This December 17th, sex workers across the UK will be chalking messages and statistics on pavements and walls, drawing attention to the violence we face. Today is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (IDEVASW). Each person it took to make up the numbers in these statistics of murder and abuse was or is a sex worker. We want you to see us; because these statistics reflect our lives, reflect the marginalisation and criminalisation we experience and the lethal violence to which this has led.
Produced by SWARM in collaboration with Ada Jusic and Woven Ink, ‘To Survive; To Live’ weaves together candid interviews from five people selling sex in austerity Britain. Setting aside the polarising rhetoric that often surrounds discussions of sex work, the film gives an intimate insight into the hopes, fears and needs of a group whose voices are routinely silenced.
As you read this, a trial is underway for the murder of UK sex worker Christina Abbotts in a flat in Crawley, West Sussex. This summer, we held a vigil for a trans, migrant sex worker, Vanesa Campos, who was murdered in Paris. Another trial is currently underway at Bournemouth Crown Court for the rape of an escort in Boscombe, Dorset.
In Odessa, Texas, a 78-year-old prisoner is claiming he killed 90 people over nearly four decades and has just pleaded guilty to the 1994 murder of a Texas woman. Many of his victims were sex workers. The murders bear a horrible resemblance to those of serial killer Gary Ridgway plead guilty in 2003 to killing at least 48 women, mostly sex workers and teen runaways in Washington State. It was these murders which prompted SWOP-USA (Sex Workers Outreach Project, United States) and Dr. Annie Sprinkle to begin IDEVASW.
Today is also the day on which Tumblr fully enacts its ban on explicit adult content. This follows a year in which the online platforms that sex workers rely on have been shuttered and purged. Since the passing of the FOSTA/SESTA bill in the US in February this year, the ability for sex workers to create communities, advertise independently, screen clients and avoid danger has been dramatically reduced.
2018 has been a brutal year for sex workers and we are calling for your support. We are fighting for access to better resources. We need money, secure housing, healthcare, childcare; we need a drastic overhaul of the immigration system. Until these fundamental needs are met, people will continue to sell sex.
Like every sex worker-led organisation around the world, SWARM is calling for decriminalisation. Criminalisation of our work and our bodies only makes life more precarious, more stigmatised and more dangerous.
Solid evidence backs up our claims. In a review of data from 33 countries, published last week, researchers found that sex workers three times more likely to experience violence from clients where their work is criminalised. Organisations including Amnesty International are likewise calling for full decriminalisation as the first step toward protecting sex workers.
Here in the UK, in England, Scotland and Wales selling sex is legal but almost all activities around it are not. It’s illegal to work with a friend for safety, as this is classed as a brothel and brothels are illegal. Soliciting on the street is illegal. In Leeds, there is talk of closing down the UK’s only ‘legalised sex work zone’ in Holbeck.
In Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, paying for sex is criminalised. Contrary to claims, sex workers themselves have not been decriminalised and prosecutions for brothel-keeping continue. In the ROI, since the law was introduced, 55 people have been arrested for prostitution offences, only two of them are clients. Violence against sex workers – including a spate of knife attacks in Dublin – has increased since paying for sex was criminalised.
It is poverty which lies behind the continued reliance of marginalised people on the sex industry. Since 2010, 86% of the burden of austerity has fallen on women. Some groups are particularly vulnerable. Migrant sex workers face the added danger of deportation, often carried out in the name of ‘recusing trafficking victims’. Research by Transgender Europe (TGEU) found that of the over 1,700 trans and gender diverse people murdered between 2008-2014, 65% were sex workers.
We are calling for decriminalisation as the first step toward making life safer for sex workers. Allowing us to work and advertise openly, build networks and maintain safeguards. And we are calling on
The single best tool for ending stigma against sex workers is this: listen to us.