Thursday is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. The day calls attention to violent crimes committed again sex workers around the world, as well as the need to eliminate the criminalization, social stigma and discrimination which often results in violence against sex workers. Started by the Sex Worker Outreach Project USA in 2003, the observance began as a memorial and vigil for the victims of the Green River Killer in Seattle, Washington.
Fifty-six sex workers have been murdered in 2020, according to the Sex Worker Outreach Project. The number is likely higher, as violent crimes against sex workers are often not reported for fear of law enforcement retaliation or involvement.
Sex workers not only face the threat of imprisonment on charges related to engaging in sex work, or percieved engagement in sex work, but also on charges related to HIV. HIV criminalization compounds the risks of violence and incarceration faced by sex workers. In 2017 the Williams Institute at UCLA found that 95% of California’s HIV-related crimes involved people perceived to be engaged in sex work. In Georgia, the Institute revealed that people were three times more likely to be convicted on HIV charges when they had a concurrent arrest regarding sex work.
Futhermore, people of color, particularly Black people and people who present gender identities or sexualities outside of societal norms, are most likely to be arrested or subject to harassment and even violence for perceived engagement in sex work.
These are the same communities most impacted by HIV. Sex worker safety is a critical issue which must be addressed in efforts to end the HIV epidemic and achieve racial justice and LGBTQ liberation. Sex work decriminalization and the support of sex workers is an immediate, urgent tenet in ending the HIV epidemic.
This year has been a particularly difficult one for sex workers. The coronavirus pandemic has eliminated work opportunities for people that depend on sex work as their primary source of income. Those who continue to work have a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19, on top of existing risks of incarceration and physical violence. Due to the informal nature of sex work, many have been unable to access emergency assistance or other unemployment benefits.
Sex workers were already facing difficult conditions due to the passage of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, known as FOSTA and SESTA. These laws were passed “to curb sex trafficking online” by holding internet platforms responsible for censoring users and content to avoid “facilitating” sex work and sex trafficking, misleadingly and incorrectly conflated. The result, however, has been that many sex workers are cut off from their ability to use a computer to screen clients, negotiate prices and meeting places, checking with colleagues to share safety information, etc.
As shared by sex workers’ rights advocate Kate D’Adamo during AIDSWatch 2020, sex workers are not an “at-risk” population; they are people put at risk. Recognizing the importance of defending sex workers, AIDS United is undertaking a project to address sex workers’ rights and access to HIV prevention, treatment and care alongside The Sero Project, GMHC, Thrive SS, the Sex Workers Outreach Project, Positive Women’s Network, the Desiree Alliance, US People Living with HIV Caucus and others. The coalition’s first priority is to correct the damage caused by FOSTA and SESTA by the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act, a bill which funds HHS research to document the impact of FOSTA and SESTA on people engaged in sex work. We encourage people or organizations interested in defending sex workers rights to reach out to, fund, and support sex worker-focused organizations in your area.
Please contact Anna Forbes or Nora Darling to discuss any sex work-related issues, to get help getting connected to sex workers’ rights organizations in your area or for any other questions or collaboration opportunities. Check out the hashtags #IDEVASW and #D17 to see any social media or events related to the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.