Below is my speech for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers event in New York.
The night had an amazing turn out, and NBC followed up on a story they did on Thursday (which features me as a former prostitute talking about violence) about the discovery of bodies in Long Island and a potential serial killer. Video clip below of probably the best television coverage our community has gotten.
Thank you for joining us. Iâ€™m Audacia Ray, and as a former sex worker who is very devoted to this movement, Iâ€™m very glad to see all of you here tonight.
I consider everyone in this room to be a stakeholder in ending violence in our communities. Thank you for being present and standing together against the violence that people in the sex trade experience on a daily â€“ really, hourly â€“ basis.
So letâ€™s talk a little bit about violence, even though itâ€™s hard to hear and hard to bear.
This day â€“ the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers â€“ was created seven years ago after the conviction of serial killer Gary Ridgway, who was sent to prison for 48 counts of murder. He later admitted to killing more than 90 women over a twenty-year period. The vast majority of these women were sex workers.
Ridgway famously said, â€œI picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.” On Thursday, Joel Rifkin â€“ who killed 17 Long Island sex workers over a 4 year span â€“ laughed when he gave the Daily News the reason serial killers target sex workers: “No family – they can be gone six or eight months, and no one is looking.”
Although these are the assumptions that are made about sex workers again and again â€“ we are here together tonight to prove that sex workers do have family, we do have people who care when we donâ€™t come home. Our families are made by blood, by choice, and by love. The idea that no one cares when we go missing comes from people who donâ€™t care. We care and we are the experts on our own lives and experiences.
The violence that makes the news is violence done by serial killers, but that kind of violence is a symptom of greater ills. It is horrifying, and I feel cold and alone when I think about the sex workers who have met their end at the hands of these men. But the violence that sex workers experience is a deeper and more complex thing than mentally ill men killing vulnerable women.
Because prostitution is illegal in New York and all kinds of sex work â€“ like professional domination, stripping, and others – are stigmatized, sex workers are vulnerable to violent acts that they canâ€™t report. A study conducted among street-based sex workers in New York reported that 80% of sex workers interviewed had experienced violence on the job, and 27% experienced this violence at the hands of police. In a study in Europe that was conducted in eleven countries, it was discovered that 74% of the sex workers interviewed said that they did not feel it was safe or effective to report instances of violence to the police.
The legal and cultural forces that make it very difficult for sex workers to avoid violence and nearly impossible for sex workers to get help are forms of institutional violence. All sex workers are subject to institutional violence, but we are especially when we are transgender or young or people of color or queer or HIV positive or mentally ill or drug users.
I want to tell you a bit about the experiences that sex workers in Uganda have with institutional violence.
Public health clinics that offer HIV testing and treatment services in Uganda regularly deny sex workers access to care and withhold anti-retroviral medications on the grounds that there are other people, whose jobs are legal and who arenâ€™t engaged in immoral activities, who are more deserving of treatment. Some health care workers regard time and HIV/AIDS resources spent on sex workers as a waste.
Last month a Sex Workers Leadership Institute in Kampala, organized by an African feminist group, was shut down by Ugandaâ€™s Minister of Ethics and Integrity. A letter to the hotel hosting the conference stated that â€œprostitution is a criminal offence in Ugandaâ€ and as a result â€œthe hotel is an accomplice in an illegality.â€ The Ugandan Constitution affirms the right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association â€“ but not for sex workers, apparently.
Just days later, a police commander in Western Uganda ordered his police force to raid bars and streets where sex workers congregate. On this night, the police delivered beatings to everyone whom they perceived to be a sex worker. About twenty women spent the night in jail and the women who were not detained were forced to pay fines to the police. There were no charges made against the women â€“ which means that they were unlawfully detained.
This is what institutional violence looks like.
And the reason Iâ€™m telling you about someplace far away is not because this isnâ€™t happening here, but because sometimes it is easier to see these things in a culture that you are not immersed in. The same kinds of things are happening right here, and we are connected to sex workers in Uganda and other places around the world by this struggle for our human rights.
So letâ€™s talk about violence.
Violence is being called a whore by an intimate partner who is ashamed of what you do. Violence is when the media ungenders you and uses your birth name because you are a woman and trans. Violence is when your client demands sex without a condom, and you comply because youâ€™re afraid what heâ€™ll do if you donâ€™t. Violence is when you donâ€™t want to be a sex worker at all, but it is the highest paying work you can find. Violence is when you are denied access to public housing because you have a prostitution conviction. Violence is when child services deems you an unfit parent because you are a sex worker. Violence is when an entire country â€“ this one â€“ denies you entry because you have been a sex worker or a drug user. Violence is when you are a minor and are treated as a victim, no matter what you say about your experience. Violence is when you are â€œrescued,â€ forced into a rehabilitation program, and given a sewing machine so you can lead a more honorable life working in a sweat shop. Violence is when the country you live in doesnâ€™t treat you like a full citizen, but instead regards you as a criminal â€“ and all because you are trying to make a living.
Tonight we are going to hear from sex worker rights advocates who care about stopping all of these kinds of violence that exist in our communities. Together, we have many ideas, and many solutions. And together, we must support each other â€“ not just in doing the work to create a better world for people in the sex trade; but in the hardness of the world against us, we must support each other emotionally through these struggles.