Forgotten Victims: Remembering Slain Sex Workers

Last Wednesday, sex workers in Oakland, Belfast, and Rio de Janeiro protested on the steps of their respective city halls, while sex workers in New Orleans, Seattle, and Montreal marched through the streets carrying red umbrellas and candles. Since 2003, Dec. 17 has been known as the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, and this year it was commemorated in over 60 locations worldwide.

Some events included demonstrations, film screenings, or candlelight vigils, but all included readings of the names of sex workers who died this year, or more often than not, were violently killed.

There are close to 150 names on the 2014 list. The causes of death are brutal, but every year I force myself to read each name and take in the reality of each death. Raped and shot by an undercover cop, strangled, crucified, decapitated, bludgeoned, found in woods, hanged, beaten, throat slashed, buried alive; it seems to just go on and on. It sounds like a horror movie, but it is simply the reality of what the stigma and criminalization of sex work look like.

The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was started in 2003 by San Francisco activists Annie Sprinkle, Stacey Swimme, and the late Robyn Few as a way to memorialize the sex workers murdered by Gary Ridgway, better known as the Green River Killer. Ridgway confessed to killing 71 sex workers in Washington and California during the 1980s and 1990s.

“I picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed,” he said. “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.”

Ridgway chose sex workers as his victims because he thought their lives would be seen as less valuable than the lives of white men, like him. He killed prostitutes because he thought he could get away with it. Ridgway was right. He remained at large for 20 years.

“It seemed as though the police weren't working very hard to find the Green River Killer,” Sprinkle wrote. “If the victims had been teachers, nurses, secretaries or other women, I suspect — as Ridgway did — that the killer would have been caught much sooner.”

Failure to adequately respond to violence against sex workers is just one of the many ways in which law enforcement abuses power when it comes to policing marginalized communities. Sex workers of color, particularly those who are transgender or gender-nonconforming, face the brunt of violence from police.

Incite, a national organization focusing on ending violence against women of color, reports that “sex workers … are raped, sexually harassed, and abused by law enforcement officers with alarming frequency.” Incite's website includes studies from New York and Chicago, and even here in the Bay Area, that chronicle sex workers' encounters with law enforcement that have included harassment, profiling, and rape.

Legislation that criminalizes prostitution, including anti-trafficking laws aimed at combating violence within the industry, delivers sex workers into the hands of people who abuse them.

Many anti-trafficking organizations partner with law enforcement, which is counterproductive to efforts to end sexual exploitation.

One sex worker told Amnesty International researchers, “Every night I'm taken into an alley and given the choice between having sex or going to jail.” If anti-trafficking advocates are truly invested in the safety and well-being of people in the sex industry, they should not be partnering with a demographic so prone to violence and corruption.

This year, and every year, it is critical to acknowledge that a large portion of the names read on Dec. 17 belong to sex workers of color. As activists around the country take to the streets in response to the non-indictment of police in the slayings of men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we are reminded that certain lives matter more than others in the eyes of the criminal justice system; and certain men can get away with murder if they pick the right victims.

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