Sex Workers Rise Up After Fatal Stabbings

Melissa Gira Grant

Supporters in Las Vegas hold red umbrellas symbolizing sex workers' rights.

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.

Melis­sa Gira Grant has writ­ten for Slate, the Guardian (UK), the New York Observ­er and Jezebel, among oth­ers. Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @melissagira.
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