End Violence Against Sex Workers

December 17 is the International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers.  Though the day has already passed this year, I feel it’s important to remember those sex workers who are no longer here with us to celebrate holiday festivities alongside us.  They’re not here because they are dead–many murdered just for being sex workers.

Violence is pervasive.  It doesn’t stop for the holidays or diminish because a new year is soon to come.  It might lay dormant for a while but it’s a matter of time before it announces itself again by finding a new victim.  But it’s possible to stop the violence.   Each of us can play a role in fueling it as well as eradicating it.

This December 17, 2011 marked the 8th year where communities in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, London, NYC, & elsewhere came together to remember those whose lives were shortened because they were sex workers.  I went to the one in Manhattan at Trinity Lutheran Church last Saturday.  It was attended by current & former sex workers, allies, & friends and sponsored by Red Umbrella Project, Sex Workers Action New York (SWANK) & Sex Workers Outreach Project New York.  As I walked into the church, one of the organizers asked each of us if we’d be willing to read the names of a few people who died.  “Yes,” I said.  Of course.  After a few minutes of sitting, the organizer came by again.  Could I read a few more names?  Sure.  I didn’t realize that it’d be the hardest thing I would do that day.

Three sex workers reflected on their experiences.  The first was Cayenne Doroshow, a tall Black beautiful trans woman who remembered a friend who once complained about a man who’d been terrorizing her.  Upon her friend’s death, Cayenne & her friends were clearing out her belongings from her apartment when they uncovered a suitcase with a body.  How long did her friend live with the fear of this man & then with the horrible secret that she’d killed him–possibly in self-defense?  We’ll never know.  The answers died with both the victim & perpetrator.

While I was physically present to listen to the other 2 speakers, my mind drifted far away.  I vaguely remember Reverend Heidi Neumark saying something about the Bible describing Jesus’s loving relationship with an aunt who was a sex worker.  I can’t remember exactly because I checked out.  Not because any of them were boring, but because my sex worker self kicked in & did what I’d done in situations where violence was an issue.  I tuned out.  I went somewhere else so I didn’t have to be present.  I prided myself on doing a good job desensitizing myself.

Then my emotions kicked in.  One by one, the attendees stood up and began reading the names of the dead as two women lit candles for each person whom we’ve lost.  Names of women and men from all parts of the world, of all ages & ethnicities.  There were people with names to specifically identify them to those whose bodies were unidentifiable and therefore rendered “anonymous.”  I was most shocked hearing of a couple of groups of people discovered in mass numbers–they were just one of many for serial killers’ demented delight.   I imagined these people helpless, alone, terrified, & desperate in their last moments of their lives.  I imagined them pleading for their lives, wanting to be comforted by people they loved, hoping to be rescued, offering their murderer all the money they had, promising their perpetators that they wouldn’t report the incident to the police.  Begging.  Begging to stay alive another day to hold their child or lover, to enjoy a meal, to breathe.  Maybe they’d been in violent situations before & had somehow gotten out of it & figured they’d get out of this one also.  But this time it was different: it was inescapable.  This time they were unable to dodge the bullet & it was final.

It became impossible for me to hold the slips of paper in my hands without shaking let alone even read one name.  A lump formed in my throat, leaving me unable to read the remaining 8 names represented by these pieces of paper.  Fortunately, the woman next to me took the slips from my hand and read them.  Reading their names helped honor their lives & created a space for us to acknowledge their struggle.  And it reminded me how lucky I was to be alive.  And while their names were read, I became present.

Although I didn’t work the streets and only saw 3 regular customers outside the strip clubs I worked in, I was not immune to violence.  I cannot remember the exact number of hostile encounters I had with customers–nearly all in the private booths.  In nearly every case, the customer either wanted to get more interactive with me &/or demanded sex.   During the first 2 weeks of working at the Chez Paree in 1996, I was robbed by a guy who pinned me down because he wanted me to get naked.  I screamed & fought but I was no match for him.  It took 3 other women to pull him off of me before security even arrived to kick him out.  And they only kicked him out because he was young and Black.  Immediately, the white female manager, Linda, berated me: “You shoulda known better than to go with that [Black] thug.”  Right…I forgot to check my magic ball & foresee that he was “trouble” before I went into the private booth with him.  I wanted to report the incident to the cops but Linda quickly killed that idea: “You can go find a job somewhere else if you call in the police,” she stated.   I needed that job then so I shut up and went back to work.  The last time I had words with that bitch, she was firing me from my job because I got into an argument with a customer who demanded that I give him a blow job.  He told me that if I didn’t blow him or return the money he’d paid me for a naked lapdance, then he’d have me fired.  He went & complained to Linda then threatened to call the cops on me.  I stood up for myself & said that I’d be happy if the cops showed up so I could tell them that he’d solicited me.  Technically–it would have been rape or forced sodomy.  Linda, the racist bitch, just wanted me out & escorted me to the dressing room & threw a garbage bag at me to clear out my locker.  One of the other strippers offered this customer a free lapdance as consolation.  As a middle class white guy, this customer probably never had anyone deny him anything.   I felt violated.

