Terrorism Against Sex Workers: It’s Time to Take a Stand

For the past 7 years, December 17th has been recognized by sex workers and their allies as a day to recognize that violence against sex workers is endemic to many societies. It is also a day to commit energy toward making the cultural and working conditions of sex work safer. This is very different from simply telling people not to be sex workers. (Imagine criminalizing the mining industry and jailing miners as a way to protect them; imagine how much more dangerous the mining industry would be if there were no health and safety regulations in place). The work of making any cultural and work environment safer for all is to recognize the right of individuals to be agents over their own bodies, to achieve personal livelihood, and to live a life free of terror.

This work, on a larger scale, also entails the recognition of the potential social value of sex work. This does not mean that all sex workers love their job, any more than all miners love theirs; what it does mean is that it is not enough to listen only to the tragic stories (reaffirming the notion that people involved in this work must be punished), while covering ones eyes and ears to other stories (which suggest that the work is not intrinsically dangerous, evil, or otherwise worthy of punishment). As academics, policy makers, and citizens we don’t have to personally become providers or consumers of sex work (or the mining industry) to have compassion. But we must take seriously people’s claims that they, their families, and their communities can benefit economically or socially from their work, and ask what it is that we can do to make their work safer.

This year’s Dec. 17 vigils, at least in the US, will be tinged with a new sense of urgency given the recent discovery of four bodies in Long Island, some or all of whom were women sex workers. Targeted violence on this scale is a form of war, of terrorism, of outright hatred for a particular category of people. Can you imagine the media and political response if the bodies were of children, or of politicians, or a particular ethnic or religious group?

Today, and all this week, a number of progressive media outlets are featuring stories about the importance of Dec. 17 anti-violence vigils. RH Reality Check has a series, including an excellent one written by Rosie Campbell and Shelly Stoop entitled ”Treating Violence Against Sex Workers as a Hate Crime.”

Other good reading:

This post was originally published at the blog “Sexuality and Society.” Photo from the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) also from the Sexuality and Society blog: more red-umbrella-campaign images available from the ICRSE website.


  1. granted that sex workers should be able to operate without threat of violence, harm, disease, etc.—what are the "potential social benefits of sex work?" (I'm not being contrary, I would really like to know).

    • HI Catherine, I appreciate your question; it's an important one to discuss and consider especially since the great bulk of formal research is institutionally biased against even asking this question; hence data is largely anecdotal, or from small, or less recognized studies (many dissertations, masters thesis and other papers have evidence of this). Funding for studies of sex work in the US is extremely limited, and mostly conflated with research about trafficking [Dept. of Justice funds to study trafficking are limited to researchers who certify that they are anti-prostitution in all forms (Weitzer 2010).] We do see a few published studies from outside the US asking this question, however, including one recently published in the UK which discusses the compassion and value of professional sex workers to disabled men (2007, Disability & Society). … I look forward to more discussions like this in the future!

    • Wouldn't you say that sexual satisfaction is a benefit for itself? Also, human touch, be it sexual or other, has a immense healing power, even if it doesn't take place in an intimate relationship.

  2. LEGALIZE IT NOW!!! I’m moving to Nevada to defend sex work using The Big Sort! a strategy that enables political minorities to win.

  3. The fact is that there is no such thing as healthy or safe sex work. It’s not an act meant to be bought and sold so it’s an oxymoron and futile to attempt it. Energy and resources would be better utilized in raising sex workers out of slavery and into productive, healthy industries and careers.

    True feminists would never sell themselves or others!!

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