Stopping the Terror: A Day To End Violence Against Prostitutes

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

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 working as a prostitute myself for two decades 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.  Many of us are out and proud, and spend a lot of time trying
to explain to the public that we freely choose our work and we are not
"victims." But the truth is, some of us have been, or will become, real
victims of rape, robbery and horrendous crimes.

When Ridgeway got a plea bargain in 2003, he received a life sentence
in exchange for revealing where his victims’ bodies were thrown or
buried. As the names of the (mostly 17- to 19-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
(SWOP) based in San Francisco and we made December 17th as the
International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.  We invited
people everywhere to conduct memorials and vigils in their countries
and cities. Robyn co-produced an open-mike vigil on the lawn of San
Francisco’s City Hall.

Since 2003, each year hundreds of people in dozens of cities around the
world have participated in this day to end violence– from Montreal
where people marched with red umbrellas, to protests against police
brutaility in Hong Kong, a candlelight vigil in Vancouver, a memorial
ritual in Sydney, a dance to overcome pain and traum in East Godavery,
India. More events are planned for 2008, the sixth year of the event.

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.  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 SWOP website so others can attend them, and to share the
power 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. Two such non-profits are St. James Infirmary and AIM Healthcare.

This December 17, 2008 many sex workers will converge in Washington,
D.C. on for a National March for Sex Worker Rights where marchers "will
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." People
are encouraged to join SWOP and other activists in Washington and to
endorse this march.

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.

This piece was first posted on On The Issues Magazine.

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  • invalid-0

    I’ve been interested in sex workers’ issues and rights since at least 2000 when I saw the film “Live Nude Girls Unite” However, I’ve always been well aware of violence against prostitutes, which is such a freighted word, by the way.

    It is sickening that any human being is deemed expendable, but women and in particular women who are prostitutes being targeted for murder simply b/c they are indeed deemed expendable and also because they likely will not be “missed” is terrifying.

    The prostitutes murdered by the “Green River Killer” are the US equilvalent of the “disappeared” in Latin America and elsewhere. And we here in the States should be ashamed of ourselves for treating anyone as and letting any sister human be treated as expendable without comment or action.

    I cannot make it to DC on the 17th, but I will be marking the day to end violence agaisnt prostitues with sisters in NYC.

  • invalid-0

    Is the state covering up murder?

    By The Baltimore Examiner Newspaper
    – 12/7/08

    Why would the Maryland medical examiner refuse to release essential public information on hundreds of “undetermined” deaths?
    State law offers no exemption. The attorney general’s latest manual on our Public Information Act says these public records are open. Police have no objection. Families of the deceased want details out in the open.

    In fact, the attorney general specifically states legal exemption for private, personal medical records “does not protect from disclosure autopsy reports of a medical examiner,” and that even in criminal cases, “A custodian of investigatory records must nonetheless disclose them to any person, unless the custodian determines that disclosure would be ‘contrary to the public interest’ or unless other law would prevent disclosure.”

    State Medical Examiner Dr. David Fowler cannot or will not cite any “public interest” served by secrecy. He cannot or will not cite any statute or court ruling to justify withholding this public information.

    Spokeswoman Cindy Feldstein replied by e-mail to Reporter Stephen Janis only that “Location of incident is not public.”

    Wrong. For one thing, all government information is public. The only question is whether it is open or falls within precisely limited exceptions allowing secrecy.

    When in doubt about a government record, the attorney general makes it clear: “[The] general right of access to records is limited by numerous exceptions. … Given the PIA’s policy in favor of public access, and the requirement that the PIA ‘be construed in favor of permitting inspection of a record,’ these exceptions should be construed narrowly.”

    That means when in doubt, let it out.

    So, what is Fowler hiding? For whom and why? This government secrecy makes no sense.
    Here’s the story. In September, Janis filed an MPIA request for full names, ages, dates of death and locations of body for all women ruled “undetermined” in the past 10 years in Baltimore City.

    The medical examiner’s office provided only last names, and estimated dates and causes of death.