I wish those were the only memories of violence I experienced, but there’s more.  In all the San Francisco strip clubs I worked in, I had customers who physically or sexually assaulted me.  The only strip club where management was actually decent was the Crazy Horse.  This was before their private booths were built.  The women looked out for each other also.  And security was often around so if there was even a trace of a problem, they’d intervene & 86 the guy–no questions asked.  I was in shock the 1st time they got rid of the customer because in all the other clubs, the customer was king.  He could do no wrong even if he raped you.

The last strip club I worked at is the now defunct Barbary Coast Mini Lingerie on Mission St.  The co-owners had a rule that the strippers had to let customers masturbate during our private shows.  I was not OK with this because I was alone in a locked room with the customer.  And it crossed the line from stripper into prostitute.  Anyway, it got ugly with this 1 guy because he claimed that his regular girl, Jewel, let him do it all the time.  But she was in a show with another guy.  I’m sure that Jewel did a lot more since she admitted to being an “erotic masseuse”–sugar coating for “prostitute.”  I don’t have a problem with prostitutes, but I wanted to work as a stripper.  This guy was determined to masturbate.  So I left the room.  I ran.  He followed me and complained to the manager who was simultaneously running his side business as the pimp of his escort agency.  It got uglier.  Both of them were now screaming at me.  The customer was threatening to fuck me up.  The manager said I should return the tip.  I was seriously scared.  Jewel came out of her show & calmed the customer down & took him into her room.  After she walked him out of the building, she came over to me crying.  “Call the cops,” she said, “he’s going to hurt you.”  I wanted to call the cops, but I couldn’t.  I was on ecstacy & was afraid that I’d get arrested for being on drugs.  The customer was white, middle-aged, clearly wealthy and I was sure the cops would easily take his side.   Jewel couldn’t stop crying.  She had her husband pick her up early because she was afraid the customer would return.  The next day, 1 of the owners, Peter, told me that an anonymous customer left death threats for me.  He pulled me off the schedule because he was worried that the customer would return & hurt me and any other women who were also working.  Peter couldn’t take a chance & be liable for any violence.   It gets more complicated, but I’m saving this for my upcoming documentary, License to Pimp.  (sign up for the mailing list if you want to stay updated about the film).

Sex worker activist Audacia Ray also delivered a presentation on Dec. 17.  This is her list of what constitutes violence against sex workers:

  • Violence is being called a whore by an intimate partner who is ashamed of what you do.
  • Violence is when the media kills you twice, by ungendering you and using your birth name because you are a woman and trans.
  • Violence is when your client demands sex without a condom, and you comply because you’re afraid what he’ll do if you don’t.
  • Violence is when you don’t want to be a sex worker at all, but it is the highest paying work you can find.
  • Violence is when you are denied access to public housing because you have a prostitution conviction.
  • Violence is when you work really hard to provide for your family but you don’t have a work environment that grants you health insurance or sick leave.
  • Violence is when you kill yourself because you can’t see any way out of the hole you are in.
  • Violence is when child services deems you an unfit parent because you are a sex worker.
  • Violence is when a doctor at a public health clinic abuses you after they learn you are doing sex work, or when you feel that you cannot tell your health care providers that you trade sex.
  • Violence is being unable to get out of the sex industry when you want to because the cycle of arrest, imprisonment, and court dates destroys any possibility of holding down a job with scheduled hours.
  • Violence is when an entire country -this one- denies you entry because you have been a sex worker or a drug user.
  • Violence is when you are a minor and are treated as a victim, no matter what you say about your experience.
  • Violence is when you are “rescued,” forced into a rehabilitation program, and given a sewing machine so you can lead a more honorable life working in a sweat shop.
  • Violence is when the country you live in doesn’t treat you like a full citizen, but instead regards you as a criminal – and all because you are trying to make a living.

Some Solutions to Ending Violence Against Sex Workers:

  • It begins by seeing this population as legitimate labor–as people who are doing a job and are entitled to safe, fair, & healthy working conditions.
  • Violence against sex workers could end if sex workers weren’t seen as skanky people who don’t deserve better.  Our lives matter.
  • The violence could end if we weren’t seen as expendable objects who could be easily replaced by another body and another body and another body.
  • If sex workers had rights and weren’t criminalized, the violence would end.
  • The violence against sex workers would end if we could report crimes committed against us & know that our allegations would be taken seriously and investigated & that the perpetrators would be convicted if found guilty.  It would send a message that sex workers cannot just be brutalized, murdered, raped, &/or otherwise violated and that there is real punishment for these crimes.
  • The violence would stop if we sex workers could heal & not feel compelled to work under the influence of substances that numb us from being present.
  • Sex workers would not be violated if we had safer working conditions as well as having other job options available if we wanted to transition out of the industry.
  • The violence would end if there was solidarity amongst sex workers, customers, adult businesses & our allies.

