On the 17th December sex workers and allies all around the world celebrate International day to end violence against sex workers. The fact that there is a specific day to bring light to the fact that hundreds of providers are killed every year, means that there is something terribly wrong with our current system.
This year alone, 151 sex workers were killed.
Let that sink in for a minute. One hundred and fifty one.
The majority of those were from countries in which sex work is criminalized. (What does that tell you?) If any other industry had a high rate of violence, we would be asking the workers what we could do to make their job safer, not abolish the whole industry.
Marginalized people within the industry; POC, trans workers and street based workers are all more likely to experience abuse at the hands of police. In the US, where sex work is criminalized, the process of raids include the undercover police posing as clients, having sex with the worker under false pretenses and then arresting them. Which is, y’know, rape. Street based workers report again and again that police are among their most common abusers.
That isn’t to say that legality of our work is the only risk factor, although the threat of being jailed is enough to not go to the police when something does go wrong. Misogyny, stigma in terms of how we are treated by healthcare workers, isolation from society, domestic violence etc. Having sex with strangers isn’t inherently violent. It is how our clients and society are taught to treat us as a result of selling sex.
Contexts of violence
There are several contexts, dynamics and factors that put sex workers at risk for violence. Understanding them is key to designing appropriate programmatic responses.
• Workplace violence: This may include violence from managers, support staff, clients or co-workers in establishments where sex work takes place (e.g. brothels, bars, hotels).
• Violence from intimate partners and family members: Stigmatization of sex work may lead partners or family members to think it acceptable to use violence to “punish” a woman who has sex with other men. It may be difficult for sex workers to leave an abusive relationship, particularly when perpetrators threaten them, or have control due to ownership of a home, or the power to harm or refuse access to their children.
• Violence by perpetrators at large or in public spaces: In most contexts, the antagonistic relationship with police creates a climate of impunity for crimes against sex workers that may lead them to be the targets of violence or of other crimes that may turn violent, such as theft. Some perpetrators specifically target sex workers to “punish” them in the name of upholding social morals, or to scapegoat them for societal problems, including HIV. Sex workers may also face violence from individuals in a position of power, e.g. nongovernmental organization (NGO) employers, health-care providers, bankers or landlords.
• Organized non-state violence: Sex workers may face violence from extortion groups, militias, religious extremists or “rescue” groups.
• State violence: Sex workers may face violence from military personnel, border guards and prison guards, and most commonly from the police. Criminalization or punitive laws against sex work may provide cover for violence. Violence by representatives of the state compromises sex workers’ access to justice and police protection, and sends a message that such violence is not only acceptable but socially desirable.
– World Health Organization
Since I began sex work nearly 4 years ago, I have been the victim of multiple attacks by clients, sexually harassed by management, and treated like ‘the bottom rung of society’ by the majority of people that I talk to about my job. I was recently interviewed for the Star Observer magazine in which I spoke about my experiences.
I used to see this guy semi-regularly when I was working at the brothel, he saw lots of different ladies because he was on home arrest for dealing coke. We would party, two or three of us there at a time, sometimes he even invited his girlfriend around for a threesome. One night I got sent there by myself, he had been up for a couple of days and was erratic, but not bad enough for me to call off the booking. Plus he always tipped well, so we proceeded to the bedroom. We start having sex and it is apparent that he is frustrated, complaining about the condoms, complaining that I wasn’t doing my job properly. He started getting a little rough, ignoring my subtle requests to stop, and then my not so subtle ones. Finally he ripped off the condom and shoved himself in my ass without asking. I eventually pushed him off me and ran out of the apartment, pulling my clothes on as I ran out on the street. When I got back to the brothel I was sat down with a cup of tea and was told to have a breather before I got back on the floor. Sympathetic bunch.
Anyway. This wasn’t the first or the last time I was to experience violence at work; working night-shift there is always one or two asshats that think they are allowed to treat you like shit because they payed a few hundred dollars at the door. Entitlement issues at its finest. In saying that, I have never gone to the police about my experiences because I didn’t want to be outed or humiliated, if they even took me seriously in the first place. On several occasions when myself or my friends went to the hospital to get an emergency HIV testing and preventative treatment after an incident, we were told that the risk of rape was just a part of our jobs.
That’s pretty messed up.
In many states in Australia, we are prohibited from hiring security or drivers or working from a residence with more than one other worker. Not quite indicative of worker safety is it?
Sex workers are also more likely to experience violence at the hands of their partners, a direct result of the stigma surrounding the industry. I have lost count of the beautiful ladies that I have known that have come to work covered in bruises, or crying, or have had to take refuge at the brothel for a few days because their partners were being abusive. All the while assuring me that it was hard for them to find a relationship, that I was so lucky to have a partner that was okay with my work, because ‘men are naturally jealous creatures’.
I don’t think I can physically roll my eyes any further than I am right now.
Sex work isn’t inherently violent, but we are unsupported by our government and by health workers and police, let alone by our family and friends who we are supposed to protect from our ‘terrible secret’. Pushing for decriminalization won’t solve all of our problems, but it is a damn good start.