Sex workers around the world fight back to end violence and create justice

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Today, December 17, sex workers, allies and advocates around the world will be marking the International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers. Begun ten years ago, this day honours and mourns sex workers who’ve been affected by violence and celebrates those who continue the struggle to end it.

Sex workers are enormously diverse and those most impacted by violence, stigma and inequality are more likely to be those caught in the web of multiple forms of oppression and criminalization. Poor, street-based, drug-using, migrant, Black, Indigenous, people of colour, trans and young sex workers are especially likely to be targeted by police and predators and face the harshest impacts of the criminalization sex work. It is often their names called at December 17 vigils.

This December 17 is especially poignant as it comes just days before the Supreme Court of Canada releases their historic decision on whether to strike down three significant laws regulating sex work that have led to a dramatic increase in mortality among people in the sex industry since they were introduced in 1985.

The decriminalization of sex work would substantially increase protection for workers -- and especially for those already living at the margins.  

Around the world, sex workers fight back -- so we asked a few: what are sex workers in your area and communities doing to end violence and to create sex worker justice?

Native Youth Sexual Health Network:

Indigenous youth in the sex trade, industry and economies -- among many other ways they may choose to identify -- persistently provide our communities with models for living self-determination (decisions over their bodies). This is an active form of resisting state violence, ongoing forms of colonialism and living Indigenous forms of justice.  They’re doing this by reclaiming sex positivity in their nations, resisting gender binaries, building family and challenging the reasons why our bodies and communities are criminalized.  

As youth impacted by multiple intersecting issues, they are at the centre of some of the most creative approaches in our communities at resisting colonial violence; reclaiming inherent rights to their bodies and the spaces they are in.


Elene Lam, former Director of Zi Teng (Hong Kong and Asia):

The migrant sex worker faces double criminalization of sex work and illegal working status. The discussion of trafficking assumes every woman is a victim, but always you can see underneath this idea, is just more law! This makes it worse and puts people more underground.

In the last few years more and more sex workers are campaigning together, at international conferences, or using arts like photography and writing to speak out and share their own stories. Sex workers in Hong Kong, in Asia and internationally are getting their voices out. We try to use December 17 to let people know that we are facing different kinds of violence like murder and sexual assault. People should not focus just on arresting perpetrators but on changing the law.


Empower Foundation, Thailand:

Men’s violence is a normal part of life for billions of wives, lovers, children, boys and men in every part of the world whatever their occupation. People in most danger from men’s violence in the world are people married to or living with men: daughters, sons and stepchildren of men, lovers of men, people who don’t love men except if they are men too, single widowed divorced people, people employed by men, people visiting areas where there are men, of special mention any contact with armed men in uniforms or religious leaders and those people who live in countries governed by a majority of men.   

It is not unusual for anyone of any age or occupation in the world to meet a violent man.

Violent men usually prefer to find ways to be violent that don’t cause him to think less of himself, to be punished or to be looked down on by others. If being violent against someone in his intimate circle is not a good option he needs to find someone who he and the rest of society can agree is someone who deserves to be attacked…he needs to find someone who society does not support, acknowledge or protect under the law. Supporting laws that criminalize our work, our customers, our workplaces; imposing legal special regulations like zoning; perpetuating the stigma and myths of sex workers as bad women or pathetic victims all foster violence against us -- is that a kind of violence too?


Maggies: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project:

Sex workers have the solutions to the problems we face. Among these are honouring treaty rights, affordable housing, respectful health care and substance treatment, an end to poverty and an overhaul of the child welfare system. Another is to pull the anti-prostitution laws off the backs of the sex workers who are harmed -- not helped -- by them. For decriminalization of prostitution to truly make a difference in our lives, sex workers must be in leadership roles for all decision making about regulations that impact our safety and livelihood including: zoning and licensing, control over the conditions and locations of our work, human rights and labour rights protections, the right to organize as workers.

Click here to find out about vigils happening in your area.

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Chanelle Gallant is an intersectional feminist activist and part of Maggie’s: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project.

Photo: flickr/PJ Starr

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