What are other instances of violence against sex workers?  What are other solutions to end violence against sex workers?

3 Responses to “End Violence Against Sex Workers”
  1. Rob says:

    Here are my contributions:
    – Violence is when sex work is criminalized thus denying sex workers full protection of the law and exposing sex workers to greater danger.
    – Violence is when police harassment pushes sex workers on to back streets where they are less visible and in greater danger from bad clients and those who prey on the vulnerable.
    – Violence is when police refuse to allocate resources to investigating the murders of sex workers effectively giving the green light to serial killers to prey on sex workers with impunity.

    I would also like to comment on a couple of the entries in the list:

    1. Violence is when you don’t want to be a sex worker at all, but it is the highest paying work you can find.
    This is true. However, this is not specific to sex work, but rather a consequence of the oppression and injustice inherent in capitalist society. For example, one could also say:
    – Violence is when wealthy politicians vote to send our troops to war and it is the sons and daughters of the poor who end up on the front lines.
    – In general, violence is when the disadvantaged are forced to do work that includes ”danger pay” but puts their health and lives at risk.
    Secondly, the item as phrased above, essentially renders clients of such sex workers as unwilling accessories to violence. In such situations, sex workers will hide the fact that they are unwilling participants because they know that most clients want to be with sex workers who enjoy their work. Ironically, in such cases, sex workers are active participants in capitalism, doing what is “good for business”.

    2.Violence is when you are a minor and are treated as a victim, no matter what you say about your experience.
    I disagree here. We need to protect our children. We cannot tolerate under-age sex work. Under-age sex workers are victims just as most as those who are below the age of consent are victims when enaging in sexual activity with adults.

    • THANKS for your additions! I agree with them all! I’d also like to add:

      **Violence is where the only legal entities you can work for are brothel pimps so you can’t work as an independent prostitute without a pimp.

      **Violence is when other sex workers rat you out to management to protect their jobs when you stand up for your rights & against workplace exploitation.

      **Violence is when you’re taken advantage of because you’re too drunk or high to be aware of what’s going on during a sexual exchange.

      I also agree about your point about minors. I oppose sex between adults & minors because that power dynamic is very skewed in the advantage of the adult. That said, I worked with some underaged strippers who ran away from home from what they described as abusive situations. They were able to become more financially independent because they got hired as strippers by management who didn’t care to inquire about their legal ages. Though these teen strippers (at that time–nearly 1.5 decades ago) weren’t having sex with customers (the strip clubs have radically changed over the last decade at least), I felt it was safer then if they worked the streets or if they worked as escorts. I don’t fault the teens for trying to figure out a way to make money. I do think that the adults in the situation acted in ways to benefit themselves be they employers or customers. But I, for 1 wasn’t about to report these teens as under-aged. But it most broke my heart to see very young girls walking the streets in San Francisco–that was exploitative & dangerous. It was pretty obvious that these girls were under-aged even with their layers of make up & slutty clothes.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts…

    As a former exotic dancer of 18 years, there were only two situations where I was assaulted. Working as an exotic dancer used to be very different than it is today.

    I would like to support this post with reference to the book The Porning of America. With sexual boundaries changing, sexual boundaries of sex workers have also changed. The POA describes these boundaries in reference to the sex industry and how simple sex acts – say Betty Page bondage, have now turned into violent porn, rape, death, mutilation, etc.

    When I began dancing in 1986, there was a rule of no contact between client and dancer. Dancers also had to wear a g-string covered up by a t-back (we called them) and a 2″ heel. Clients could lay money down on the stage but could not touch you. In 1989, a client made the mistake of running his hand up the back of my leg as I stood in front of him. He was met with a 5″ heel pressed into the top of his hand. In 2003, the clubs I worked for went nude. I resisted going nude initially because I was older, but also, have a tubal pregnancy scar that I did not want to show. I found myself not making as much money as the other girls so forced, in short, porned into going nude. My money skyrocketed as did my boundaries. With nudity, in Colorado, is full contact. The clients can only touch your arms or face but made for much more vulnerability for a 5’4″ 105 pound dancer in a pair of now, 7″ heels. I was forced to establish an identity that did not match with the former identity of a protected, distanced, sort of movie star.

    The last assault I experienced with in the nude room. A man took the liberty, with my exposed clit and his hand. He was promptly thrown out of the club.

    I want to stress that I was very protected in Colorado and did not have the experiences of being assaulted on a regular basis. The harms to me came from society over the work I did, even still. Experience, college education, lack of criminal record, lack of substance abuse issues are laughed at professionally when I reveal former sex work as if somehow not the same, valid, competent, etc.

    We, as former and current sex workers need to talk louder about our experiences in venues where they will be heard with dignity and respect. Thank you for providing this LTP 🙂

    Billie Jackson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s