International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers is Dec. 17 — a day to raise global awareness of the epidemic of violence against sex workers. The day is marked worldwide by vigils, community gatherings, and political actions. Often, the names of sex workers slain that year are read during the events.
Violence against sex workers is wide-spread: a 2004 study indicated that the homicide rate for female sex workers is estimated to be 204 per 100,000 — a higher occupational mortality rate than any group ever studied. Unfortunately, perpetrators of such violence are rarely held accountable. States too often rein-force through legislation or practice the notion that sex workers surrender their basic human rights.
This is especially true for women and femmes of color, and transfeminine sex workers, who experience even higher rates of sexual assault, battery and murder.
Sex Worker Rights is an LGBTQ Issue
Sex work is a very queer game. When I asked a Midwestern professional dominatrix about the topic of LGBTQ representation in the industry she asked, “Are we not all queer?” Some activists believe the questioning of “traditional” gender and sexual mores that is part of identity development for many queers, makes them more open to exploring the work of commercial sexual/sensual exchange. For others, employment discrimination leaves few viable options outside of the sex trade.
While data on sexual and gender identity among sex workers is extremely limited, we know from a small body of research and a great deal of anecdotal reports, that queer and trans folk abound in strip clubs, agencies and independent sex work. The International Commit¬tee for Sex Workers Rights in Europe reported that ten percent of sex workers in France were men serving male clients. Another study conducted in L.A. and Chicago found that sixty-seven percent of transgender respondents reported having been engaged in sex work. Were here, we re queer, we’re in the sex industry. Queer folk and sex workers don’t just
share workplaces – they share oppression. The same systems that motivate anti- LGBTQ ideology and policy-making – racism, misogyny, ableism, transphobia, classism and the denial of bodily autonomy – also undergird the criminalization and inhumane treatment of sex workers. Both LGBTQ and sex worker communities experience criminalization and institutional violence based on identity and status. Laws that criminalize HIV/ AIDs, certain sexual acts, commercial sex between adults, and homelessness and poverty disproportionately affect sex workers and queers.
This criminalization often results in increased violence at the hands of law enforcement. A study of New York street-based sex workers found that 27 percent of participants had experienced violence at the hands of police while on the job. LGBTQ communities know this violence well, and have historically experienced high levels of harassment and assault by law enforcement.
Queer femme sex worker Tyler shared, “We in the queer community all face danger. We know it intimately and fight the idea that we deserve less in this world because of who we are.. .we often gather to protect at-risk populations within our community – sex workers are not excluded from that, or shouldn’t be.”
LGBTQ Solidarity with Sex Workers
With the significant intersections between these two populations, one might expect that LGBTQ communities consistency show up for sex worker rights. Think again. Mainstream LGBTQ organizations are often silent regarding the need for policy and cultural changes to protect sex workers.
X, a gender-queer Chicago-area sex worker and activist, stated, “I’ve been engaged in sex worker organizing for years. So many of us are queer, but you so rarely see leaders of LGBTQ organizations – or even ‘prominent’members of LGBTQ communities – speaking out or attending actions or events supporting sex workers. It’s frustrating and disappointing, as we are part of the community too.”
X suggested that there is a “lavender menace effect” at play — some gays and lesbians see sex worker rights as divisive or potentially detracting from their personal/civil rights progress.
Sex workers need the outspoken support of LGBTQ communities and organizations. They are among the most vulnerable parts of LGBTQ communities: the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that 23 percent of the LGBT homicides in 2012 were connected to sex work. The dehumanization of workers exists within gay spaces, as in straight ones.
Christopher Martin, a former Indianapolis sex worker, spoke to me about the “culture of sexual aggression” and lack of respect for sex workers and their boundaries at clubs for gay men.
“Once people found out what I did for a living,” he explained, “I immediately be¬
came a prostitute and a stripper in their eyes, and not a person.”
Despite high rates of violence, sex workers are often left out of policy conversations regarding broader issues of violence against women, gender and reproductive justice and LGBTQ rights.
With systems set against queers and sex workers alike, solidarity at both inter-personal and institutional levels is crucial. Despite what the U.S. legal system and dominant culture posits through language, actions and policy, sex workers are people who deserve rights and protections. They’re friends, parents, students, care-givers and community members. LGBTQ communities are uniquely positioned to reflect on their role in the continued violence against sex workers, and to take a bold stand against criminalization, violence and stigma.
As Tyler stated, “By providing solidarity to a sex worker, you are helping to chip away at the danger that affects us all as a community.” Bring your hammer and join the fight.