If you passed by the Turkish or Swedish consulates in New York on Friday, you may have seen a knot of sex workers and their supporters holding red umbrellas — both as a symbol of sex workers’ rights and a shield against the sun on what was the hottest day of the year. The protestors, about a dozen at their peak, kept a spirited vigil over several hours, chanting, passing out fliers, and fielding questions from midtown Manhattan’s business attire class. One man on the Park Avenue sidewalk in front of the Swedish consulate asked nervously, “Are you all… professionals?” Some protestors turned their heads and smiled.
The New York action accompanied rallies in 36 cities and on four continents for an international day of action demanding an end to the stigma and violence against sex workers’ communities. Two recent murders sparked the protests: of Dora Özer, a sex worker and trans woman from Kuşadası in Turkey who was stabbed by a man posing as a client on July 9, and of Petite Jasmine, a sex worker and mother of two children stabbed by her ex-husband in Sweden on July 11. Calls for justice for Dora and Jasmine, prompted by the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), spread quickly through social media in the week leading up to Friday’s actions.
“In two countries with completely different approaches employed to sex work, gender equality and trans recognition, only two days apart, two sex workers were fatally stabbed,” ICRSE said in a statement released in advance of the protests. In Turkey, sex work isn’t illegal per se, but is tightly regulated by the state. Licensed brothels have been demolished by developers as part of “restoration” and gentrification campaigns. A city official in Ankara told a reporter that to continue to permit brothels to operate would be like “remodeling your own house without cleaning the kitchen, which is occupied by cockroaches. As much as you redecorate and sterilize, if you don’t kill the cockroaches in the kitchen, does such a kitchen belong in your new house?”
Trans sex workers in Turkey, such as Dora, have been particularly targeted under this “modernization” scheme, subject to fines, arrests and increased violence from both police and the public. Anti-transgender violence in Turkey has prompted Human Rights Watch to investigate and demand a stronger government response to targeted killings of transgender women.
Sweden’s laws, like Turkey’s, theoretically permit women to sell sex, but because buying sex is illegal, sex workers have no legal way to operate. As a result, sex workers face evictions from landlords who don’t want run afoul of the law, surveillance by police trying to catch their customers, and arrests and detentions to secure their testimony against men who buy sex, all in the name of “protecting” them. The ideological underpinning of Sweden’s anti-sex work law is that all sex work is violence, therefore anything — even, apparently, the violence administered by law enforcement — is promoted by the state as preferable to sex work.
After nearly 15 years under these laws, there’s no evidence that the purchase of sex has declined in Sweden, or that people who sell sex are any better off. Still, in a 2010 evaluation, the Swedish government declared the so-called “Swedish model” a success, and claimed that any of its negative consequences, including increased stigma against sex workers “must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution.” (Under that logic, if a state wants to eradicate sex work, it may do so by eradicating sex workers.)
Sex workers consider the promotion of the Swedish model and other forms of criminalization not just part of an ongoing “debate” on sex work, but a matter of life and death. “Neither of these approaches to sex work recognize that stigma and discrimination against sex workers leads to violence and abuse,” stated ICRSE. “Rather than the state condoning and perpetuating this stigma, states must work with sex workers to challenge the marginal status of sex workers.” Friday’s international actions were meant both to call states to account and to serve as an antidote to stigma by making sex workers visible as workers and as people with rights.
“Dora was a talented, beautiful 24-year-old transgender woman who was well known and well loved among her fellow sex workers and within the trans community,” Bahar Akyurtlu, who organized the New York protest, told those gathered outside the Turkish consulate. “Where usually this kind of brutality is met with silence from the police and the public, Dora’s murder lit a spark.”
“Like, Dora, I’m Turkish and I’m trans,” she continued. “But make no mistake, I’m not here for Dora alone.”
