The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was marked in Providence with an event on Saturday. Bella Robinson, executive director of COYOTE RI, an advocacy group for the decriminalization of sex work and the rights of sex workers said, “It’s time to change the social perception that sex workers aren’t people who deserve to live and work with dignity in safe conditions. Criminalization and stigma have created the perfect playground for bad cops and predators to continue to rob, rape and murder sex workers with impunity. We’re holding this vigil to show that sex workers deserve to not only live and work with dignity and in safe conditions but that we also need equal protection under the law.”
Elena Shih, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University, told a story about how overseas sex worker rescue efforts harm women, rather than help. She referred to the efforts of people from rich countries traveling to countries such as Thailand to save sex workers as “rescue tourism.” These trips often result in the arrest and detention of sex workers, but do nothing to enhance their civil and human rights, or to protect them from violence.
Rescue tourists ignore and marginalize the efforts of sex workers to organize themselves around issues of safety, dignity and human rights, preventing any improvement in their lives.
Shih is working on a survey of sex workers to see how changes to Rhode Island law in 2009 has affected their lives. Before 2009 indoor prostitution was legal in Rhode Island. Sex workers could call the police if there was a problem. Today, most sex workers will not call the police if they become victims of a crime while engaging in sex work.
In fact, said Robinson, the majority of sex worker abuse is at the hands of the police. Local organizations that help police do raids, said Robinson, rarely “rescue” children. Instead, they arrest sex workers and their customers, resulting in fines and police records that hurt sex workers and their families, rather than help.
A memorial list including the names of sex workers who died as a result of violence is often read at local memorial vigils. The list of over 132 sex workers murdered between January 1 and December 1, 2016 internationally, highlights the vulnerability of sex workers around the world. According to sex workers rights group Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) USA, the majority of violence against sex workers is not just violence against sex workers—it’s also violence against transwomen, against women of color, against drug users and immigrants.
Below, Elena Shih and Susan Roar read the names of the 53 sex workers who were murdered in the United States over the last year.
One final note: Within a few hours of getting home from her event, Robinson got a call from a local escort who had been the victim of violence for the 2nd time. The woman doesn’t want to report the crime to the police. She told Robinson that other than a swollen eye, she isn’t hurt and doesn’t need to go to the ER.