When sex workers are not safe, no woman is safe

Perhaps you have been following the story. At least five women, all believed to have been prostitutes, have been found murdered in Suffolk County, England. Three have been identified. They are Gemma Adams, Tania Nicol, and Anneli Alderton. Two others have not yet been identified, but two women in the same are were reported missing and there is a fear that these two, Annette Nichols and Paula Clennell, might be the women whose bodies are awaiting identification.

The police are investigating. They appear to be taking the crimes very seriously. What distresses me is this: The message to prostitutes, and to women in general, has been this: “Stay off the streets.”

Here is the Chief Superintendent of police is quoted by CNN.com, speaking about prostitutes alone:

“I’m not sure what starker message there can be at the moment: Certainly three of their peer group have been murdered, now potentially another two,” said Chief Superintendent Stewart Gull of Suffolk police.

“Clearly it’s not safe, they need to stay off the streets.”

And here his assistant is quoted by the LA Times, speaking about prostitutes and women generally:

Assistant Chief Constable Jacqui Cheer has made repeated appeals to women on TV and radio since the first bodies were found:

“Please stay off the streets. If you are out alone at night you are putting yourself in danger. We are coming up to the party season and up to Christmas. There will be groups of women going out, and I would say you have really got to look after each other, plan how you are going to get there and come home together. Whatever happens on your night out, do not leave your friends alone.”

Of course — on an individual level — it makes sense, when the streets are dangerous, to stay inside. And I’m glad that the Chief Superintendent isn’t blaming the women directly for what happened to them.

But to tell workers not to do their jobs because to do so is dangerous, well, can’t remember the response to the on-the-job deaths of miners in the US over the last couple of years. The deaths of those workers generated tremendous anger at the mine owners, and increased calls for regulation of mining and for enforcement of worker protection rules.

After the Sago fire that killed 12 miners in West Virginia this past January, state and federal regulators enacted a flurry of new rules to improve the safety of mine workers. Forty six miners have been killed on the job this year. We don’t tell other miners not to go to work. We tell responsible agencies and employers to protect them.

There ought to be a parallel call here. There ought to be a call for strategies to make sex work safer. Sex work is work, and sex workers ought to be protected as other workers are protected. Destigmatizing sex work makes sex workers safer because they are freer to report threats against them, and decriminalization makes sex workers safer because workers can then, without fear, work directly with police to help catch dangerous johns. (It does not surprise me that in England, where small scale prostitution is largely decriminalized, that the police are doing a more serious job than, say, the Atlantic City police are doing to find the murderer who killed Molly Jean Dilts, Kim Raffo, Tracy Ann Roberts and Barbara V. Breider.) And, if everybody knew that sex workers could do their work openly, without disparagement, they would less likely be seen as “disposable” people who will not be missed because they are not cared for.

Making sex work safer makes women safer in general, as is evident in the statement attributed to the Assistant Chief. Clearly when prostitutes aren’t safe, no woman is safe.

Remember, this Sunday is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers and Audacia Ray has compiled a list of events in a variety of areas. Check for one near you. Add these women to your thoughts and get out to a vigil or rally or event to publicly declare that it is not okay to kill people because they make a living selling sex.

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