Reposted with permission by SWOP-Philly
Community Contributed Article
The allied Philly journalist who wrote this article wishes to remain anonymous at this time.
On Thursday, December 17, concerned citizens around the globe will come together to support a segment of the population that far too often has been treated with disdain and neglect. The occasion is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Rallies and get-togethers will be held around the globe in support of commercial sex workers, many of whom live with very real fears of being a victim of physical/sexual violence. The date of December 17th was selected in remembrance of one of the most horrifying series of murders in American history. Over a period of more than 15 years, from July of 1982 through January of 1998, a total of 49 girls and women disappeared in King County, Washington (the county that includes the cities of Seattle and Tacoma) and were later found dead. The youngest victim was 15, the oldest 38; more than half were in their teens. Three victims were never identified. The unknown perpetrator was dubbed the Green River Killer by the media since some of the victims were found in or near that river. In November of 2003 Gary Leon Ridgeway pleaded guilty to 48 counts of murder and related charges in the case. The plea agreement stipulated he would not receive the death penalty. December 17, 2003 he was sentenced to 48 life terms in prison plus 480 additional years. More than a decade later however the final record of the horrors perpetuated by Ridgeway is still hazy and likely incomplete; in one prison interview he claimed to have killed 71 women while some estimate the total to be 90 or more. Many of Ridgeway’s victims were prostitutes and others marginalized by society, such as runaways. In fact the primary reason Ridgeway was spared the death penalty was to allow him an opportunity to account for the fate of his victims.
The first December 17 memorial observance was held the very day that Ridgeway was sentenced for his crimes. December 17th was organized by renowned sexologist, educator, and former prostitute Annie Spinkle and several of her associates, who became the driving force the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP-USA). Twelve years later December 17 has become a global endeavor. Last year in the United States alone there were some two dozen December 17-related events scheduled.
Derek Demeri is a co-founder of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, an organization that champions the human rights of sex workers:
“December 17 is a day when friends and members of the sex-worker community come together to publicly honor sex workers or victims of sexual lifestyle hate crimes whose lives we have lost,” he says. “While we mourn, heal and honor each other, our public gatherings remind the outside world of the daily reality of violence that so many do experience while in the sex trade and the lack of services available to aid those who need help.”
Demeri helped organize a December 17 remembrance in New Jersey last year, the first to be held in the Garden State. It was held in New Brunswick with the assistance of supporters from Rutgers University. The program featured a candlelight vigil and a public reading of the names of individuals who have died or been killed while working in the sex industry. There was also a series of three workshops on industry-related topics, one of them on the correlation between the criminalization of sex work and the risk of violence that sex workers face. This year’s NJRUA December 17 observance will be held in Newark and is being co- sponsored by the African-American Office for Gay Concerns. A candlelight vigil is due to be held at 6 p.m. that evening in front of Newark’s City Hall. Those who have been the victims of sexual violence are being encouraged to attend and share their stories. The threat of violence against sex workers is all too real.
In a survey of New York street-based prostitutes for a study compiled by Katherine Koster for SWOP Chicago, 80 percent of the respondents indicated they had been a victim of violence. While many were attacked by clients or pimps, 27 percent of the respondents reported that the perpetrators of the violence were in fact law enforcement officers.
Sex workers are often forced to ply their trade in the shadows and, as Demeri points out, those who wish them harm often crave the darkness. “They think because you are working that they can do whatever they want and they’re not going to get caught,” he says. And perhaps even more importantly, the sex worker who is a victim of violence may find themselves with few places to turn to for aid. If she seeks medical help she may find herself being ridiculed or condescended to. If she goes to the police she may encounter of the mindset of ‘You should have known this might happen’ or worse ‘You had it coming.’ And seeking justice from the legal system is, more often than not, an uphill fight. “What we’ve found in New Jersey,” Demeri says, “is that the lawyers aren’t willing to take on these cases, that lawyers are opening discriminating against sex workers.” And for the sex worker who has been victimized, finding an attorney willing to advocate for them is just the first step in the process. Often, there are no witnesses to this type of violence, a circumstance that often makes prosecutors, however well-intentioned they may be, reluctant to pursue charges against the perpetrators, and the perpetrators know that. All this explains why sex must be ever vigilant, whether they’re on the street, having a drink with a friend, or even watching their child’s soccer game. They must protect themselves at all times. This year’s series of observances will not bring back those who are gone.But they will help assure that they are not forgotten. And by bringing attention to the plight of sex workers, their supporters are telling the world, with a loud and clear voice, that those who work in the sex trade are people first with the same hopes and dreams we all share. And that message must be heard.
[December 17] is s a day to demand social change,”Demeri says, “because our lives depend on it.”