December 17th 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (IDEVASW 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.
December 17 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.
This year more than ever before, December 17 events around the world held special meaning as we felt the weight of the 20 years anniversary of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. As the names of the beloved lost members of our community were read aloud, we mourned their passing but we also found strength in each other. The resiliance of Sex Workers and Survivors of institutional and societal violence as well as our resolve to end the discrimination and marginalization of our diverse community has its own feeling of liberation.
The reading of the names lost the previous year aloud is a long and arduous process. As she opened the virtual event for COYOTERI, Maxine Doogan was present at the first December 17 Memorial and remembered the event as though it was just yesterday.
I was there at the first #IDEVASW in 2003 out in front of San Francisco city hall. I remember Robyn Few and Michael showed up right as the sun fell. I remember Rachel West and Lori being there and a few other people. Robyn was going on and on about a gal named Angela who had died. The Green River Killer in Seattle had just pled guilty to 48 charges of aggravated first degree murder. I thought we’d never see the day. Robyn handed out make shift candle holders and candles and cards with the names of the women he’d killed as the rain began to fall. We stood in a circle and took turns reading the names of the women killed on their jobs.
In many ways, some things to improve conditions for our community have changed. In many ways they have not. We have become more visible but that visibility comes at a cost. While sex workers have certainly had an impact by putting forth our own narratives and telling our own stories, we still often find ourselves targeted by larger societal influences that push us aside and demean our contribution to reducing violence and exploitation amoung us. This happens on social media with shadowbanning, through debanking that makes it impossible for us to thoughtfully participate in the economy and through increasingly discriminatory laws that feed into the fear and do nothing to protect us.
The Oregon Sex Workers Collective held a private event to memorialize the past year and named the ways individuals can support ending violence against us.
Today is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Here are some ways you can make the world safer for Sex Workers. If you hear somebody making a “dead stripper” or “dead hooker” joke step in and speak up for us. Tell them why this is wrong and definitely not funny. Oppose FOSTA and SESTA as well as the EARN IT ACT. Call your senators! This one is easy. Listen to sex workers—especially if you are a lawmaker. Give us a seat at the table. Be an active ally! Come to our monthly zoom meetings and get involved in direct action. Value our lives. We shouldn’t have to be your friends, lovers, children, or parents for our lives to count. Sex Workers deserve to live because, just like you, we are human beings. It’s that simple. Whether you are a sex worker or ally, always make space in the conversation for sex workers of color, trans sex workers, and disabled sex workers. Elevate the voices of those who are most often silenced.
Sex Workers and Survivors are constantly under surveilance and always at risk of violence from those who are supposed to "protect and serve" all of us. Police violence, or at least the public acknowledgement of it, is on the rise. Not only from being targeted for arrest and incarceration but from law enforcement officers themselves who see us the very same way that predatory clients, abusive partners and hysterical anti-trafficking rhetoric defines us: unlikely to be noticed as missing, easily dismissed as undeserving victims and criminals in need of punishment.
A statement by the National Harm Reduction Coalition clearly defines the need for greater protections, equal access to justice and in support of full decriminalization says:
Criminalizing sex work fuels violence from clients and authorities. It puts sex workers in a position where they must either prioritize avoiding violence from the state or violence from clients. Focusing on staying safe with clients, sex workers may work together and carry condoms - a safety measure that can lead to them getting arrested. Prioritizing avoiding violence from cops means their chances of experiencing violence from clients increase exponentially.
So on this day, we ask that our international community commit to the following requests:
LISTEN TO SEX WORKERS.
BELIEVE SEX WORKERS.
DECRIMINALIZE ALL ADULT CONSENSUAL SEX WORK.
STOP THE VIOLENCE AND STIGMA THAT ALLOWS ABUSE TO CONTINUE.
This is the only way that we can prevent violence, reduce exploitaion and support those who need it the most. And always remember that someone you love is a sex worker.