Thursday, July 18, 2013

It's time for justice: violence against sex workers needs to stop

This post is going to be about some grim, violent, and possibly triggering stuff. I'm also going to be talking about the sex industry, but I promise not to put in any NSFW pictures.

Some horrible shit has gone down in the last fortnight or so, but today I want to talk about the recent spate of violence against sex workers that has sparked an International Day of Protests set for the 19th of July. These protests are attempting to at least draw attention to, if not change, a culture of stigma and silence that still hangs over sex work; a culture that makes sex workers ideal targets for violence, because even if caught the perpetrators are unlikely to be prosecuted as severely as if they hurt someone who isn't a sex worker.

Image courtesy of Gender Across Borders

In some countries, sex work is still entirely illegal; in others it's allowed under contradictory laws under the guise of "protection"; even here in New South Wales where it's largely legal (excepting streetwork), there is still heavy stigma attached. If you don't agree with the sex industry on principle, you might feel this stigma is deserved - you might feel like people working in this particular industry shouldn't be proud of, or open about what they do. I don't agree, but I can see that point of view. The problem, however, is that this stigma, this shaming, leads to a blanket of silence over sex workers that makes them ideal targets for violence. Nobody wants to know about them, so no one notices when they disappear, and no one wants to talk about it when they're murdered. And the crimes go either unpunished, or laughably under punished. I hope that no matter what your view on the industry as a whole, you can agree that THIS is fucking wrong.

AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda/Scanpix
The two cases that have specifically sparked off today's protests are the murders of Petite Jasmine, an outspoken Swedish sex worker rights advocate and sex worker, and Dora Ozer, a trans* gender sex worker in Turkey. Jasmine was stabbed to death by her ex-partner, who she had been separated from for several years. They had two children, who had both been living with Jasmine after the split. However, once it was discovered she had started working in the sex industry, she lost custody of her children and they were placed with the father. Jasmine appealed the custody ruling four times, and was denied custody each time on the basis that she was a sex worker who refused to pay public penance for her choice of career - this was apparently enough to make her an unfit parents. In the meantime she got a few supervised visits with her children, but her ex became increasingly violent and aggressive - he allegedly "spit in the face of a social worker and put another in a chokehold". Who could possibly have forseen that he would end up stabbing Jasmine to death and assaulting the social worker attempting to "supervise" this visit? Jasmine's killer had a history of violence - but the stigma surrounding her work was so strong that she was considered a worse parent than the man who ended up killing her. Dora was found stabbed to death in her home, and her killer remains at large. She is believed to have been a victim of the "systemic violence faced by trans* sex workers in Turkey" - in other words, she was brutally murdered because someone didn't like who she was, and/or what she did for a living. And it happens SO OFTEN it's being reported as being part of a "systemic" trend. The investigation is ongoing, but local commentators seem pretty pessimistic about the likely results.

Both these women died because the people who killed them assumed they would be able to get away with it - and the thing that makes me really sick to the stomach is that they will probably turn out to be right. The idea that sex workers are disposable, worthless, "dead long before they're dead" has encouraged at least two serial killers I can think of off the top of my head (one still at large) to target them specifically. Countless other women in the sex industry have been murdered, and their deaths ignored because society at large doesn't like what they do for a living - this treatment of their deaths by police, by news organisations, by the public is what encourages people who feel like killing someone to continue targeting sex workers. Gary Ridgeway, otherwise known as the Green River Killer, put it this way. "I 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."

@thegreenrat on Twitter gave me some great insight into the case of the Yorkshire Ripper - "Peter Sutcliffe, popularly known as the Yorkshire Ripper, attacked up to 20 women, murdering 13. Most of the women were sex workers but some were not. These women it's believed he killed because he mistook them for sex workers.

There's no doubt that the men and women involved in what would eventually become the largest police investigation in UK history were absolutely dedicated to finding the killer of Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson and Patricia Atkinson, but the killings did not receive national attention until the murder of Jayne MacDonald in June, 1977. Only then did the Great British public media seem to 'care'. With all previous victims 'known prostitutes', she was sickeningly referred to by the press as the Yorkshire Ripper's first "innocent" victim. 

The investigation was plagued with problems. There were too many lines of inquiry, not enough staff, cumbersome record-keeping methodology and long delays in following up vital leads, amounting to what a later review would describe as "a progressive decline in the overall efficiency of the major incident room." However, the allocation of resources would no doubt have been different from the beginning were the women Sutcliffe murdered valued by society at large to the same extent as his non-sex-worker victims."

I could go on like this for pages and pages and pages. Working in the sex industry isn't what got these women killed - selling sexual services for money is not inherently any more dangerous than any other profession involving dealing with the general public. But the complete lack of value placed on their lives, and lack of interest in their deaths mean that if they are murdered the killer is much more likely to get away with it. Heck, most of the time they don't even get caught, and if they do, who cares? They're just people who made stupid choices, they had it coming, right?

To help explain why the idea that sex workers deserve to get murdered simply because they are sex workers bothers me so much, let's do a little thought exercise.

