Remembering Our Dead and Wounded

Why We Started the International Day to End Violence Against Prostitutes

by Annie Sprinkle

For twenty years I worked as a prostitute at the best brothels in New York City (like Caesar’s Retreat and Spartacus Spa,) and even a few of the worst brothels in New York City, just for fun (like Pink Pussycat and the Hell Hole Hospital.) From 1973-1993 I was the epitome of the happy hooker who loved my work up until I eventually simply got bored with it. Over the years, like so many other sex workers, I was continually trying to explain to people that I freely chose my work, and I was not a “victim” in any way. This story is about acknowledging that I could easily have become a victim, that some prostitutes have been, or will become real victims of rape, robbery, bad laws, hate crimes, and horrendous crimes.

In 2003, “Green River Killer” Gary Ridgeway confessed to having strangled ninety women to death and having “sex” with their dead bodies. He stated, “I picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”

Sadly some Seattle area prostitutes, their boyfriends or pimps, knew the Green River Killer was Gary Ridgeway for years. But they were either afraid to come forward for fear of being arrested themselves, or when they did come forward the police didn’t believe them over the “upstanding family man” Gary Ridageway. It seemed as though the police weren’t working very hard to find the Green River Killer. If the victims had been teachers, nurses or secretaries or other women, I suspect—as Ridgeway did—that the killer would have been caught much sooner. Ridgeway remained at large for twenty years.

From many years of being in the sex industry I know that violent crimes against sex workers often go unreported, unaddressed and unpunished. There are people who really don’t care when prostitutes are victims of hate crimes, beaten, raped and murdered.  They will say: They got what they deserved. They were trash. They asked for it. What do they expect? The world is better off without those whores.

No matter how people feel about sex workers and the politics surrounding them, sex workers are a part of our neighborhoods, communities and our families and always will be. Sex workers are women, trans people and men of all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, classes and backgrounds who are working in the sex industry for a wide range of reasons

When Ridgeway got a plea bargain in 2003, he received a life sentence in exchange for revealing where his victim’s bodies were thrown or buried. As the names of the (mostly seventeen to nineteen year old) victims were disclosed, I felt a need to remember and honor them.  I cared, and I knew other people cared, too.

So I contacted Robyn Few, the founder of the Sex Worker Outreach Project based in San Francisco and we made December 17th the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.  Then she invited Stacey Swimme and Michael Foley to help her produce the first vigil. Then people everywhere were invited to conduct memorials and vigils in their countries and cities. Robyn co-produced an open mic vigil on the lawn of San Francisco’s City Hall, which I facilitated. Since then (2003) each year hundreds of people in dozens of cities around the world have participated in this day to end violence– from Montreal (they marched with red umbrellas), to Hong Kong (protested police brutality), to Vancouver (they did a candlelight vigil) to Sydney (held a memorial ritual), to East Godavery, India (a dance was organized to overcome pain and trauma, to London where they distributed sex worker rights information while Christmas caroling.) It looks like the Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers will continue for years to come.

The concept for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers is simple.  Anyone can choose a place and time to gather, invite others to gather and share their stories, writings, thoughts, poems, and memories of victims, related news and performances.  Read names of those who have been murdered. Or people can do something personal alone at home, such as lighting a candle or taking a ritual memorial bath.  We encourage discussions among friends, by email, on blogs. People are encouraged to list their events at the SWOPUSA web site so people that want to can attend them, and to share the results of their actions. People can also participate by making a donation to a group that helps sex workers by teaching them about dangers and how to best survive.

On December 17, 2008 about 100 sex workers marched on Washington, D.C. for the first time. They said “to take a stand for justice, and the freedom to do sex work safely. We are calling for an end to unjust laws, policing, the shaming and stigma that oppress our communities and make us targets for violence.”

Every year when I create or attend a gathering on December 17, it is a deeply moving experience. I take some moments to feel grateful that I worked as a prostitute for so many years and came out alive.  I remember those who didn’t survive and I fear for those who won’t unless real changes are made—namely safer working conditions and the same police protection other citizens get without recrimination.

The first edition of this piece was written for On the Issues FEminist Journal, and the second is for David Sterry’s anthology book by sex workers (coming soon.)

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