Talking About Talking About Violence Against Sex Workers

Image credit: Sonny Abesamis, distributed by Wikimedia


My first taste of sex worker rights activism was one year ago when I organized around International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. As December 17th approaches again, I see more activists carrying on this important discussion.

Laura LeMoon recently wrote an important piece on why sex worker rights activists, particularly those of us who are at less risk of violence, need to be careful not to silence those discussions. I’m so thankful that she had the courage to put this in writing, discussions like this have a way of rallying sex worker rights activists against one another.

We often have discussions about violence and bad dates with each other, behind closed doors, but we often try to muffle those discussions in the public. It’s not because they’re not important, but it’s because they’re the narratives that people have used to deny us agency and fight against our rights. These stories, without context, can also uphold the narrative that we’re either victim or divas, and those binary narratives can be further stigmatizing.

As sex worker rights activism goes more mainstream, we will need to start breaking the silence on violence in our workplaces. This is particularly true on December 17th. So if these discussions must be had, it's important the we're having them in meaningful ways, ways that fight stigma and advance sex workers rights.

When we have these discussions with allies and outsiders, it’s really easy for those outsiders to make assumptions about why sex workers face violence. Anything we don’t say will often be filled in by the audience with stories of victimhood and rescue that are pushed by governments, police and radical feminists.

It's no secret that sex workers are at a high risk of violence, and when we speak about violence against sex workers, we need to tie it back to the core reasons why we're at risk. Stigma, driven by slut shaming and whorephobia, is piled on top of the other oppressions we disproportionately face: sexism, transphobia, ableism, racism, colonialism and homophobia, to name a few. These oppressions create a culture of disposability around sex workers, and that disposability is exploited by people who would want to harm us.

We're also at a higher risk of violence because the stigma we face makes people feel they don't need to listen to us. Similar to labourers in union activism, we have answers and ideas on how to make our work safe, but beliefs that we're either victims or divas give decision makers license to ignore our voices and press ahead with criminalization, the Nordic Model, or other ideas that only make our work much more difficult and dangerous.

We're at higher risk because criminalization, whether blanket (like in the USA) or asymmetrical (like in Canada) puts us in conflict with police. Police operations, like Operation Northern Spotlight, only serve to drive this conflict and distrust that sex workers have with police.

When violence does happen against sex workers, we're blamed for it. We're told that we should just accept it as a workplace hazard. We're sometimes even denied access to crisis services because of our work. This is another product of stigma.

So please, share your stories on December 17th. Share them all year round. Write about them on medium, but please be sure to tie your stories back to the solutions we need. Make sure your audience understands the core reasons for violence against sex workers; stigma and criminalization. Frame your discussion in a way that offers solutions, and don't let your story be stolen by people who would wish to do you harm.