Each 17th of December the global sex worker community and our allies come together to remember those we’ve lost to violence over the past year. Begun in 2003 as a way to memorialize the victims of a Seattle serial killer who stated he “...picked prostitutes because [he] thought [he] could kill as many of them as [he] wanted without getting caught,” International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers is also a time for us to renew our call for basic human rights and the safety they engender.
It is a day of solidarity and of ongoing commitment to the needs and rights of sex workers everywhere; it is also the one day of the year I will not engage in debate about sex work.
I realize sex work is a controversial topic. I realize passions on the varying sides of the discussion are strong. I realize the fervor that drives each side is often - though certainly not always - grounded in sincerely and closely held beliefs.
But for me, today is not a day to debate ideology. Today is a day to mourn reality, and the reality is the current system isn’t working.
Over 40 sex workers were murdered in the United States this year, more than in any other country.
Those lost lives are not a statistic and they are not a talking point; they are real human beings whose deaths were facilitated by a flawed system. They had families and loved ones. They were community members. They were workers just trying to earn a living. Many were women of color and/or transwomen, disproportionately impacted by senseless violence and victims of a society that often considers them disposable.
In one way or another they were all victims of a failed ideological crusade.
There is nothing inherently more dangerous about sex work than many other occupations. In New Zealand, where sex work is decriminalized, the work is rated safer than that of an ambulance nurse. Criminalization, however – even if only of sex work clients – tends to exacerbate violence as evidenced by the associated incidence increase experienced by Norwegian sex workers since the purchase of services became illegal. Numerous unbiased organizations support this assessment: After reviewing over 800 studies, the esteemed medical journal, The Lancet, reached the conclusion that abuse is most widespread in criminalized environments. These findings have been replicated by organizations including Amnesty International, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, NFPA, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, the Global Commission on HIV and Law, Human Rights Watch, The Open Society Foundation, Anti-Slavery International, the ACLU, and UN Women, all of which concluded decriminalization is the best harm reduction approach to sex work while formally recommending its universal adoption.
I will not engage in debate about sex work today not only because today isn’t about dogma, but also because dogma is all that’s left to debate. The real research is in, and it is resoundingly clear: Stigma and criminalization kill.
For me, today is a day to remember those that society failed by prizing misguided ideology over objective reality. It is also about ensuring the best real world material outcomes for sex workers, and on that point, there is simply nothing left to debate. We already have our answer - we just need you to accept it.
If you would like to learn more about International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers or participate in a local event, please visit www.december17.org