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Stigma, sex work and safety

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sex workers, human rightsThe stigma and marginalisation faced by sex workers often leaves them excluded from conversations about violence against women.

As reported last week on this site, on 19 July an International Day of Protest was held in reaction to the murders of Dora Ozer and Petite Jasmine.

On 21 July, just two days after these protests, Tracy Connelly was found murdered in the St Kilda area of Melbourne, Australia.

These women, separated by thousands of miles, and with undoubtedly very different experiences and lives, held one important thing in common.

And no, this was not only the fact that they were sex workers – although all three were – but that their lives, their deaths, and the way both were represented, held the unjust taints of stigma, prejudice and marginalisation.

In the case of Dora Ozer, a trans woman, this was compounded and amplified by the discrimination she suffered living in Turkey, a country which holds the second highest worldwide level of hate crime against trans people.

The message from 19 July was that the stigmatisation of sex workers, largely but not only through criminalisation, increases their vulnerability to violence and decreases the chances of society really, truly, caring about their lives.

The message was that stigma kills.

Stigma means that in the UK a woman engaged in sex work is 12 times more likely to be murdered than the rest of the population.

Stigma means that in the UK, since 1990, there have been at least 136 sex worker murders.

Stigma means that rape, violence and assault are endemic, with well over half of UK street sex workers subject to rape or violent assault.

These shocking figures should sit at the masthead of campaigns concerning violence against women, though they rarely do.

In fact stopping structural violence against a particular and marginalised group, which is what this is, should be at the forefront of any human rights campaign.

It should, at the very least, have formed part of last years’ United Nations Commission on the Status of Women outcome document, the very document in which ‘all references to sex workers were dropped’.

UK feminism and activism is currently, and quite rightly, deeply concerned with and attuned to our societal tendency to ‘victim-blame’.

Recent campaigns have served to highlight the cultural saturation of victim-blaming in cases of violence against women: the erroneous assumption that a woman’s actions can render her culpable in acts of violence perpetrated against her.

These assumptions lead to the abhorrent notion that the length of a woman’s skirt dictates her culpability in rape cases; that if a woman ‘answers back’ she was implicitly asking for violence; that if you drink too much alcohol on a night out you can’t really complain if someone you know and trust violates that trust in the most horrific way possible.

In the case of sex work, these victim-blaming tendencies are, arguably, even further normalised into our culture, into our lexicon, and etched into our prejudices.

The prevalent fallacy that you cannot rape a sex worker is probably one of the reasons sex workers rarely, if ever, report such crimes to the police.

‘Silence on Violence’ a 2012 report by London Assembly member Andrew Boff revealed that sex workers also fear being criminalised themselves and do not feel anything would come of their complaints.

Many in our society find the idea of selling sex abhorrent, and displace this abhorrence onto those engaged in sex work.

And so we find that human life, and human dignity, are measured with adherence to an ideology that appraises the ‘worthiness’ of a victim in accordance with the social palatability of their acts.

When we learn that a British police officer described murdered sex workers as ‘shite, murdered by shite, who gives a shite?’, or that an Indianapolis police officer recently likened sex workers to cockroaches, we can see how a group of often already isolated and marginalised people are told, by inference, that their lives matter less; that what they do, and by common conflation who they are, is morally repugnant to us.

The recent acquittal of Ezekiel Gilbert, who shot and killed Leonora Frago, a sex worker who refused to have sex with him, says much about how we view women’s’ bodies and how we objectify – in the most literal sense – and dehumanise those who sell sex.

The jury agreed with Gilbert’s defence that he used deadly force on Frago while ‘attempting to retrieve property stolen at night’ – perfectly justified under Texan law.

In some cases it is as if the fiscal element has blinded us to the universal issues of bodily autonomy and consent.

Sex work shifts our perception, horribly skewing the terms of reference, so that we make judgements about who can and cannot be a victim based on logic or reasoning that belongs with contract law, not human bodies.

When this country’s media consistently and insistently refers to murdered women as nameless, anonymous, ‘prostitutes’ or, even worse, as ‘vice girls’ and propagates the rhetoric of cleansing when talking of police operations (as if the Yorkshire Ripper’s reference to ‘just cleaning up the streets’ wasn’t enough to eliminate any association with the cleaning metaphor) the public, in turn, retain their prerogative to make value-judgements about people and situations they know and understand little about.

The media myth that sex workers are preyed upon and murdered because no one will really miss them is patently untrue.

If you look behind the othering of these women, and the media erasure of their importance as human beings, you will see that they were loved by many.

Witness the families who grieved over the victims of the ‘Craigslist Killer’; the outpouring of grief and anger for Jasmine and Dora; the flowers and balloons tied to a gate near to where Tracy Connelly lived and died.

But then we live by the othering creed; the creed of ‘that which is not me’, for it’s far easier to pretend someone doesn’t exist in the world the way you do than to attempt the difficult task of unpacking your own prejudices.

The UK Ugly Mugs Scheme, which has been operating nationally since 2012, allows sex workers to make anonymous reports of crimes against them, which can be used to warn other sex workers in the form of ‘alerts’, and for police intelligence and information sharing.

The scheme circulates alerts for sex workers in an effort to increase safety and helps to promote good practice among local police forces and local schemes, formalising important relationships and increasing confidence.

The Ugly Mugs Scheme is also important for the message it sends: someone cares if you were raped.

Someone is outraged that eggs were thrown at you and whoreaphobic epithets viciously shouted in your face.

Someone is aware of the vulnerability and isolation of lone workers.

Someone looks at you long enough to notice the bruises, and when they do notice, they do not file them away under the same branch of comprehension that they would the calloused hands of a carpenter, or the impact-atrophied knees of a runner.

The rape of a sex worker is rape. There is no mitigation for this; none at all.

Sex workers do not feel less pain and are not armour-plated against trauma.

No one gets to decide who is more worthy of victim status based on an opinion of what that person does, nor because of the egregious notion that if you have sex for money you’ve got to expect people to steal that sex every once in a while.

Occupational injuries are things you would expect, but to expect and accept the brutalisation of another human being speaks devastating volumes about just how appalling the dominant perception of sex workers is.

I am concerned with a person’s human right to safety, their human right not to be harmed, and more acutely for this harm not to be implicitly sanctioned because we’d rather look the other way.

I believe that this is an important, necessary conversation. I believe this because I believe in social justice, and in universal human dignity.

And because I know that sex workers are so often denied both.

  1. bethan says:

    It’s quite right that women selling sex should not be criminalised or judged and stigmatising them is wrong and hinders access to justice. But it’s not stigma that kills women, it’s men who use and despise women.

    • But those men attack sex workers because, as the green river killer said, no one cares. Society treats sex workers as less worthy, and this creates an atmosphere in which sex workers are both victims and victim blamed.

      In countries like Sweden where sex work has been de facto criminalized and stigmatized a violent man is seen to be a better parent than a sex worker. Id it any surprise he thought that killing her was another crime the state would turn a blind eye too?

      • stephen m says:

        @jemima: The politics of Sweden are: “In Sweden, it is understood any society that claims to defend principles of legal, political, economic, and social equality for women and girls must reject the idea that women and children, mostly girls, are commodities that can be bought, sold, and sexually exploited by men” (Ekberg)

        Whereas in New Zealand, the darling of the decriminalization of prostitution the attitude toward sexworkers has not changed at all.

  2. Our experience is that stigma does harm sex workers. In Ireland we have religious and women’s groups repeatedly sending out the message in the media that people who sell sex are all doing so against their will and cannot refuse any request from a client, and this is very damaging.

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