Let's imagine, for a moment, that we're talking about another profession, another type of job. One that some people don't like either - let's imagine that I'm talking about telemarketers, for example. Lots of people consider telemarketing a pretty bottom of the barrel job - degrading even. Now imagine someone was going around murdering telemarketers, and dumping their naked corpses in a field somewhere. Imagine this killer was sometimes cutting off their hands or heads to make sure they couldn't be identified, but wasn't too worried about doing it every time, because lots of telemarketers keep weird hours anyway and it will take a while for them to be missed. Imagine ten of these corpses piling up before the killer is caught - and then imagine how the press would react. Imagine the front page stories about how a generation of young people are being lured into the seamy world of telemarketing. Imagine people tutting under their tongues as they read the stories, and muttering, "Well, what did they expect? This isn't news." Imagine endless opinion peices on how these telemarketers should have gotten out of the industry before it came to this, that they should have just gotten "real" jobs. Imagine that while a few people are banding together to try and get some sort of justice, more telemarketers are murdered - on the other side of the country, on the other side of the world, for all sorts of reasons. Because they called during dinner, because they talked too loudly, because someone had just had enough of being called and needed it to stop.

It's kind of funny, in a certain light, the idea of a worldwide telemarketer slaughter. But I'm not exaggerating when I say that this is how the world can be for sex workers. Every day more bodies surface, and every day there is another "concerned" voice telling them they should just get out of the industry if they don't want to be brutally murdered. Their lives are not valued because people don't approve of their choices; their concerns are not addressed because their lives are not valued; and murderers get to keep on murdering. The stigma attached to working in the sex industry literally kills - sex workers aren't respected, their reports are not valued, assaults on them go unpunished.

This is sick, and wrong, and it has to stop. It doesn't matter what you think of the sex industry. It doesn't matter what you think of sex workers in general. No one, NO ONE deserves to die for their choice of job. Not ever, no matter what.

So what can you do? You and I, we probably can't stop people who decide they really need or want to murder someone from doing so. But it's the stigma surrounding sex work that stops sex workers from being able to access the protection of people who might be able to help, like the police, or appropriate justice should they become victims. Stigma is what stops police officers from pursuing lines of investigation, from taking complaints seriously. Stigma is what forces some sex workers to work in less than ideal working conditions. Stigma is what means sex workers often have a limited number of people to turn to for support. And on an individual basis, there is a lot that EVERYONE can do to fight stigma against sex workers.

The simplest, completely no fuss, no effort way you can help is to join this Thunderclap campaign to get #stigmakills trending on Twitter - it's a little thing, but every little thing helps. 

Respect the repeated requests from people in the sex industry to stop calling them whores and hookers - sex worker is the most commonly preferred term. Use it. It's a small, simple change to your vocabulary that when repeated often and by everyone makes the world of difference. Whore, hooker, prostitute - these words have stigma built into them. They're said with inherent derision. They're not neutral terminology - sex worker is not only neutral, it separates the person from the job as well as identifying sex work as "real" work. Speaking about sex workers in a respectful way, consistently, helps to spread the idea that they deserve respect. (Also, it's just polite really)

Call sex worker shaming out when you see it - if people around you refer to people as "just a stripper" or a "stupid whore" call them on it. Tell them it's not okay. Tell them that what someone does for a living doesn't make them stupid, or dirty, or undeserving of respect. Talking about sex workers in disrespectful ways spreads the idea that they don't matter, that they don't deserve respect, and that crimes against them don't count. You don't want to be a person the next Long Island Killer is listening to, and thinking that you're on his side.

Learn more about the sex industry and the wide variety of people who work in it. While it would be lovely if everyone cared about things that didn't effect anyone they know, I also get that for a lot of people this isn't the case. Get to know some people in the sex industry. Listen to what they have to say, and understand that they're not some mysterious other class - they're just people, doing a job, like everyone else. Read up about the annual International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers, swing past the Scarlet Alliance website, follow blogs like Tits and Sass and The Honest Courtesan and a million others. Listen, learn, and hopefully, understand the nuances of an industry that is too often painted in broad, sensationalist strokes.

Maybe if we can shift some of this stigma, if we can pull the blanket of silence off the sex industry, then sex workers won't look like such an appealing target for violence. Maybe if we listen to sex workers, we can learn how to help more effectively. Maybe if we stop treating sex workers like second class citizens, they will be able to go to the police if they're scared, and maybe NOT get brutally murdered. Maybe if we stop talking about people in the sex industry like they don't count, if they ARE murdered there can be some hope of justice.

As a reward for those you who made it all the way through that rather grim, but important rant, here are some red umbrella nails I did today as a little visual contribution to the campaign. A red umbrella is the most commonly used symbol of the campaign to end violence against sex workers, so I squeezed some onto my mani.

Further reading;
Tits and Sass - The State Gave Him The Power
Long Island Press - Lost Girls: When Women Go Missing on LI, Some Matter, Prostitutes Don't
Glasgow Sex Worker Open University: Press release re: International Day of Action


  1. This is not just an international issue.

    Jill Meagher was killed on the streets of Melbourne last year. Her killer had previously done time for assaults on sex workers.
    Jill's husband said it best:

    "I'm aware that his previous victims in the previous case before Jill were sex workers and I'll never be convinced that that had nothing to do with the leniency of his sentence, which as I said, send as very disturbing message. 'Cause if we say - what it says to women is, you know, "Be careful what you do, 'cause if we don't like what you do, you won't get justice." And then what it says to people like Bayley is not, "Don't rape", but, "Be careful who you rape.""

    (See/read his interview here: )

    Two hours ago, MSN reported that her killer has appealed his sentence.

  2. So important as well to make clear the dangers of current 'end demand' campaigns that serve only to increase the risk of violence, stigma and hand the industry back to criminals and traffickers. the real way to fight trafficking and violence against sex workers is decriminalisation and destigmatisation

    1. Very true Aidan - unfortunately my thoughts on that could fill up another two or three posts!

  3. Thank you for this great and informative article.


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