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Working In These Times

Sunday, Jan 10, 2010, 5:53 am

Sex Workers Risk Violence, Arrest—What Can be Done?

BY Kari Lydersen

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How do you protect your rights as a worker if the very job you are doing is illegal?

Studies have shown sex work is one of the more dangerous jobs out there. December 17 marked an international day to end violence against sex workers.

The high profile "Craigslist killing" last spring was just one example of the risks sex workers face on the job every day. Physical violence is common, as is wage theft, not to mention the emotional toll taken by handling social stigma and the constant risk of arrest.

Sex workers advocacy groups are often at odds as to how to best protect the rights and needs of sex workers. Some groups and advocates say targeting “demand” is essential to reducing violence against sex workers and helping them leave the lifestyle if they so choose. They often advocate increasing law enforcement action against johns and pimps while de-criminalizing sex work itself, not legalizing it but rather steering sex workers to resources and social services instead of criminal proceedings.

The Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation has been a leader on this front, including working with the Cook County sheriff to sue Craig’s List over its erotic services listings. That lawsuit was dropped in October.

Other groups, including the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP, covered previously on this blog by Michelle Chen) and the Desiree Alliance, oppose the idea of ending demand by targeting clients of sex work with criminal prosecution and things like “John School.” They say such measures end up hurting women (and men) engaged in sex work, by increasing law enforcement involvement in the issue as a whole and making it harder for sex workers to make a living.

These differing approaches have made for much contention especially around anti-trafficking legislation and policy. But there is nearly unanimous agreement in the field that sex workers are denied the most basic workers' rights,  including the right to be paid in full for services rendered, to not be physically or mentally harmed and the right not to be forced to work against one’s will. These of course could be considered not only basic workers' rights but essential human rightsy—yet they are violated regularly and with impunity in the course of many sex workers’ lives.

On July 25-30, the Desiree Alliance is holding its national conference in Las Vegas, described as “a national convergence of sex workers and our allies to help build a stronger and more diverse sex worker rights movement and create discussion surrounding the issues many sex workers face today.”

Proposals for presentations are open through March 1; one does not need to be a sex worker to suggest a presentation or work shop. Organizers are seeking proposals specifically on five tracks: Academic and Policy, Activism,  Arts & Media, Business Development, and Harm Reduction and Outreach. (Proposals can be sent to Additionally, discounted advance registration closes Jan. 15.)

The previous two conferences were held in Chicago and San Francisco. Last year’s theme was “Sex work and social justice.”

Serpent, a co-founder of the Chicago Sex Workers Outreach Project, thinks the rights of sex workers have gained much awareness in recent years, but there’s still a long way to go.

“People need to understand, ‘Hey it’s just a job like any other job,’” she said.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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