Updated: Nov 15
Introduction to International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers
December 17th 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (IDEVASW, December 17 or D17). Each year, sex workers, allies, friends and family members organize demonstrations and vigils around the world. While we mourn our deceased community members and stand in solidarity with others, we demand attention to hate crimes enacted against sex workers, and an eradication of the discrimination that directly contributes to violence against sex workers in communities and legislation globally.
D17 was established by Dr. Annie Sprinkle and Robyn Few, founders of the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA in 2003, as a memorial for the victims of the Green River Killer. This prolific serial killer targeted sex workers near Seattle, WA for decades, claiming “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."
SWOP USA co-founder Annie Sprinkle states the following in a public letter: “Violent crimes against sex workers go under-reported, 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.”
Working class BIPOC trans sex workers are at a disproportionately high risk of vulnerability to violence, making sex worker liberation, racial justice efforts, labor movements, and LGBTQ+ liberation movements inextricably linked. Globally, sex workers have a 45% - 75% chance of experiencing violence on the job, a rate which only increases for those who are BIPOC and gender expansive.
We hope that with increased understanding of the intersectional nature of sex worker rights issues, many movements pushing for liberation of oppressed peoples would continue combining our efforts to push towards our shared goals.
What is Sex Work?
“Sex work” is the exchange of money or goods for sexual services, like any other form of job that involves the exchange of money for a particular labor or service. Sex work is an umbrella term that encompasses many different forms of sexual labor, some of which are listed below. We use the term “sex work” to reinforce the idea that sex work is work and to allow for a greater discussion of labor rights and conditions.
Sex workers come from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances, thus violence against sex workers intersects with other oppressions faced by marginalized people given the crossover between marginalized existence and modes of survival found within sex industries. Marginalized people existing at multiple intersections, including trans individuals, Black / Indigenous / and People of Color (BIPOC), queer and trans individuals, disabled or neurodivergent individuals, formerly incarcerated individuals, and people who migrated to different regions make up large sectors part of the sex worker community.
Many marginalized people who choose sex work are faced with intense discrimination or limitations in other work sectors, and sex work is simply the form of labor that was most accessible, while offering a form of financial independence and sustainability.
Many of those who choose sex work as a form of labor experience intense discrimination or limitations within other job markets, as well as barriers to further education or training in alternate industries and sustainable economic solutions. Others simply engage in sex work simply because it is a form of labor that provides sustainability. Some people enjoy their jobs, others don’t; some feel empowered by it and for others it depends on the day; we all have multifaceted perspectives about sex work- not uncommon from anyone simply trying to make money in a capitalist society that was imposed upon us with limited access to public healthcare services, equitable housing, resources, and alternate economic support.
It is critical that sex work is understood as work; a form of labor no different than any other form of labor performed to survive and generate income. There is no single profile that would describe why different people engage in sex work- or frankly any form of work- but there is one unifying factor across multiple marginalizations that make up the U.S. sex worker population: That is that it ultimately may have been the best option available, and for some it is a form of survival. For many, it’s an opportunity for financial independence that may have not otherwise been available and access to an understanding global community that uphold principles of mutual aid in all its manifestations.
Decriminalization of Sex Work
Sex work is not an inherently violent form of labor, however sex workers existing at multiple marginalizations are subject to disproportionately high levels of exploitation and violence due to criminalization. It is critical to push toward deescalation of violence, whorephobic stigma, and discrimination exacted against sex workers and facilitated through legislation which criminalizes sex work and has a significant impact on gender expansive individuals and BIPOC populations. Perceptions and treatment of sex work as inherently immoral helps to foster environments where violence and harassment is more likely to occur.
Our united community spaces must play a role in fighting back against dehumanizing narratives around sex work and interrogate the role this plays in facilitating further harm. Criminalizing sex work and the purchasing of sexual services only pushes sex work into more dangerous underground territories and removes sex workers from access to human rights demands and labor protections that many unions and entities advocate for in their respective industries.
Government efforts to eliminate sex work have resulted in routine violation of the human rights of sex workers, societal stigmatization, and whorephobic environments that breeds violence. Harmful legislation is passed under the guise of liberating sex workers from the violence that is the product of anti-sex worker legislation in the first place.
