The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers is this Saturday, Dec. 17 and will be observed in many cities around the world including Tucson. It is an annual remembrance that was first created in 2003 by Dr. Annie Sprinkle ("prostitute and porn star turned sex educator and artist") and the Sex Worker Outreach Project USA (SWOP-USA) in response to the then recent uncovering of the Green River serial killings. Gary Ridgeway had murdered 71 women throughout the 80's and 90's and the overwhelming majority were sex workers. In his own words: "I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught."
This notion is based in a sad truth. While there are many factors that play into this, criminalization and stigmatization are two of the major culprits. For one, seeking help from law enforcement is far less likely when there is a very real threat of being arrested as a result. This kind of vulnerability both attracts predators and can also create predators. Serial killers don't usually begin their twisted career with murders but with other forms of physical and sexual violence. The realization that they can commit these acts with relative impunity- because their victims do not report them to the police- is emboldening. This particular vulnerability also affects many other marginalized people including those with active warrants, those without documents of citizenship, people of color, and so forth.
One of the many relatively recent manifestations of this predator/prey dynamic is Daniel Holtzclaw, a former police officer who was convicted of multiple counts of rape, sexual battery, and other charges. He had at least 16 victims and all but one fit a profile: poor middle-aged black women with criminal records (many on prostitution related charges). He would routinely run names through the system to check for active warrants and criminal records, and when finding them, would specifically use this information as a tool of coercion.
What was the mistake that got him caught? According to the prosecutors, he attacked the wrong person. This particular victim was also a middle aged black woman that just happened to be driving through the area that Holtzclaw patrolled. However, she was actually from another neighborhood (middle class), and she did not have any criminal record. Like other middle class people with no criminal records who have just been assaulted, she reported the crime.
The degree to which sex work is criminalized can be directly correlated to the rate of violence committed against sex workers (check out www.december17.org/2015facts). However, stigmatization also plays a large role in silencing voices and therefore creating vulnerable targets. The porn industry is one example of an industry where sex work is legal, yet the dangerous side effects of stigmatization persist.
What other profession is used as a legal defense for a brutal raping like the one MMA fighter Jonathan Koppenhaver (aka "War Machine") is awaiting trial for? Adult film actress Christine Mackinday suffered from multiple facial fractures, broken ribs, a lacerated liver, and significant bodily bruising. Yet "defense lawyers...argued that Mackinday's work in pornography pointed to consent and that Koppenhaver and Mackinday often engaged in rough sex." If this slut-shaming brand of victim-blaming is still acceptable in the courtroom despite the level of brutality that occurred simply because of the victim's chosen profession in the sex industry, what chance does a sex worker victim of rape have if there are no broken bones to show for it?
The silencing of sex workers is compounded on multiple fronts. When adult film actress, Stoya, last year revealed that she had been raped by ex-boyfriend and fellow adult film actor, James Deen, she was also required to go on the defensive against those who claim that the entire porn industry is equivalent to one big rape. Imagine if every case of domestic violence would be met with a chorus of accusations against the entire institution of marriage as being inherently violent?
Consent includes both the right to say "no" as well as the right to say "yes".
Just like criminalization and stigmatization set much of the groundwork for the violence perpetrated against sex workers, this form of infantilization (the assumption that all sex work is coercive despite what those who choose this profession have to say about their own experiences) is bosom buddies with stigmatization and is another form of violence that silences sex workers.
An additional 135 names have been added to the list of sex workers who have been murdered this year —51 in the U.S. alone—and will be mourned at the public vigil this Saturday, Dec. 17 at 5:30 p.m. at El Tiradito, 420 S. Main Ave.
Ally Booker is a pleasure activist passionate about educating herself and others on cool sexuality related things like communication skills, creating and respecting boundaries, sexual self-determination, destigmatization, gender and sexual expressions, sex toy use and safety, and all the other mechanics of pleasure. You can often find her at her Tucson shop, Jellywink Boutique, 418 E. 7th St. You