by Melissa Sontag Broudo and Rachel Grinstein
Within the last month, police discovered four bodies along the Long Island Shore in New York State while searching for a missing sex worker. Media speculation turned immediately to a serial killer targeting sex workers.
Past serial killers have created rare public conversation around violence towards sex workers. Gary Ridgeway â€“ the “Green River killer,” who killed 48 women over two decades â€“ said that he “picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing.”
The Long Island bodies were found just as sex workers around the world mourned those lost to violence in commemoration of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, an annual day of recognition on December 17.
At the same time, the embattled website Craigslist shut down its erotic services section internationally, a move praised by some anti-prostitution organizations. Craigslist had come under fire after a few highly publicized incidents of violence, and media speculated that the Long Island victims may be a part of this trend. However, sex workers rights organizations mourned the shut-down, concerned that it will only drive the commercial sex market further underground, making it more difficult to screen for safe clients and forcing many workers onto the street, where the incidence of violence is much higher.
These moments of mainstream attention should raise our awareness to the constant risk of violence for sex workers. In a study conducted by the Sex Workers Project in New York City in 2003, 80 percent of the 30 street-based sex workers we interviewed reported experiencing violence or threats of violence while working. When sex workers do experience violence, they must weigh their need for protection against the risks of reporting to the police. Members of law enforcement are often themselves perpetrators of violence against sex workers: in our study, 30 percent of the sex workers reported being threatened with violence by police and 27 percent actually experienced violence at the hands of police.
Our laws and policies convey to sex workers that they don’t matter. Sex workers also know from experience that the police may not take their reports seriously, because of assumptions that violence is simply a “hazard of the trade.” Our study found that many street-based workers had attempted to report crimes, but were met with derision and derogatory statements, such as “that’s what you get for being a prostitute.”
In 2007, a Pennsylvania judge ruled that the gang rape of a sex worker at gunpoint by four men was merely “theft of services.” In New York, individuals with a history of prostitution can be questioned about their work and have it used to challenge their credibility if they are the victim in a rape trial. In the meantime, a recent murder in East Harlem shows that sex workers continue to be targeted by violent predators.
Decriminalization of prostitution is central to reducing violence. Decriminalization would also allow sex workers to report incidents of trafficking without risk. Criminalization has led only to cyclical arrests and put sex workers more at risk while cementing negative attitudes towards them. A recent decision by the Ontario Supreme Court validated this position, identifying decriminalization of prostitution as the most effective way to address violence.
Until we reach the same conclusion here in the U.S., we can take smaller steps by training law enforcement authorities on how to receive complaints from sex workers, and fully funding organizations that provide legal, social and other support to sex workers. Sex workers will continue to creatively respond to and resist violence, and, as feminists, we should support them.
January 5, 2011
Melissa Sontag Broudo is a staff attorney with the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York City, where she provides legal advocacy to sex workers and survivors of trafficking on a variety of issues. Prior to joining SWP, Broudo worked with various organizations on issues of poverty, criminalization, gender and sexuality. Broudo graduated from Brown University, the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, and Georgetown University Law Center. Rachel Grinstein is currently an active member of SWOP-NYC, where she is building her skills in a variety of fields through hands-on experience and invaluable personal guidance. She is also the current Director of Distribution and Outreach for $pread magazine. Since being introduced to the issues surrounding sex work, the fight for sexual freedoms and the rights of sex workers have been prominent issues in both her academic life and her activist work. Visit the SWP and SWOP-NYC websites at www.sexworkersproject.org and www.swop-nyc.org respectively for further information on sex workers’ rights.
Also see Works Hard for Her Money: Sex Work and Prostitutes, the Spring 2008 edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See “The Poet’s Eye” edited by Poetry Co-Editor Sarah Browning in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.