Trigger Warning for violence against sex workers, including but not limited to sexual violence and police violence
Today, December 17, is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers is a day to remember sex workers who have been murdered, and to acknowledge and spread the word about the ways in which sex workers are uniquely vulnerable to all forms of violence. This year, the list of those who have been killed is forty entries long (pdf); several entries contain more than one victim, and many of the victims’ identities are unknown. It should be noted that these murders are only the ones that are known of. Undoubtedly, they make up only a fraction of the real death toll.
But today is not just about those who have died; it’s also about those who live with violence, or the threat of it, every day. While victims of violence span all social markers, some are more vulnerable than others. The vast majority of victims are women. Women of color are more vulnerable than white women. Trans sex workers are more vulnerable than cis sex workers. Queer sex workers are more vulnerable than straight sex workers. Sex workers are already deeply devalued and dehumanized by society as a class; the more they are additionally devalued and dehumanized along other axes of oppression, the more likely they are to be subjected to violence.
Violence against sex workers is an international concern which plays out on a daily basis, in all countries around the globe.
- A study conducted by the New York City-based Sex Workers Project reported that 80% of participants had reported experiencing violence, including 27% at the hands of police.
- In a report on violence against sex workers in India, 70% had reported abuse by police, and 80% had been arrested without evidence.
- During a meeting of sex workers and advocates from Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa, participants described “routine police violence including sexual violence, beatings, rubber bullets, and spraying sex workers’ genitals with pepper-spray guns.”
It’s these notes about police violence that I want to address specifically. Because as the fabulous Audacia Ray puts it, it’s not just violent clients who hurt sex workers. It’s police. It’s the law. It’s the government.
State violence is wielded against sex workers in many ways. Individual cops certainly pose a part of the problem, as listed above. Beating sex workers, threatening them with weapons, and raping them either through force or coercion. Police officers certainly have a history, like clients, of seeing sex workers as easy victims of violence, victims who they believe no one will care about.
But it’s also the law itself that both promotes abuse and acts as a direct form of violence against sex workers. With many forms of sex work being illegal throughout most of the world, sex workers are placed in a position even more vulnerable than that created by the extraordinary social stigma alone. It’s the oppressive nature of the law that lets police officers rape sex workers, by giving them the option of “having sex” or going to jail. It’s the oppressive nature of the law that puts sex workers at risk of HIV and other STDs by making them afraid to carry condoms and denying them access to HIV prevention funding. It’s the oppressive nature of the law that makes sex workers afraid to report violence when it is committed against them, not only because they may be subjected to further violence at the hands of police, but because they may also be arrested themselves.
It’s the law which puts sex workers in prisons for doing nothing more than using their own bodies as they saw fit, subjecting them to state violence and control on a daily basis. It’s the law which places them in prisons, where it’s possible that they will be denied health care; where they will be compelled to undergo strip searches and cavity searches; where they may be beaten or locked in solitary confinement; where they may be raped by guards or other inmates; where, if they are trans, they may be placed as women in prisons with men. It’s the law which may force them to submit to public floggings while crowds and authorities laugh. Or worse.
The law doesn’t just “fail to protect” sex workers. Far worse, it is an active danger to them. Criminalization of sex work causes violence against sex workers just as much as personal misogyny, racism, transphobia, classism, and homophobia do, and it’s all of these -isms in which such laws are based. These laws are framed in terms of paternalism — we must protect women from their choices, even when we don’t bother to work on why they probably don’t have any better ones available — but they’re really about a much more vitriolic form of oppression. They’re about outright hate. And even if you want to quibble about intentions and motivations, the fact remains that they do just as much if not more violence against sex workers than direct beatings.
Decriminalization of sex work will not magically erase anti-sex worker stigma, or magically make police take violence against sex workers seriously, or magically cause them to stop raping or otherwise abusing sex workers themselves. But that’s no reason for the state, for countless states all over the world, to continue having direct authorization to commit violence against sex workers itself. It’s no reason for the state to have the right to enact violence against vulnerable and marginalized persons precisely because of their vulnerable and marginalized status. And it’s no reason to act as though, when we’re talking about violence against sex workers, we’re somehow not largely talking about state violence.
Sex workers deserve safety. Sex workers deserve freedom. Sex workers deserve human rights. That needs to be remembered and spoken today and every day.