Today is Workers’ Memorial Day, a day to remember people who have died because of unsafe conditions on the job, or because their jobs are simply dangerous by nature, and to also recommit ourselves to working for safer workplaces and safer jobs.
Because this is Sex in the Public Square and because sex work is such an important issue to me, I want to dedicate this space today to remembering sex workers who’ve died because of their work, and to tell you about a way that labor unions can help.
Last December, when I attended an End Violence Against Sex Workers vigil, names of sex workers who’d been killed in 2006 were read. There were more than 60 names. Most of them I did not know. I knew the names of the four sex workers — Molly Jean Dilts, Kim Raffo, Tracy Ann Roberts and Barbara V. Breider— killed in Atlantic City, because their murders made the national news. There were also the names of the five who’d been killed in Suffolk England — Tania Nicol, Paula Clennell, Anneli Alderton, Gemma Adam, Annette Nicholls — because that case made international news. But more often violence against sex workers goes unreported. It is only when a string of murders happens that we pay attention. Violence against individual sex workers is largely off our radar and thus much less likely to get a serious response. This is unconscionable.
There are some important principles that I think could motivate much more concern for sex worker safety:
1. No women are safe until sex workers are safe. As long as being a prostitute makes one a target for violence, and as long as that violence can be perpetrated with much less risk of sanction, and as long as all women are potentially identifiable as prostitutes, no women are safe until sex workers are safe.
2. An injury to one is an injury to all. When we don’t speak up to protect the safety of other groups, we cannot expect much support when we ourselves are targeted. Solidarity is important across groups of workers. Stigma and bias only serve to divide us.
I’m thinking about this all the more because I just came from the Representative Assembly of my state-wide union, New York State United Teachers. This was my first time at the RA. I learned that a central component of the RA is the considering of resolutions that will guide the organization’s work in the coming year (and beyond). I attended the Civil and Human Rights Committee meeting and at that meeting a resolution was considered — and overwhelmingly supported — calling for strong anti-trafficking laws. I was impressed by the way the resolution was worded. It recognized that not all trafficked people are sex workers, and its focus was clearly on the trafficking and not on sex work itself. Also, and also it called for legislation that would explicitly make having been trafficked into a defense for those who get caught working in illegal jobs so that they are not punished but their traffickers are.
To the degree that this does pertain to people trafficked for sex work, this does not go quite far enough though. In order to achieve the goals that it sets out to achieve, such a resolution ought to also include support for the organizing of sex workers, and perhaps support for the decriminalizing of sex work. Here’s why.
1. Trafficked workers’ main source of info is likely to be their traffickers. Traffickers are not going to inform their victims about their rights.
2. A defense can only be applied after an arrest. These workers should not be subjected to arrest in the first place.
3. Fear of arrest keeps workers from attempting to access the kinds of services that the laws demanded by the resolution would support.
4. The stigma attached to sex work makes it very difficult for people trafficked into sex work to “come out” about their situations, and it also makes it difficult for people to “reach out” to them! Statements by large unions in support of their right to organize would help combat that that stigma.
I am proud to belong to a union that actively works to rectify social injustices, and I believe in the power of the labor movement to be a strong engine driving this society in the direction of progressive social change. But I want my labor movement to affirm the rights of all workers, to organize all workers, and that includes sex workers.
Imagine if Molly Jean Dilts, Kim Raffo, Tracy Ann Roberts and Barbara V. Breider had belonged to a union! Imagine if the women who are trafficked into go-go bars and massage parlors had a union.
Remember that sex workers can and do organize, but they face tremendous challenges and they need support. In addition, the more organized the sex industry becomes, the less it will become a receiver of trafficked workers.
After all, it’s a lot harder to traffic someone into a strong union shop!
Click here for the Trafficking Policy Research Project (examining the effect of US anti-trafficking legislation)
And here are some links to organizations that are working to make sex workers safer, and to destigmatize sex work: