In the five months since actress Alyssa Milano took to Twitter to ask women to share their own #MeToo stories, the conversation around sexual violence has gone from quiet whispers between women to a powerful nationwide social movement. In Hollywood, a diverse group of actresses came together to launch the Time’s Up campaign with the goal of ending harassment, abuse, marginalization, and underrepresentation in the industry. In the sports world, the brave young women of the U.S. gymnastics team confronted their abuser, Larry Nassar, and helped put him behind bars. Even in every day America, new data even has shown that the #MeToo movement is making a difference in dating habits of young people.
Women and their allies are using their voices to break the silence and advance an important conversation about sexual violence and the misogynistic power structures that enable it. Largely left out of the conversation, however, has been sex workers who are yet to have their #MeToo moment.
March 3rd marked the 17th International Sex Workers’ Rights Day and March 8th is International Women’s Day. And all over the world — including in the United States — sex workers are still facing discrimination, harassment, abuse, assault, and basic civil rights violations. While #MeToo and Time’s Up movements strive make progress in the fight against rape culture, the misconceptions around sex workers have kept their struggles in the darkness and their lives in danger.
When we use the term sex workers, we are talking about individuals who receive money, food, shelter, or other goods in exchange for sex-related acts. That includes escorts, strippers, prostitutes, madams, erotic dancers, webcam models, phone sex operators, and many other workers who engage in consensual sex work. (Note: this group does not include victims of sex trafficking, a modern-day form of slavery that uses force, fraud, or coercion to elicit commercial sex acts from individuals.)
All over the world, sex workers experience extremely high levels of sexual violence. According to a 2014 study, up to 75% of global sex workers will encounter sexual violence during their career. For sex workers of color and transgender sex workers, the rates of sexual assault committed by both clients and law enforcement officials only increases.
Despite the fact that so many individuals in the industry have experienced sexual violence, few people outside of the trade are willing to take up sex workers’ rights as an issue, largely because of the negative connotation of the profession. Thanks to terms like “whore,” sex workers have long been dehumanized and treated as “others” because of the kind of work they engage in. In fact, there are even those who insist sex workers cannot be sexually assaulted or raped by virtue of their profession.
The stigma around sex work actually put those who engage in it at greater risk.
For centuries, sex workers have been portrayed in such negative ways that violence against them has been normalized. Research has shown that sex workers may face violence because of the shame associated with the profession. That stigma coupled with the criminalization of commercial sex work only increases the discrimination sex workers — especially sex workers of color and transgender sex workers — face. That discrimination shows up in dangerous ways: sex workers are not only subjected to physical and sexual violence, but they also experience emotional and psychological violence. This is all in addition to a slew of human-rights violations committed against them on a daily basis.
Sex workers are regularly extorted for money, forced to consume drugs or alcohol, arrested or detained without due process, refused healthcare services, and so much more. According to most statistics, the majority of sex workers also experience rape at much higher rates than any other profession.
Sex workers make up a large portion of rape reports, despite the fact that they rarely report victimization to the police.
An important study in the late 1990s revealed that over 80% of sex workers in San Francisco experienced some form of assault since entering the sex trade. At least 68% of those workers reported incidents of rape on the job, and nearly half of of the women in the study said they had been raped more than five times. Disturbing and alarming as those findings are, they speak to a larger problem among the professional sex work industry: assault, abuse, and rape have become expected consequences of the job. Unfortunately, in the decades since the original study, not much has changed.
Sex workers have limited options when it comes to reporting sexual violence. There are no human resource departments at brothels or strip clubs. Because their job is criminalized, there are few legal avenues open to sex workers. For many, going to the police is dangerous. The chances of being heard are slim, but the likelihood of being arrested or assaulted by law enforcement is high.
In many cases, the laws work against sex workers who have been sexually assaulted.
All across the country, sex workers are denied compensation for lost wages for engaging in their profession, which is an illegal form of work in most places. Because of this, sex workers are often prohibited from receiving full rape victim compensation, and in the case of prior felony convictions, many states deny victims funds all together. Even judges and juries hold dangerous biases against sex workers that directly affect the outcome of their cases and the restitution they do or do not receive.
Like every other victim of sexual violence, sex workers deserve justice and, more importantly, protection.
The only way to put an end to the high rates of assault and rape in the sex work industry is to fight on its behalf. That means including them in the #MeToo movement.
It’s time to #EndViolenceAgainstSexWorkers by supporting their human rights, labor rights, and health care rights. This year marked the 17th International Sex Workers’ Rights Day, but with the support of the modern feminist movement, #MeToo, and Time’s Up, perhaps we can be one step closer to achieving its goals.