On Dec. 17 sex workers all over the world congregated to remember lives lost and assert their rights. International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, held each December for the past eleven years, is both a somber day and one of agitating for the basic human rights and respect that all people deserve. It’s an uneasy topic for a lot of folks. Sex work — encompassing prostitution, exotic dancing, pornography, and more — is not exactly polite elevator conversation. (Well, maybe it depends on what elevator you’re in …) And yet, as the saying goes, it is one of the oldest professions.
At its core, the day and the movement for sex worker rights in general begs the question: Are sex workers worth less than “normal” people? This very question was the subject of a piece in the LA Times on Tuesday.
It’s is [sic] also a time for the general public to acknowledge that sex workers are not faceless victims but people who deserve more than to die violently and be forgotten.
Incidents of violence against sex workers are all too common, but two recent cases highlight the continuing importance of this day of remembrance. Last year, Deanna Ballman, a 23-year-old pregnant mother of two, was raped and killed after answering an ad on Craigslist, according to a recent court filing by a Columbus, Ohio, prosecutor. The Associated Press reported that Ballman was working as a prostitute to support herself and her two young children. Ali Salim, a former doctor who was recently charged with her killing, is alleged to have injected Ballman with a lethal dose of heroin. Her body was found in her car on the side of a rural road in central Ohio.
Are sex workers’ lives worth less than everyone else’s? An attorney in New York recently argued in the affirmative, telling a judge that his client was being too harshly punished for the murder of a transgender sex worker. His client, Rasheen Everett, was sentenced to 29 years for the murder of Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar. But attorney John Scarpa said the sentence was too severe because the victim, after all, was not part of “a higher end of the community,” and “shouldn’t that [sentence] be reserved for people who are guilty of killing certain classes of individuals?”
These cases are horrific, and they merit more than a mere blip on a news feed. They highlight the regular violence sex workers face in the United States. But criminalization and the stigma that surrounds sex work make it harder for the victims to report cases of violence.
Zeus in heaven, are there really people willing to stand up in court and argue that a sex worker’s life is worth less than someone at “a higher end of the community”? I’m going to be sick. And what is it exactly that makes that sex worker’s life worth less? Their vocation? Their status as transgender? This open admission that some people’s lives are disposable while others warrant protection is repulsive and genuinely uncivilized. Really, is that a civilized argument?
The reality of sex work is an open topic here in Sin City. Nevada is the only state with legalized prostitution, with exceptions. It is only legal in counties with populations under a certain amount, which makes it illegal in Clark County (Las Vegas), Washoe County (Reno), Carson City, and Douglas and Lincoln counties. Basically, prostitution is still illegal in the counties that hold 90 percent of the state’s population and which are tourist epicenters.
Meanwhile, sex work (in non-prostitution) forms enjoys marquee status in Las Vegas. Here in Sin City the local feminist community is full of sex workers, even as mainstream feminism has a very uncomfortable relationship with the trade and its workers. We have the strip club billed as the largest in the world. On any given day you can find yourself in traffic behind a taxi emblazoned in ads with naked butts (or worse, depending on your feelings about nudity and hyper-sexualized advertising). And then there are the lines of people on The Strip who push handbills advertising “direct to you” services. Indeed, ten years ago then-mayor Oscar Goodman proposed a red light district on The Strip.
“I’m throwing the idea out. I want to hear what the people have to say. I’m not advocating anything at this point. 15 out of the 17 counties in Nevada apparently don’t think it’s immoral. It’s not illegal, and it’s something that the public should really consider because there’s a tremendous amount of money that could be raised as a good source of tax revenue here,” stated Mayor Goodman.
In fact, Nevada has shown a decidedly capitalist bent toward sex work. Long considered sacred, in terms of taxation at least, earlier this year politicians at the Nevada Legislature considered levying a new eight-percent tax on brothels. It failed, but raised the question of why brothels escape a wide array of traditional business taxes, especially in a state that has been hardest hit by the economic downturn and housing market crash leaving it with record budget deficits.
But it’s not all laissez-faire about sex work, even in Nevada. Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid has become increasingly aggressive in lobbying against the continued legal status of sex work in the Battle Born state.
“Nevada needs to be known as the first place for innovation and investment – not as the last place where prostitution is still legal,” he said in a speech to the Nevada Legislature [in 2011]. …
“We should do everything we can to make sure the world holds Nevada in the same high regard you and I do,” Reid continued. “If we want to attract business to Nevada that puts people back to work, the time has come for us to outlaw prostitution.”
So, it seems, even here in Nevada the question of sex work is open-ended. But does that mean that sex workers should not be afforded the same intrinsic rights as any other person in any other vocation? Can what you do for a living really be justification for violence, rape, or even murder?
The ACLU of Northern California is celebrating a recent court victory which will allow sex workers who are victims of sexual assault to get compensation — just like any other survivor of rape — from California’s Victim Compensation Fund.
The California Victim Compensation Program (CalVCP) is a vital state program that provides resources and financial assistance to California residents who have been victimized or have lost a loved one to murder. They provide vital assistance for trauma recovery, mental health, medical bills, lost wages and even burial services for survivors who do not have the means to pay for critical, but often very costly, services. For many survivors of rape and other sexual violence, the CalVCP allows men, women, and children to heal both physically and mentally from the brutalization they endured.
Before last week, this discriminatory regulation excluded sex workers, sending a terrible message to victims of rape as well as perpetrators of sexual violence – that some survivors of sexual violence are to blame. It was an endorsement of the antiquated notion that victims deserve to be raped – she wanted it because she wore that mini skirt, or that she deserved it because she got that drunk, or that it was inevitable because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
No person, no matter what, deserves to be raped or to be blamed for that rape.
That seems obvious. But, apparently, it wasn’t.
Perhaps that’s why the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers is so important. We don’t have to agree about whether or not we like sex work to be disturbed by the routine acts of violence against people. After all, if the argument against sex work is one of so-called morality, isn’t it equally immoral to turn our backs on victims of violent crimes? Jesus hung out with prostitutes, so they can’t be all bad. (Actually, in my experience interviewing sex workers and working with them on feminist campaigns, I have found sex workers to be almost universally kind and generous.)
Every person deserves to be afforded the respect of simple humanity. None of us are free when any one of us are oppressed by unchecked violence.