by TS Piper Darling
Each year on December 17th International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers is observed around the world. Even though it is an international event, I want to talk about violence against sex workers in the United States because it has the highest rate of sex worker murders worldwide.
The criminalization of sex work in the United States is largely the reason why it can be so dangerous. Many people hold the idea that harsher policing will ‘save’ more sex workers, but that approach actually serves to continue violence and destroy many of our tactics for safety. The more that sex work is pushed underground and harshly policed, the more unsafe the work becomes. Instead of relying on the (in)justice system, many of us depend on ourselves, our sex worker communities, and our solidarity networks for support and safety.
Several years ago, I received a violent message from a potential client. He lashed out at me for disclosing that I have sex with men of color. This obviously raised red flags so I immediately stopped responding. While it’s common for me to have white clients who are overtly racist, nobody had ever been verbally violent with me before.
Almost a year later, I heard that he’d harmed other trans women sex workers by robbing, attacking, and stalking them. I heard he’s even killed a girl. If you are someone who trusts the police, knowing that this happened without anybody stopping him may seem like a fluke. But the truth is, most police really don’t take violence against trans women seriously, especially those who are sex workers.
The first thing I learned, from the very first time a client put his hands on me, is that you take your lumps, patch yourself up, move on and add him to a blacklist to let other sex workers know.
But it’s not uncommon for sex workers who survive violence to go to the police. Often, this makes the situation worse. Because sex workers are not protected by the law, police get away with being violent against sex workers. Police will make threats for sexual favors.
Women, especially trans women of color, experience cruel treatment from the police such as being chained to fences, groped, or being tossed into jail cells with men who attack or rape them with the implicit blessing of cops. It is not just women who are affected. Men who do sex work are subject to violence too, especially due to homophobia if they’re gay.
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As sex workers, we’ve developed our own methods to keep ourselves safe as best we can. From my peers, I’ve learned to be careful of a client who worships me and not to mistake it as safety. While clients may be sincere in their adoration, it can quickly go sour. The ‘worship-murder’ scenario most commonly occurs against trans women.
Knowing how it can go wrong is important, just as it is also important to know how we can improve our own safety. The best support and resources are provided by groups organized by sex workers. We’ve even created blacklist and ‘bad date websites’ to keep each other, and ourselves, safe from harmful clients. After we’ve screened our clients, we let friends know where we’re going. Some of us hire drivers who take us to our appointments and make sure things go well. While hiring a random driver can be dangerous, having someone that I trust drive me helps me feel safer.
Despite all the work we do towards sex worker safety, there is also a lot of organizing being done that makes things worse for sex workers. Prohibitionists, or people who seek to, in their view, “rescue” sex workers actually make sex work more dangerous. They claim that they have the best interest of sex workers in mind, while simultaneously destroying our safety nets. These “rescue” attempts fail, because criminalization only feeds crime against us and because they’re based off of failed Drug War ideas.
That said, non-sex workers can and do play important roles in our safety. Sex workers have formed alliances with other groups that offer solidarity such as queer organizations and drug harm reduction groups. There are many ‘allies’ who fight hard for us to oppose criminalization. One sex worker organization, Sex Worker Outreach Project, created a resource list for allies.
The biggest step towards showing solidarity with sex workers is to treat us all with dignity. There are many ways to show solidarity with us, like donating to groups like SWOP or Project SAFE, but our allies need to listen to what we have to say first.
It’s important that on December 17th, and every day, we respect sex workers. The violence is a byproduct of criminalization and harmful stigmas that we can fight together. This December 17th I want to recognize those we’ve lost and love those we have here.
TS Piper Darling is a transgender sex worker and sugar baby. Her favorite stores are Sephora, Amoeba Music, and Karmaloop. Her favorite party favors are lipstick and good food. Music and clothes are her oxygen.
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