At face value, sex work is not an inherently risky profession. Being a sex worker in the United States, however, means that you are likely vulnerable to extreme rates of physical, sexual and emotional violence, facilitated by the criminalization of the sex trade and the social stigma associated with those who engage in it.
Sex worker advocates and the World Health Organization alike have recommended a fix that could dramatically improve sex worker safety, which has been proven to work in other parts of the world: decriminalize sex work. Where sex work is criminalized, like the U.S., sex workers face the threat of being arrested for reporting crimes, thus becoming easy targets of violence.
Dec. 17, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, is still a much-needed reminder of this, as rates of physical abuse remain disproportionately high among sex workers. That's especially true in the U.S., where a woman is arrested for prostitution approximately every six minutes, and where the rate of violence against sex workers is four times higher than it is in places where commercial sex is legal.
"No one, regardless of how you feel about sex work, will deny that there are high rates of violence against people who trade sex," Kate D'Adamo, a national policy advocate for the Urban Justice Center's Sex Workers Project, told Mic. "We're talking about a criminalized population. When you put fear of arrest as a dominant force in sex workers' lives, reporting crime and victimization becomes hard. We've created a target population [for abuse]."
A study from the Urban Justice Center's Sex Workers Project found 46% of sex workers experienced violence in the course of their work. Another study from SWP found that an overwhelming majority of street-based sex workers — 80% — reported being threatened or beaten. Globally, sex workers face a 45% to 75% chance of experiencing violence over their lifetimes, based on several studies. LGBTQ sex workers face even higher rates of violence.
According to the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP-USA), more than 120 sex workers across the globe have been killed this year alone. Over 41 of those murders were in the U.S.
"You see serial rapists and serial killers who will say they picked sex workers, people who they knew wouldn't report the crime — people who no one else cared about," D'Adamo said.
Decriminalization of sex work would have a clear effect on sex worker safety, according to SWOP-USA communications director Katherine Koster, and it could be the key to reducing the threat of violence.
"When you add in the fear of being arrested for reporting a rape or assault, it allows serial perpetrators to go uncharged and continue to commit violence against sex workers with impunity," Koster told Mic. "When New Zealand decriminalized sex work, 70% of advocates, sex workers and social service providers who work with sex workers said that sex workers were more likely to reach out to the police if they experienced violence."
Koster added that case studies from other nations appear to have inspired some parts of the U.S. to provide immunity for sex workers who report violence by serial offenders, and that there might be reason to hope change will come soon.
"I think a growing chorus of people are starting to recognize that sex workers are valuable," she said, "and that there's a link between criminalization and violent acts against sex workers."
"You see serial rapists and serial killers who will say they picked sex workers, people who they knew wouldn't report the crime — people who no one else cared about."
But there's still work to be done. As D'Adamo pointed out, cultural stigma still has profound implications for the way society sees sex workers and can lead people to feel apathetic toward the violence they face.
"Any time we ignore violence against someone else, it takes away our ability to declare violence when it occurs against us," D'Adamo said. "I think at its most selfish motivation, anytime a sex worker comes forward and says they were [assaulted], and someone says, 'You didn't report to police,' it erodes the concept of people doing that in general.
"If we want to have the right to declare violence against us in the way that feels best," she added, "we have to begin by honoring that with others."