    Fowler won’t release the number of “undetermined” deaths since 2005, when there were 814 statewide. In 2004 Baltimore City had 341 of Maryland’s 807. That same year, Washington, D.C., had only 76.

    Undetermined deaths add nothing to the city’s murder rate. Police do not have to investigate them.

    In Baltimore three years ago, a community activist accused the city of covering up a serial strangler of prostitutes. Official response was vehement denial. Yet in 10 years, police solved only seven murders of 26 women with histories of prostitution.

    What we don’t know is how many of the “undetermined” deaths may have been murders. Families of some victims are convinced they were.

    Letting the public know their full names and where they died would be one small step toward either putting rumors to rest or killers behind bars.

    Killing streets
    Click on the headlines below for more from The Baltimore Examiner’s coverage of attacks against sex workers on the city’s streets.

    Who is killing the prostitutes?

    Prostitute tells harrowing tale of assault

    Dixon says city working hard to crack unsolved slayings

    Love of heroin greater than fear of danger for Baltimore sex worker

    Three minutes with Sidney Ford on protecting prostitutes

    ‘He thought I was dead’ – Baltimore woman identifies man charged with attacks on prostitutes

    Addiction, crime plague area where sesker’s body was found

    Baltimore police chief: Two of five stranglings probably aren’t related to others

    Allegations of serial predator shock Baltimore neighborhood

    Deaths on Baltimore City streets rattle local sex workers

    Suspected predator may face more charges

    Records: 5th Baltimore City strangling victim a prostitute

    Three more slayings of hookers remain unsolved from 2003, records show

    Special squad to investigate Baltimore stranglings

    Four prostitutes strangled since April

    Attorney: Police knew ‘serial rapist’ on the loose since ’05

  • invalid-0

    this was a wonderfully written article. i am now planning something for december 17th.

  • invalid-0

    I am the “community activist” referred to in the Baltimore Examiner editorial Frank Keegan posted. It has been my honor to work closely with Examiner reporter Stephen Janis, the author or lead author of the articles referred to above, to help draw attention to the deaths and serious assaults of prostituted women here. Twelve years ago, I founded YANA, You Are Never Alone, Maryland’s first organization serving women and children exploited through prostitution and human trafficking. Even though we may come at this from different perspectives, Annie, please know that I am (and YANA is) behind you 100% on the issue of no violence against people engaging in prostitution (or anyone, for that matter). On a related note, I am personally familiar with the attitude that Annie’s posted in her piece; the husband of one of my cousins (who was at that time an active EMT on an ambulance) met my passionate conversation about the deaths with the reply, “personally, I think the guy you’re talking about [the serial killer] is doing the world a favor.” I was nauseated by this, yet I’ve been on outreaches where objects have flown past my head, or where people have crossed the street to spit on the ground near my sisters-clients, or when I’ve been aggressed on, so I knew a little bit about the hatred. And that little bit doesn’t even touch the experiences women have told me and my volunteers about being beaten bloody, tied up against their will, cut, asphyxiated, sodomized, threatened with guns, knives and even injury to family members…the horrifying list of evil deeds just goes on and on. Anyway, thank you for addressing this; please be in touch with me if there is anything I can do to support your efforts. I wish I’d seen this before 12/17, although we’ve similarly done vigils/remembrances at various times. Time to do it again….

  • invalid-0

    All the stuff I read or I heard or I see about women or children abused made me sick. Why human nature is so unfair? I’ll pray for them.

  • invalid-0

    Coming from Brisbane Australia i had never heard of the animal that is Gary Ridgeway; what he did is sickening… to say the least.

    One of the things i found really amazing was that many of the escorts, prostitutes, bf’s or pimps were aware that Gary was (or could be) the ‘Green River Killer’… and when they came forward noone listened or did any real investigation.

    Think of all the lives that could have been saved..

  • invalid-0

    Why is it that we think less of sex workers than other people? Aren’t they people too? Shouldn’t we care about them just as much? This is an important article. Thanks!