This year will mark the 10th time that the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers has been observed since 2003, when Annie Sprinkle and Robyn Few organized the first one in memory of the victims of Gary Ridgway, also known as the "Green River Killer." Since then, events have been held every December 17 in memory of the sex workers who have been murdered that year.
I'm not a sex worker, nor have I ever been one, but I've attended these events for years, not only because my friends have always included escorts, porn models, and strippers, but because I write about sexuality, and my work would be dishonest and incomplete if I didn't value theirs. The lives of my friends are important, but so is their work.
By their nature, the events organized around the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers are a mixture of emotions. All have an inevitable core of grief. Often the focus has been on reading the names of the dead out loud, and those reading or in the audience sometimes break into tears. People die in all walks of life, but these names are inevitably the names of those who died because they were considered disposable.
"The people who are most at risk for violence are people working on the street," says Sandy Bottoms, co-director of the Bay Area chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP).
"Those are largely women of color, poor women, trans women, and people who are hit left and right with criminalization for a multitude of things." Bottoms also says that there is a lot of crossover between those remembered on December 17 and on November 20, the Transgender Day of Remembrance. "There are a significant number of names on both lists. You're looking at a pretty specific population that's targeted for a multitude of identities."
In itself, the story of prostitutes and strippers who die violently is an old one. It's the story most beloved by moral scolds, crime dramas, and journalists, who tell it with a mix of crocodile tears and lechery. But there is more to the annual December 17 events than grief and death. Just as importantly, the events are a persistent refusal by sex work communities to be told that their lives don't matter.
Robyn Few's life clearly mattered to many people. 10 years after she co-founded both SWOP and the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, her name will join the others this Monday. Few died this September, not from human violence, but cancer.
And even as they look back on her life and the lives of many others, SWOP is also using the December 17 event to take a step into the future. A new organization, Sex Worker Allies, Family, and Friends (SWAFF), will make its debut at the event. SWOP Treasurer Shannon Williams, who is spearheading the new group, sees it as critical to the movement. The idea, she says, has been floating around within SWOP for a long time, but never acted upon. The 10th anniversary combined with Robyn Few's death made it feel especially urgent to do something special this year.
SWAFF is an obvious analog to the LGBT rights group Parents, Families ,and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Williams embraces the comparison passionately. "PFLAG to me was such a significant aspect of the queer rights movement," she says. "It just changed the conversation. It's such a simple thing.... But at the time, to see a man in a march or on TV holding a big sign saying 'I love my gay son,' was so huge. It humanizes us if people start coming out publicly and saying 'I love my daughter who's a prostitute,' 'I love my wife who's a prostitute.'"
The question is whether our culture at large is ready to change the conversation in that way. One of the most catastrophic things to happen to sex worker rights in California this year was the passage of Prop 35, the "Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act," which broadened the legal definitions of sexual trafficking and created new, harsher penalties. The sex workers whom the act was supposed to protect were left out of the discussion almost entirely, reduced to traditional caricatures of "prostituted women."
One can only imagine how the rhetoric might have sounded different if it ever became mainstream to consider prostitutes part of "us" instead of "them." One of the reasons that the lists at December 17 events are so long is that for all the talk on left and right about rescuing sex workers from exploitation and violence, very rarely do they have the privilege of being able to go to the police or any other civic authority when they face those things. "In any studies where sex workers are asked about their experiences with violence, they all show that sex workers are abused more often by the police than by any other group of people," Williams says. They also face rejection by family, landlords, and employers. Williams herself lost her job as a teacher at Berkeley High School when she was busted for prostitution nine years ago.
The problem is that there really is no conversation about sex work. For the most part, there's only a monologue by media and politicians with the workers themselves meant to stay silent. December 17 events represent a concerted effort to break that silence.