Why Are Sex Workers Left Out Of the Violence Against Women Conversation?


“I killed so many women I have a hard time keeping them straight … My plan was I wanted to kill as many women I thought were prostitutes as I possibly could … I picked prostitutes as my victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed.”

— Gary Ridgewood, The “Green River Killer,” Nov. 15, 2003, Seattle, Washington

In November 2001, serial killer Gary Ridgewood was arrested while leaving the Kenworth Truck Factory in Renton, Washington, where he had worked quietly for over thirty years. Leading an otherwise normal nine-to-five life, he managed to murder in his spare time, without anyone noticing, more than 49 women, almost all of whom were prostitutes, and he buried their bodies in forested areas around Kings County near where he lived and worked.

“I picked prostitutes as my victims because I hate most prostitutes and I did not want to pay them for sex,” Ridgewood told reporters at the Seattle Post Intelligence. The fact that many of these murders went undiscovered for more than 20 years reveals that Ridgewood was not the only suspect out there committing these vicious killings. The police and law enforcement’s callous attitude towards sex workers, and the hateful stigma that society at large places upon this marginalized group of people, causes hundreds upon hundreds of deaths to go unpunished and undiscovered for senseless and inhumane periods of time.

Though prostitution is often touted as the world’s “oldest profession,” the estimated 40 to 42 million people world-wide who work in this profession are still not recognized as workers, and they do not have basic workers’ rights. According to a January 2012 study by Fondation Scelles, three quarters of these 40-42 million are between the ages of 13 and 25, and 80% of them are female. The homicide rate for female prostitutes is estimated to be 204 per 100,000, according to a longitudinal study published in 2004. This constitutes a higher occupational mortality rate than any other group of women ever studied.

Yet in spite of all this, there is almost no mention of violence against sex workers in any human rights conversation at the United Nations about Violence Against Women.  Last week, at the close of the 57th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon affirmed the UN’s seven-year long commitment to focus on fighting Violence Against Women until 2015:

“Violence against women is a heinous human rights violation, global menace, a public health threat and a moral outrage,” Ban-Ki moon declared, “No matter where she lives, no matter what her culture, no matter what her society, every woman and girl is entitled to live free of fear.“

But in the words of black suffragette Sojourner Truth:

 “Ain’t I a woman?”

Why are sex workers not a part of the Violence Against Women conversation? Sex workers are daughters, sisters, mothers, and community members living in your town, riding on your buses, eating at your restaurants, and reading in your libraries. Though a majority of sex workers are female or female-identified, many are also sons, brothers, fathers, and lovers. Gay, straight, black, white, tall, short, rich, and poor, sex workers come from a variety of different backgrounds, and go into sex work for a variety of different reasons. Some of them migrate across the world for better opportunity and some of them are trafficked against their will. Some of them are addicted to drugs, and some of them have Ph.Ds; those two groups are not even mutually exclusive. You or someone you love probably know a sex worker; maybe you have even loved a sex worker.

Stigma keeps this massive industry underground, and also subjects sex workers to unpunished physical violence from clients, employers, and police; as well as the violence of social isolation and internalized shame. Stigma is at the root of the hateful attitudes that condone assault and impunity, the discriminatory laws that keep the industry underground, and the harmful working conditions that result from hiding in the shadows of society.

According to sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein, prostitution in the present day is a very different phenomena than what it has been in the past. Internet technology, globalization, growing wealth disparity, the economic crisis, student debt, and changes in sexual mores and representations, have all played a part in the shifting nature of this industry. The web has made street prostitution less visible in cities like San Francisco, while advertising online is becoming more and more prevalent for sex workers across the economic spectrum.

Sex workers differ greatly between different classes, races, and locales — there is no single narrative that speaks for everyone. The assumption gleaned from the well-meaning anti-trafficking movement is that most people in the sex trade have been trafficked, and are being forced to work against their will and chaste intentions. However, the statistics involved in proving this have been less than consistent or reliable. 

For many people, sex work is an act of agency and resistance, to contend with more oppressive inequalities. As migrant workers increasingly take on the emotional labor of care in service industries within global cities, there are some who choose to enter sex work as a more lucrative alternative within class and gender-discriminatory labor markets. Sex work is one of the few labor sectors in which women are paid more than men, and mothers can sometimes negotiate a flexible schedule for childcare. For a person with a disability or without access to higher education, it can also be the most pragmatic way of earning money, with relatively low barriers to entry.

For clients with a disability, sex work can be a caring means of exploring their sexuality, as shown by Australian sex worker, Rachel Wotton, who runs a nonprofit for sex work with disabled clients. While there are many exploited migrant workers, forced to accept low-paying work in poor conditions to pay for the costs of migration, there are also many middle income students, struggling to manage student debt, time pressures, and a bad economic climate. University students are increasingly large portion of the sex worker population in England and Wales.

The rapid growth of the sex trade in the past two decades is composed largely of people in our generation, including students at our own schools. If this is you: come out, Aspasia, come out. Together, we might make it safer for others to do so. All people engaged in the sex trades would benefit from greater understanding and decreased stigma. As a society, we can only face the violence if we are willing to let the realities come to light. The millenial generation has the opportunity to redefine the way sex work is perceived in the 21st Century.

While many debates rage among well-meaning feminists and anti-trafficking activists about whether or not prostitution should, ideally, exist, I would rather not restate these here. Whether you believe that prostitution should be eliminated altogether, or that sex workers should instead be given labor rights and protections, let’s not get bogged down at this moment in disagreements about how we think the gender-based violence in sexual labor ought to be stopped.

Let’s first take a moment to simply acknowledge that the pervasive and structural violence throughout history against this silenced group of people — is a human rights issue.

The coerced labor of all men and women, from farm workers to sweat shop workers and sex slaves, is unjust. We can all agree on that. Advocating for the rights of sex workers is not antithetical to advocating against human trafficking; in fact, as DMSC, the 60,000-woman-strong sex worker union in India has demonstrated, sex workers can also be some of the most effective agents on the ground in fighting sex trafficking and the involvement of minors in prostitution.

In light of recent events that are increasing focus on gender-based violence, from the United Nations, to Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising, to the International Women’s Day demonstrations, I would like to see feminists and human rights activists united on a few points that we can all agree on:

Women still suffer from discrimination and inequality. People who choose sex work are often the ones who experience that inequality most keenly.

From economic inequality, the persistent wage gap between men and women, to the gendered disparity in schooling in many parts of the world, to the unreasonably high cost of tuition and a broken system of educational debt, to the still overwhelmingly female responsibility of childcare — these are the issues that feminists are working on.

And these are also the reasons that people go into sex work, whether willingly or unwillingly.

Let’s not further punish them for the unjust conditions that they did not create.

Feminism is for all women, and human rights are for all people. Nobody deserves to be subjected to violence.

People engaged in the sex trade highlight some of the deepest contradictions in society, the cracks in the frameworks that we hold most dear. It is an important test of the strength and consistency of our ideological frameworks: whether or not we can extend them to the most marginalized members of our society.

When it comes to uniting in the fight against gender-based violence, let’s make 2013 the year that violence against sex workers finally enters the public consciousness as a human rights issue. 

Kate Zen is a feminist and human rights activist first, and a former dominatrix and social science student second.

Include All Women is a campaign to bring visibility to violence against sex workers under the United Nations gender-based violence framework for human rights.

IAwoman.org. “Ain’t I a woman?” is currently seeking media activists, researchers, and artists for a campaign to include violence against sex workers in the UN Commission on the Status of Women by 2015.