Decriminalization indicates removal of criminal and administrative penalties that apply to sex work, allowing for protections seen in other industries, and advancing the overall health and safety of sex workers. Decriminalization would open the door to more accessible healthcare options, liberation from disenfranchisement due to incarceration, housing and social services access.
Full decriminalization would mean that purchasers and providers of sexual services could not legally face discrimination leading to unjust arrest, or barriers to housing, healthcare, transportation and/or public benefits. It also means that if they are the victims of a form of structural violence (such as rape, domestic violence, and even trafficking) they could report these crimes.
Advocacy for full decriminalization is an important step in eradicating violence against sex workers across the globe.
Don’t Conflate Sex Work with Trafficking
Again, sex work is an umbrella term for an adult choosing to provide sexual services in exchange for something of value. We push for it to be recognized as no different from any other mode of labor.
Sex work is not the same as human trafficking. Human trafficking is when an individual or group uses force, fraud, or coercion to compel another into forms of labor, and it encompasses not only sex, but industrial labor, agricultural work, the entertainment industry, and a wide array of industries. Non-sexual labor exploitation often gest little attention due to the efforts of exploitative organizations to push trafficking as an issue that only fits a certain profile. This attitude deprives actual victims of trafficking of resources while criminalizing sex workers simply trying to make a living. U.S. law enforcement often fails to even act upon actual cases of labor trafficking that are reported.
Partial criminalization models (legalization, “End Demand,” the “Nordic Model”) create sets of regulations on sexual labor and are typically centered around public morality when presented to the public while creating significant harm. These models limit sex workers’ rights and protections while fostering further stigmatization, with regulations that have a high likelihood of being abused by authority. Certain models of legalization seen in regions that practice it criminalize sex workers who could not for various reasons ranging from finances to autonomy fulfill the responsibilities required to maintain “legality,” thus replicating harms of criminalization.
The “End Demand” model suggests that criminalizing buyers of sex and victimizing providers of sex would reduce overall demand, however it only succeeds in pushing sex workers further underground. These harmful models have rallied global support as an effective method of combating human trafficking despite trafficking victims, sex workers, and researchers alike expressing that these models do not avert trafficking at all.
In fact, “End Demand” destroys the autonomy of sex workers, interrupts income flow, puts sex workers at higher risk of violence and profiling, incarceration and violent police interaction via raids or individual harassment, and increases vulnerability to a number of abuses and exploitation all under the guise of “liberating” people who choose to engage in this work. According to The Impact of “End Demand” Legislation on Women Sex Workers released by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, sex workers in regions that have implemented partial criminalization have expressed increased vulnerability to violence from clients, continued harrassment and abuse by law enforcement, and subjection to dangerous infantilizing rhetoric.
For more context, we highly suggest reading this publication released by Global Network of Sex Work projects, Sex work is not Trafficking.
Sex Worker Rights are Labor Rights
The sex worker rights and labor rights movements are inextricably linked due to our roots being in ensuring labor does not deny one’s right to bodily autonomy, or entitlement to lives free of discrimination and violence. Criminalization results in exemption of sex workers from labor laws and further vulnerability while working. Exchanging a sexual service for money should not result in criminalization or incarceration. Yet sex workers are at extremely high risk of abuse at the hands of law enforcement including exploitation, verbal abuse, sexual and physical violence.
An excerpt from The Global Network of Sex Work Projects Sex Work as Work policy brief. “Exploitation and unsafe and unhealthy working conditions exist in many labour sectors. Work does not become something other than work in the presence of these conditions. Even when performed under exploitative, unsafe or unhealthy conditions, sex work is still work.”
Recognizing sex work as work and full decriminalization would protect sex workers from police violence, lower the risk of violence from clients, increase access to healthcare without fear of reporting, and eliminate mass incarceration of sex workers. Acknowledgement of sex work as work is critical to ensure that sex workers are guaranteed civil rights, labor protections, and freedom from societal stigma afforded to other workers.
