Can We End Violence Against Sex Workers?

This article is part of a series published by RH Reality Check to commemorate the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, December 17th, 2010. See all articles in this series here.

December 17th marks the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.  Sex workers and their allies, clustered in intimate gatherings in cities around the world, will light candles and read aloud the names of sex workers who have been victims of violence.  These names will echo into a world indifferent to their suffering. 

The event will likely pass with barely a whisper of media notice, and many women’s rights groups will ignore or remain blithely unaware of the occasion.  It is an uncomfortable global truth that we do not regard violence committed against non-trafficked sex workers as violence against women.   

Our staunch moral judgment of individuals who by choice or circumstance participate in the sex industry –- buttressed by laws that criminalize, stigmatize, and condemn many of them to unsafe working conditions without police protection – results in the shatteringly silent incidents of rapes, assaults, and murders of sex workers.  This unforgiving moral judgment is unfair.  Most sex workers are trying to do the best they can for themselves and their families in choosing among the options life presents them.  

Why do we not view violence against sex workers as violence against women, or that against gay or transgender sex workers as part of “gender-based violence?”  Because we rarely view sex workers through a multi-dimensional prism of personhood.  Our distaste for their work and our beliefs about their ethical posture denies their womanhood and disallows us from registering violence against sex workers as violence against women. 

Many sex workers reject this moralized dismissal of their personhood.  Several years ago I had the good fortune of collaborating on a human rights project with empowered sex workers in India.  I still remember one sex worker defiantly noting:

“In the past we thought that sex work was not a good thing and anything bad that happened to us we just accepted it and cried.  But we learned that we deserve to be treated not as good or bad but as women.”

Our underlying moral judgment of sex workers may also account for why many women’s rights groups do not actively package and promote violence against non-trafficked sex workers as an urgent issue of violence against women.

Women’s rights advocates are often more comfortable focusing their attention on violence against victims of sex trafficking who are forced into prostitution via threats, abduction, or economic exploitation.  These trafficked sex workers fit more squarely into society’s moral paradigm of the ‘innocent victim’ than non-trafficked female, transgender, male, and gay victims of violence who may choose to participate in the sex trade.

Feminists, conservative politicians, and religious groups have formed an unlikely alliance that perpetuates this hierarchy of victimhood, which marginalizes the pain of non-trafficked sex workers whose moral positioning is less palatable to the vast majority who disapprove of what they do.  This hierarchy renders us less sensitive to their suffering and leaves many women’s rights groups strangely silent on instances of violence against non-trafficked sex workers. 

Sex trafficking, let me be clear, is rightly condemned as an international crime worthy of sustained eradication efforts.  But in their zealous efforts to fight global sex trafficking, many women’s rights advocates have supported raids of brothels that have often led to violence perpetrated against non-trafficked sex workers. 

The Indian sex workers I partnered with were terrorized when an NGO-initiated raid led by local police purporting to rescue trafficked child prostitutes resulted in the arrest of 70 sex workers in the community, none of whom were victims or perpetrators of sex trafficking.

In seeking to ‘save’ underage trafficked sex workers, the advocates had perhaps unwittingly fostered violence against women who had bravely created a sex workers’ collective demanding freedom from societal and occupational abuse.  “We say, save us from saviors!” the Indian sex workers proclaimed.

Indeed, women’s rights advocates cannot justify violating the rights of one group of women while trying to save another.  Donors and advocates supporting anti-sex trafficking efforts must ensure that police anti-trafficking units are not engaged in abuses of non-trafficked sex workers.

Amid the lit candles and the haunting reading of names, I will attend a vigil to commemorate sex workers who have been assaulted, battered, and murdered, who we have chosen to criminalize instead of protect.  There will be signs and posters that say “violence against sex workers = violence against women.”  There will be passionate appeals for the building of broad women’s coalitions to decry this violence.  And, hopefully, there will not be an empty seat in the house.

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  • zeonglow

    It’s as wrong to be violent towards trafficked women too, but that’s more of a proof reading thing rather than what you really meant.

    Getting real numbers on this is always a problem; for example in the UK a women who gets a work permit for something and does sex work on the side would count as ‘trafficked’, giving a much larger number, but that’s not what anyone assumes that word means.  

    It is a very difficult to make rational judgements about this, the whole topic is so emotionally loaded.  I would be in favour of a complete repeal of all laws criminalising sex work, so it becomes as boring as any other industry, say hairdressing or plumbing.  Their is some evidence such a move could be popular if it was explained in the right way and politicians were just a little bit braver. 


