Today is December 17, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, an event created to bring attention to the crimes committed against people in sex work. This isn’t about saving people from sex work. Sex workers don’t need to be “rescued.” They need rights. Until sex workers are given rights, the dangers they face will only continue.
International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was conceptualized in 2001 after Gary Ridgway was arrested in connection to the killings perpetrated by the Green River Killer, who operated in the Seattle area in the state of Washington in the 1980s and 1990s. Ridgway, like many killers before and many after him, targeted sex-workers for two decades, perhaps more, until his DNA linked him to several of his early victims. He eventually confessed to 71 killings, though he was only convicted for the deaths of 49 women and girls.
â€œI picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed,” he said in his confession. “I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.â€
Carlton Smith and Tomas Guillen chronicled the investigation in The Search for the Green River Killer, but perhaps more haunting than the crimes are the portrayed attitudes of certain people in the police department and politics at the time of the murders — the constant, if unspoken, suggestion that sex workers are not as important as other residents, for instance, and the misguided assumption that penalizing sex-workers will drive them out and thus magically end the serial killer problem.
Indeed, during the killings, sex workers walking the street near SeaTac, a stretch of road identified as the killer’s hunting grounds, were pushed out in the hopes that this would force him to go elsewhere. The only effect of driving the women from the strip was severing what little semblance of a network they had. It made it even harder for them to know if someone had gone missing, and so much less likely to go to police if they encountered a “sick trick.”
Coming down hard on street-walking pushed the “prostitution problem” away from the eyes of other residents, scoring points for people in office, no doubt — but leaving sex workers more vulnerable than ever.
Despite knowing how this heart-breaking tale played out, we continue trying to push the “prostitution problem” away in our cities, hoping that making it impossible for sex workers to operate will make them go straight. All we’re really doing is making it harder for them to get access to health care, law enforcement, and other resources. We’re not helping them. We’re making them more vulnerable.
Sex workers don’t need to be forced out of sex work. They don’t need to be coaxed out of it. They don’t need to see “the light.” They need rights.
Let’s reflect on that today. You can visit December17.org for more information.
Header image via the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP-USA).