December 17 marks International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers, a yearly day to commemorate those sex workers we have lost over the course of the year. This year, reports suggest that across the globe we have lost more than 219 sex workers to violence – but this number is likely to be higher due to the number of sex workers whose deaths simply are not reported. Across the UK since 1990 we have lost a reported 182 sex workers to violence. International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers was originally founded in Seattle 15 years ago to commemorate the lives of sex workers lost by the actions of the so-called ‘Green River Killer’ Gary Ridgeway.
Sex workers across the UK use the day to get together and remember the lives our community has lost each year alongside the risks we face at work. Many of us spend the day grappling with the reality that we live within a society which oftentimes views our lives as disposable, and we routinely use the day to come together and remind ourselves of our value as a community and as individuals. Acts like these often feel like a rebellion when we are routinely exposed to media coverage of our murdered colleagues which blames our murders on our jobs, and always paints us as asking for it.
Today, the Sex Worker Advocacy And Resistance Movement (Swarm) has launched a report on violence against women involved in prostitution in the UK. The report details the experiences of violence against women involved in the industry and was, crucially, co-authored by a number of women who were are currently doing sex work, or have previously done sex work. The report states: “In order to effectively tackle violence against women in prostitution, we need to understand the nature of that violence - and this means listening closely and non-judgmentally to all those who have experienced it.”
Swarm has also released an animated documentary today, detailing the experiences and lives of people selling sex in Britain. The film produced by Swarm in collaboration with Ada Jusic and Woven Ink links together candid interviews from five people who sell sex in Britain. It also gives an intimate insight into the fears, hopes, and needs of our community which is so often silenced in discussion about our work.
As a sex worker, violence is an issue that always hits close to home, most sex workers will have at some point in their careers have experienced working with a client who doesn’t respect their boundaries, who might be violent, a client who sexually assaults or rapes them, and many of us know of sex workers lost to physical violence. The fear of living under such an environment pervades everything we do as sex workers, and as much as through community activism and collaboration some of us are able to reduce the risks related to the job, it’s impossible to do so entirely.
Working under criminalisation also means that a lot of the time the things we could do to reduce the risks of violence being enacted upon us are out of our reach. Under UK law working together with other sex workers for our safety is illegal, and even if it’s just myself and a friend working together in a flat, we’re both liable for arrest under brothel keeping laws. This not only means we are routinely left to fend for ourselves in the event of a violent client, but it also means that if we do decide to work together for safety but end up experiencing violence at work, we cannot report it to police because we risk being arrested ourselves.
Amongst Swarm we have members from across the spectrum of sex-working experience, many of us have experienced violence at work, myself included. When we live under the constant shadow of the risk of violence against ourselves it can be feel daunting to get up and keep on, but together as a community we prove time and time again that united we are powerful and can overcome our individual and collective hardships.
We call for the full decriminalisation of sex work, the full recognitions of the rights of migrants and the end of the policing of borders. We recognise sex work as work and demand a society that treats us as human being rather than criminals or victims. Whilst many of us have experienced violence at work, and whilst many of us live with the scars that leaves behind, we take today to remind the world that sex workers have voices and that our lives are valuable.
We are parents, siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, colleagues, friends, strangers, loved ones, lovers, activists, and artists. But most of all, sex workers are people who deserve rights, respect, and the ability to live a life free from the risk and fear of violence.