  • cmarie

    This is getting more and more bizarre; the preoccupation with helping pimps exploit the women they traffic, the vast majority of whom are watched constantly to prevent them from escaping.  (please see subject field).  It’s as if you are saying “Joe beats his wife when the house isn’t clean so we are going to help her by making sure that house is always clean.”  Sounds to me more like you are helping Joe keep his hold over her.  Makes me wonder what kind of arrangement you have worked out with Joe.  If you really had any interest in helping Joe’s wife you will help her use the police and courts to: Divorce Joe, put him in jail, keep him in jail, secure sole custody of any kids so he can’t get to them either and of course make sure she gets the house and any other financial assets he has.  I do not understand why you are so anxious to pretend trafficked women (aka Joe’s wife) will be fine if only the courts and police leave her and the exploiter (Joe) alone.

  • julie-watkins

    Someone desperately poor, may choose sex work because that’s the “best” of what work is available, and s/he needs the money to live. Or, really, one doesn’t need to be desperately poor.

    If the women are “forced” by economic circumsatnces because the IMF or the local ruling class has grabbed nearly all the resources and use their money to buy government laws and policies so the income/wealth gap just gets wider … why are we trying to make their livelihood illegal rather than attacking the root cause, the unfair economic conditions? That seems almost like victim-blaming.

    If it’s job choice, why is it considered “bad”, except for sexual stereotypes? OK, the character in “Trading Places”, that’s fiction, … but why not? A friend of a friend aquaintance got paid for being a dominatrix for a while; it was money. I’ve talked with other friends who did factory or agricultural work for a while and they called it soul-stealing, they got out to something different as soon as they could. Unions or workers trying to form a union — there’s all sorts of complaints about wages cut 8% and being expected to produce 10%, etc., kind of bad behaviour by companies … but that’s not a scandal. But deciding to do sex work is. :-/

  • crowepps

    Sex work is a scandal only because the worker has multiple customers.  Being a ‘wife’ and providing sex to only one ‘customer’ for your support is considered ‘sacred’ even if the customer has a number of other service providers (like FLDS).  Being a ‘mistress’ or ‘concubine’ and providing sex to only one customer for your support is considered marginally okay.


    But a woman getting her support by providing sex to more than one customer at a time?  Quel Horror!  It’s almost like she thinks SHE gets to decide!

  • cmarie

    sad to see you censoring comments rather than debating.  I’ve followed this site for about two years and although I have frequently locked horns with other commenters I have learned a lot too.  The one thing I always had to admit was that rhrealitycheck didn’t censor reasonable comments.   I tend to follow both far right and far left blogs (seldom agreeing with anyone) because there’s obviously little to be learned in an echo chamber.  Frequently when people see their arguement starting to crumble they panic and start deleting comments.  You were one of the last of my blogs to start doing this.  Sorry to see it happen.

  • crixa

    No, it is not OK to view your husband or lover as a “client” and provide him sex on demand as a payment for financial security. It is sexual and economic ABUSE within the marriage. Women in abusive relationships certanly need help. They need access to safe shelters, free crisis consultations if they express the need in them and financial help to break free of economic dependency, that traps her in unequal and unhealthy relationship.

    Women deserve the right to have sex for their own plesure only or not to have any sex at all if they are so inclined. Women have the right for their own sexual desires and sex on their own terms for their own benefit.

    Healthy relationship, including marriage, is a union of two equal partners with no “clients” and no “sexual services”, if its not so in highly patriarchial societies – then you need to change marriage institute.

  • brady-swenson

    disagree with your assertion that we are censoring reasonable comments. We are not. In fact there are many unreasonable comments that are left published.  However, we must take action and delete posts that are both unreasonable and extremely uncivil.  Since you have been a reader and commenter here for some time I am sure you have run across some comments you would agree should be deleted.  Those comments that threaten or demean others or groups or classes of people add nothing to the discourse and deserve to be deleted. Those who repeatedly make these kinds of comments deserve to be removed from the site.

  • arekushieru

    Healthy relationship, including marriage, is a union of two equal partners with no “clients” and no “sexual services”,

    Well, change that to equal partners, full stop, but, otherwise I completely agree with you!

  • arekushieru

    If that’s what you got out of it, cmarie, I think you completely misinterpreted the article. 

    Because this article was aBOUT providing women with the resources to escape out from under the thumb of Joe (their husband) and Joe (their pimp).

    As another poster commented, coercion or job choice is not a reason to make prostitution illegal.  I would go even further to add that either case would make it even harder in this institution to get away from violent abusers.  Thus, I definitely think your assessment is not the route we should take if we want to deCREASE the incidence of violence.

  • crowepps

    Making prostitution illegal and having the cops arrest the woman for being a prostitute is exactly what guarantees the pimp a job.  She NEEDS the pimp to protect her from the cops, and from the customers who feel free to treat her terribly because they know the cops will protect the customer and punish the prostitute if she complains.


    If we really, truly wanted to end “trafficking” and stamp out the sex trade, the way to do it would be to make being a customer illegal and being a pimp illegal and have no laws at all to punish the girls and women in the sex trade.