Sex Worker Rights as a Trans Liberation Issue
Systemic transphobia, lack of access to equitable, non-discriminatory employment options, and significantly decreased access to fair housing, economic security, and social services means that many trans people of color are sex workers for survival. Intersectionality informs us that societally, Black and Brown trans workers are at highest risk of violence due to criminalization and stigmatization, and this is reflected in reported and unreported high rates of police harassment against trans people of color. According to the ACLU, nearly half of Black Trans people have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. Incarceration due to sex work influences systemic denial of employment, housing, and education.
Trans women of color are often subject to transphobic profiling as sex workers by law enforcement regardless of whether they are actually sex workers or not, with laws against loitering for the purposes of prostitution citing so-called evidence such as clothing worn, interaction with others, or possession of certain supplies. Anti sex worker legislation and rhetoric feeds into transphobic cops unfairly targeting Black and Brown Trans women as sex workers, resulting in violent arrests, exploitation and traumatic cycles of imprisonment. Trans women and sex workers are vulnerable to laws against loitering for the purposes of prostitution.
Marsha P. Johnson, a phenomenal activist who was a Black Trans Woman and a sex worker, was arrested over 100 times for sex work in her lifetime. Marsha created STAR, the first Trans Black and Brown run organization to provide housing, food, and resources to unhoused queer/trans people and sex workers who were abandoned by other movement spaces. Marsha and her co-organizer, Sylvia Rivera, challenged organizers and politicians who routinely ignored the needs of trans folks and sex workers to center those most likely to be criminalized in their community efforts. It’s critical to understand that just as sex work liberation is tied to labor rights, it is tied to the LGBTQ+ rights movement.
Sex Work as a Racial Justice Issue
Policing of sex work in all its manifestations is steeped in racial disparities. Sex workers are often targets of police violence and harassment, with BIPOC individuals experiencing high rates of police exploitation that goes unreported.
Criminalization of sex work facilitates the maintenance of racialized institutions that place extreme barriers on resources and viable modes of survival. Our systems of institutional racism puts BIPOC sex workers in situations where they must engage in sexual labor in order to survive, and then criminalizes them heavily for doing so. Engaging in an intersectional approach to understanding sex worker liberation results in significantly more effective organizing and advocacy efforts.
Join us in observing International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers
One of the most constructive ways that we can honor the lives of our loved ones lost to unspeakable whorephobic violence is to remain staunch advocates for decriminalization and destigmatization of our populations which will directly lead to significant decreases in violence against sex workers.
Advocate by challenging harmful narratives, using your platforms to speak on behalf of sex worker liberation, participating in demonstrations organized by sex worker advocates, contributing or donating to harm reduction centric mutual aid and social justice spaces locally and nationally which push for full autonomy of sex workers and provide aid to marginalized community members, and continuing to seek education for yourself and those around you.
If you are an entity that seeks to observe International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers and you need more information about how you or your organization / project can best provide support, please do not hesitate to reach out to us at email@example.com.
Golden Psychology is a diverse, queer owned and operated therapy practice specializing in trauma informed, intersectional, LGBTQ2IA+ affirming care. They maintain awareness of oppressive systems and how they contribute to the distress experienced by marginalized peoples, and seek to disrupt harms caused by judicial and psychiatric systems in the west.
They provide holistic services including Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), trauma therapy, and Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy which help patients explore the depths of their consciousnesses, identities, and to heal in a compassionate space.
Golden Psychology is raising money to cover travel costs ($6000) to attend the US Professional Association for Transgender Health (USPATH) conference in November, where they will present their work, “Transgender and Incarcerated: The Realities of Transgender Experience in the U.S. Prison Industrial Complex.”
The speakers presenting this material are all Gender Expansive, have been directly impacted by jails and prisons, or are fighting for better care and to hold prisons and jails accountable for the care of Trans and Gender Expansive people who are incarcerated.
It is critical that these perspectives are provided at this conference due to an identified lack of focus around these intersections in a space that will be attended by a number of medical professionals and associated entities that may service this impacted population without enough perspective from those with lived experience. Please join us in supporting Golden Psychology in their effort to expand understanding of those living at the intersection of being formerly or currently incarcerated and of gender expansive identities.