Trigger warning: violence against sex workers and mentions of sexual assault/rape.
THE first International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was held in 2003 as a memorial for the victims of one of America’s most prolific serial killers.
Now, almost two decades on the day is observed annually around the globe by sex workers and their allies, recognising and remembering victims and survivors of many more acts of violence than one man could ever commit.
In Australia, events to mark the occurrence are largely planned by Scarlet Alliance, the national body for sex workers and sex worker organisations, who have members in every state and territory.
The Alliance is non-for-profit and run by current and former sex workers.
“What we provide is a recognition of sex workers as experts on our lives, experts on the things that impact us,” said Gala Vanting, Scarlet Alliance’s national programs manager.
“We provide a sex worker voice in a lot of spaces where we may otherwise not be considered or be outright excluded.”
Scarlet Alliance advocates for the human rights, workers right and health of sex workers in Australia.
As a part of this mission, the organisation’s work is varied, including law and health reform, peer and community educating, and representing sex workers in media and government.
For the Day to End Violence, they will be hosting a number of events across the country, in person and online.
Many of these events will be vigils held by their member groups and peer organisers for those who have been lost to or harmed by violence.
“We are a super resilient community, but this, for us, is a day to be really reflective on the communities that we create and the people who often get left behind,” said Ms Vanting.
“The idea that sex workers are acceptable targets or people who won’t be noticed or missed is something we really resist.”
In this way, the Day to End Violence is a time to fight erasure, making sure those who are present, as well as those who have been lost, are rendered seen and important.
“On this day we really want to be as visible as possible, to make sure that the structural violence and a stigma against sex workers that enables attitudes that allow violence are challenged,” said Ms Vanting.
In New South Wales, one of the Alliances’ largest member groups, the Sex Worker Outreach Program, will be holding a memorial service, as well as a forum discussion on violence and how to challenge it.
Statistics on the specifics of violence against sex workers, or even the sex industry generally, can be difficult to find.
In 2008, a report by the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault estimated there was approximately 20,000 sex industry workers in Australia in any one year.
Of those workers, the report quoted findings that suggested between 15-60 per cent of sex workers had experienced sexual assault in their workplace and 45 per cent experienced rape in their lives outside of work.
“The perpetrators of the abuse and violence sex workers experience, while working, are not restricted to clients,” reported another study put out by the Australian Institute of Criminology on migrant sex workers.
This 2015 report found that close to 50 per cent of sex workers surveyed had experienced verbal abuse from employers, co-workers or government agents, while nearly 10 per cent had experienced physical violence.
Criminalisation is one of the major reasons that violence against sex workers is both as under-reported and prevalent as it is.
“If we experience something like assault or another crime committed against us at work to report that to an authority is, if you work in a criminalised place, potentially also admitting that you are doing something illegal,” Ms Vanting said.
Workers may fear state violence, including imprisonment and deportation, as well as more interpersonal violence committed by law enforcement and government officials that may abuse their legal power.
In 2012, a Kirby Institute survey of sex workers in NSW found that 46 per cent of sex workers would not feel comfortable taking a complaint to the police.
Currently, sex work is only criminalised in South Australia.
In other Australian states and territories regulations still often apply that criminalise certain types of sex work.
One of Scarlet Alliance’s largest campaigns, to date, involves the fight to decriminalise their work across the country.
“Seeing sex work as the same as any other work allows us to access a number of safety mechanisms that we are unable to access where we are criminalised,” said Ms Vanting.
Along with these structural factors, interpersonal factors such as day-to-day stigma also play a role in the prevalence of violence against sex workers.
To moralise or stereotype those in the sex industry can do very real harm, devaluing them in a way that normalises violence.
Ms Vanting said one way for allies to combat this effect, especially around the Day to End Violence, is call out whore-phobia, no matter how subtle, whenever it is seen.
The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers is observed annually on December 17.