Akyurtlu told In These Times she was inspired to launch a New York action after reading reports in Turkish media of protests in eight cities in Turkey in Dora’s name. “Then I found out about the international day of actions for Dora and for Jasmine,” she says. She announced New York’s protest on Facebook with two days notice, and was joined on Friday by members of Sex Workers Outreach Project New York City (SWOP-NYC), New York Harm Reduction Educators (NYHRE), and Persist Health Project, a New York based peer-run health partnership for people in the sex trades. This was the first action like this she had organized. “I’m not part of any sex workers’ rights organizations,” said Akyurtlu. “But it’s really hard to be trans and not have any friends who are sex workers.”
Jasmine, who was murdered by her ex-husband, was a sex worker rights’ activist and a board member of the Rose Alliance, an association of sex workers in Sweden. She’d sought out help from the Rose Alliance after her ex-husband told social services that she was a sex worker. In response, social services removed her children from her custody, while allowing her abusive ex-husband to continue seeing them. “During the investigation regarding her parental skills,” said Rose Alliance coordinator Pye Jacobson, “[social services] told her she was lacking insight into the damage her sex work caused.” A judge later granted Jasmine partial custody, said Jacobson, “but pointed out that it was a problem that she failed to realize that sex work was ‘a form of self-harm.’ ” This is the Swedish model in action: When sex workers want help, they are told they aren’t fit to be helped if they continue to do sex work.
“Even if Dora and Jasmine’s murders weren’t directly caused by policies” that use stigma to “end demand” for sex work, said Leigh, a SWOP-NYC member at the Manhattan protest, “they were definitely a massive contributing factor, which made people less willing to take sex workers’ claims seriously. Some people say the mission of ‘end demand’ laws is kinder to sex workers, but they are possibly as equally damaging as the full criminalization of sex work.”
Proponents of bringing the Swedish model to the United States — like Equality Now, Demand Abolition, and some other mainstream feminist groups — are at a bit of an impasse. Selling and buying sex are both illegal in the most of the U.S., so instead they push for higher penalties for buying sex and stepped-up stings against customers, along with public shaming campaigns. That the Swedish model failed to produce a positive outcome for sex workers in Sweden — and even exposed them to harm — has not stopped the Swedish model’s international supporters from claiming they, too, want to “help” sex workers by increasing stigma against sex work.
Criminalization and its associated stigma directly jeopardize the health and safety of sex workers, says Yale public-health student Hannah Mogul-Adlin, who attended the protest. As a summer intern at Persist, the peer-run health project for people in the sex trade, Mogul-Adlin is helping the organization with a report on their recent focus groups in New York. “A lot of people talked about stigma and not wanting to disclose [having been in the sex trade] to their health care providers,” she says. “They thought they’d not treat them and their whole health. Because of stigma, people aren’t getting the care they need.” For this reason and others, last year the Global Commission on HIV and the Law recommended the repeal of laws against sex work. They are joined by Human Rights Watch and the World Health Organization in identifying criminalization as a public health and human rights threat.
In addition to New York’s protests, sex workers organized demonstrations in London, Melbourne and more than 30 other cities. In Las Vegas, sex workers and supporters marched on the strip on Wednesday night, in concert with an already-planned action during the Desiree Alliance’s national sex worker conference. For a time on Friday, the hashtag #stigmakills registered nearly 800 tweets in a single hour on Twitter. That social media organizing gave a voice to sex workers who cannot risk the costs of publicly participating. Those who did turn out on the streets still gave up work to do so. As London organizer Violet Rose tweeted, the costs of putting the protests on were supported in part by doing sex work.
When sex workers and supporters confronted New Yorkers in an unexpected setting — outside their offices — public misperceptions and judgments became quickly visible and sometimes melted away. Though a very small number of men clearly used the protest as an opportunity to try to flirt with women they assumed were all sex workers (and working for free), many more people simply paused to get a flier from protestors before rushing on with their day. A security guard who said he was sent by the U.S. State Department joked with protesters, when he would not identify himself, about having a “street name.” The man who stopped to talk at length on the sidewalk on Park Avenue outside the Swedish consulate, after getting over his initial confusion and asking a lot of questions, told the protesters “It’s an atrocity this is criminalized.”
“Now more than ever,” organizer Bahar Akyurtlu told those gathered on Friday, “we know that there are no human rights without sex workers’ rights.” They raised their red umbrellas in the direction of the consulate’s windows and cheered.