Violence Against Sex Workers
CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses violence, murder, and sexual assault
December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. I didn’t forget it, not at all; it’s just that there was so much violence, psychological, economic, and otherwise, being waged against us at the time that I didn’t have time to sit down and reflect in my blog. With the current chaos in the world, economic uncertainty for everyone, sex workers scrambling to continue to sustain themselves, and more people choosing to do sex work because their regular incomes are limited, we should reflect. Not just on December 17th, but every day, and within that little microcosm of time that has elapsed since then and until now.
Dr. Annie Sprinkle
International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was born of the mind of fabulous sex worker advocate Dr. Annie Sprinkle as well as the Sex Workers Outreach Project in 2003 as a memorial and vigil for victims of serial killer Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer.
Gary Ridgway was charged with 49 separate murders but confessed to 71 and may have actually killed around 90 women in the 1980s and 1990s. He targeted sex workers because he thought no one would notice or care about their absence. The erasure that helped Ridgway become the second most prolific serial killer in history still continues.
Somehow while most of the human population has purchased sex or the product of sex work, such as our clips and photos, we are still less important and less valued than other people. Sex workers, who have a 75% chance of being raped, cannot report that rape because we may be ridiculed or abused, arrested, further assaulted by officers (or by the original assailant when they see the justice system provides no consequence), or even deported in some cases.
We live in a hostile and violent environment. When our occupation can be used to excuse a rapist, not only do we make life less safe for sex workers but we provide rapists opportunities to continue to assault more people.
Recent assaults on sex workers online have been psychological and economic. While Pornhub was involved in some major allegations when December 17th passed, the consequences hailed by anti-sex work organizations affected professional sex workers most negatively. When the mostly false and exaggerated claims gained steam in mainstream media, payment processors ended their agreements with Pornhub. While the processors may feel good about standing on some sort of manmade moral high ground, this had no effect on the questionable content being targeted, which was already removed. It affected professionals - you know, the ones who need payment processors. The site continues to make money through ads and has the resources to pivot while continuing to remove content from verified creators due to the increasingly stringent demands of these payment processors.
The only pivot many sex workers will be able to do from here if this and other online crackdowns continue is back to in-person work and maybe, cryptocurrency. However, Cryptocurrency is only a viable option if we're even permitted to be on certain platforms. This means fewer clients, less advertising abilities, fewer legal protections, higher cost for the client, and more risk as a professional.
One in 3 full-service sex workers reports an assault in the last 90 days, and almost half report being forced to do something they didn’t want to. One in 5 sexual assault reports are from sex workers. Sex workers of color and LGBTQIA+ sex workers are at higher risks of targeted violence. By removing the ability to do sex work online we are putting several groups of already oppressed people into further danger.
When we stigmatize a person or profession, we create further complications that no one may anticipate. For example, we are currently in the middle of a pandemic with a possibly mutating virus. When our online platforms for work are taken away, we’re driven to in-person work in a new life and death risk scenario. COVID-19 restrictions have caused job loss and economic strain for everyone, impacting sex workers’ abilities to make a living, especially when working in person. Full-service sex workers are reporting even higher numbers of assaults than they have previously.
Sex workers also do not have equal access to whatever little government aid is being offered and are banned from accessing social and health services. Any support for small businesses and, during the COVID-19 crisis, is not extended to anyone working in adult entertainment or sex work.
How do we actually end the violence? I think it’s clear that asking the government or some of those who profit from us to protect us is a request that goes unanswered. The only real progress that has been made at any point have been actions led by sex workers themselves. Now, with more people turning to sex work and the consumption of paid sex or products of sex becoming more common, perhaps we can ask our clients and fans to speak up as well.
Some methods that have been demonstrated to work to end stigma and violence include:
Collectivization - Community building to give sex workers a voice and educate on their
rights and resources.
Leadership development - Allowing sex workers to lead their own empowerment
Peer strategies - Educational programs to empower sex workers to self-protect and build
Challenge laws - Many laws and regulations further endanger sex workers. Public
campaigns to fight against them can prove effective.
Local and national strategy groups - Coordinate with groups who work in
gender-based violence and build contacts to work to advocate for sexual violence
response and prevention.
Educational resources - Accurate information created by sex workers based on lived
the experience about violence and risks, including information about how to report and
As we reflect on ways to end violence against sex workers, let’s vow that by next December 17th, we will have less work left to do. Eleven months in a hostile time period isn’t enough to end the danger and stigma, but we can get closer to our goal if we all become active and we ask our clients, our friends, and our families where appropriate to speak up as well.