committed against sex workers all over the world. Conceptualised by Dr. Annie Sprinkle, the first annual day was observed in 2003 by the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP-USA) as a memorial and vigil for the victims of the Green River Killer in Seattle, Washington. On that day sex workers gathered to honour women and sex workers murdered by the serial killer Gary Ridgeway. In the killer’s own words: “I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”
Today, ten years from that first annual observation we should to pause and take stock. Has anything changed substantively in the last decade?
“Sex workers are subject to violence from the general community, who do not view us as deserving of protection. Sex workers are often rejected by family and peers, and for transgender and HIV-positive sex workers, the stigma can be even more intense.” (Friends Frangipani, Papua new Guinea, Asia-Pacific Regional Dialogue, 16–17 February 2011, quoted in Global Commission on HIV and the Law (GCHL) report “Risks, Rights & Health”)
In a public letter, Sprinkle states: “Violent crimes against sex workers go underreported, unaddressed and unpunished. There really are people who don’t care when prostitutes are victims of hate crimes, beaten, raped, and murdered. No matter what you think about sex workers and the politics surrounding them, sex workers are a part of our neighborhoods, communities and families.”
The GCHL report published in July 2012 highlights that more than 100 countries globally criminalise some aspect of sex work. Some countries, such as most of the United States, Cuba, People’s Republic of China, Iran, Vietnam and South Africa, outlaw sex work entirely. Some in Western Europe, Canada, Latin America, and South Asia prosecute activities related to sex work such as brothel-keeping or transporting sex workers, communicating for the purposes of prostitution, street soliciting and living off its profits. Norway and Sweden do not criminalise workers themselves, but paradoxically criminalise buying sex and arrest clients of sex workers.
Most countries use other laws against civil and administrative offences such as “loitering without purpose”, “public nuisance”, and “public morality” to penalise sex workers. Often anti-human trafficking laws are targeted against adults involved in consensual sex work rather than ensuring that the enforcement of those laws identify and punish those who use force, dishonesty or coercion to procure people into commercial sex, or who abuse migrant sex workers through debt bondage, violence or by deprivation of liberty.
The report goes on to say that for sex workers, the threat of violence – from both police and other actors – is a daily reality. Criminalisation, in collusion with social stigma makes sex workers’ lives more unstable, less safe and far riskier in terms of HIV. There is no legal protection from discrimination and abuse when sex work is criminalised. These kinds of laws invite police harassment and violence and push sex work underground, where it is harder to negotiate safer conditions and consistent condom use. Some sex workers fear carrying condoms, which are used as evidence against them, sometimes as an explicit provision of law. Police violence prevents sex workers from seeking their assistance, which ingrains a culture of more client and police violence.
Stigmatised, criminalised sex workers are unable to access programmes of HIV prevention and care. Police, criminals and clients deploy the threat of criminal sanctions to control and exploit sex workers. Rape and assault are difficult to report when the sex worker fears that she will be arrested, and sexual violence heightens exposure to HIV. Working in the informal sector reduces sex workers’ access to education and housing, thus increasing their dependence on others, including pimps.
Today, to make the observation of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers meaningful, we must join the demands of sex workers, and their friends and allies to address the structural factors that continues to perpetrate, condone, and justify persistent violence against sex workers world-wide. Given this unsupportive legal environment around the world and the stigma against sex work, sex workers, and their clients, the critical first step towards ending violence against female, male, or transgender sex workers would be to repeal laws that prohibit consenting adults to buy or sell sex, as well as laws that otherwise prohibit commercial sex, such as laws against “immoral” earnings, “living off the earnings” of prostitution and brothel-keeping. Moreover, sex workers must have access to justice to ensure safe working conditions and security against violence from state and non-state actors.
The author of this blog, Nandinee Bandyopadhyay, is an independent consultant. She has been working on issues of class, gender, and sexuality for over thirty years. She has worked extensively with sex workers’ movements in India and internationally.