Ending Violence Against Sex Workers Means Abolishing Police and Prisons

December 17, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, is a day to honor sex workers who’ve been taken by violence. And it’s also a day to strengthen our commitment to sex worker solidarity. As organizers in the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP USA) note on the December 17 memorial site: “We cannot end the marginalization and victimization of all sex workers without also fighting transphobia, racism, [whore] stigma, the criminalization of drug use and xenophobia.”

Much of the violence experienced by people doing sex work is at the hands of the carceral state; the sexual and physical violence experienced at the hands of clients, abusive partners and neighborhood vigilantes is a direct result of the state’s permissiveness of all forms of violence toward those stigmatized, marginalized and criminalized in society. The criminal codes, the cops and the courts (all of which are manifestations of white supremacy) sanction gender and sexual violence every day. This carceral logic is far reaching: our society has deemed punishment as “justice,” and locks up thousands of survivors. Anti-rape, anti-carceral feminist activists from the 1970s, working alongside incarcerated survivors who were mostly women, queers and sex workers, paved the way for us to think about incarcerated survivors as political prisoners. Prisons are the state’s ultimate depository for those survivors, as abolitionist educator Mariame Kaba has taught us, who have no self to defend. Prisons are the culmination and continuation of our sexually violent society. Considering all of this, I can again hear Mariame saying, prisons are sexual violence.

International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was first recognized in 2003 as a memorial for the victims of Gary Ridgway, the so-called Green River Killer who murdered people in and around King County, Washington, during the 1980s and 1990s. Ridgway would boast about his ease in murdering sex workers or houseless youth because they wouldn’t be missed, saying he was doing the cops’ work for them. Since 2003, this day has galvanized people around the world to organize against whorephobic violence and honor the lives of violence victims. For those who want to read the names and remember those who have been taken from this world, SWOP USA has gathered a memorial list again this year.

For me, December 17 gatherings in Chicago and New York City have looked like protest vigils, community warming spaces with food and camaraderie, holding moments of rage outside, screaming into the cold night, lighting candles, sharing poetry and speaking the names of loved ones. They’ve also included direct actions against police raids and police murder. December 17 is not about needing saviors. It’s a day of demands. It is a day filled with collective cries for a better world, a day to grieve alongside those who most understand that grief.

Some people think that we can legislate violence out of our world. These people do not know the police and prisons the way that sex workers know them. Among these bad actors exists a constellation of organizations and individuals that sex work-conscious community refers to as the rescue industry: the funded carceral feminist organizations who seek to “save” sex workers from the assumed inherent violence of the trade by working with police, courts and jails on patronizing diversion programs, collaborating on stings and advocating for increased criminalization.

Sex workers are the experts in our own experiences, and sex worker organizers have been telling anyone who will listen that the majority of violence that sex workers experience is also violence that Black people, femmes, trans women, drug-using people, queers of color, currently and formerly incarcerated people, and im/migrants experience daily. All of these groups of people have members who rely on sex work to survive in this capitalist fray.

The biggest perpetrators of violence against all of these (sometimes intersecting) groups of people are carceral systems and their agents. For example, the violence of police raids or sting operations in the name of rescue have never been justifiable, and the targeting of vulnerable communities like migrant or newly immigrated workers must stop. December 17 is a day to demand the end of policing, in all of its forms, altogether. It’s also a day to remember those who are actively kept from their outside community, friends and loved ones, by state violence: held in jails, prisons, detention centers, and nonconsensually, in psychiatric facilities.

One such person, with whom I’m holding (virtual) space on December 17, via a prison video visit, is my comrade Alisha “LeLe” Walker.

“LeLe” is a poet and a visual artist, as well as a member of the Support Ho(s)e collective, which organizes to build radical community for sex working people in Chicago and New York City. Alisha is also a criminalized survivor — someone who is punished directly or indirectly for their actions of protection or self-defense — who is currently incarcerated at Logan Correctional Center in Illinois. She was sentenced to 15 years in state prison because she fought back against a violent client who was demanding unprotected sex and threatening her and her fellow worker with a knife.

Alisha saved her life and the life of her fellow worker that night. So when the judge presiding over Alisha’s case sentenced her to 15 years, he ostensibly said that she should have died that night when her client attacked her. He implied that her life didn’t matter as much as a well-connected white man’s. It’s not hyperbolic to speculate that Alisha’s name could have ended up on an International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers memorial list.

But Alisha survived that attack. Alisha’s survival and subsequent punishment underscores the racist and whorephobic violence of the police, courts and prisons. When Alisha called me last year, in the days leading up to December 17, she was adamant that I share her experiences of the violence of erasure that prisons perpetuate with the vigil attendees I’d be joining.

She excitedly yelled into the phone, “Tell them to remember all the hos in [the] county [lockup], and in the prisons! Remember us!” She wanted me to also share that just as it’s so important to come together to mourn and grieve our lost, it’s equally important to organize and fight to end the everyday violence sex workers face at the hands of the police, the courts, border patrol, prison guards and administration.

In an introduction to a poem called “Battle,” written in 2017 to commemorate December 17, Alisha wrote these words:

It’s gonna take all of us to fight this hatred of us, and we need you to fight alongside us now. If you support sex workers rights you are supporting all other kinds of rights too — because it’s the most diverse and marginalized profession out there. Show up for us.

As of this past week, Alisha has contracted COVID, amid the deplorable conditions inside Logan Correctional Center. Her collective and its extended community are actively organizing for her immediate release and fundraising for when she’s returned home. Combating violence also means directly resourcing our comrades when they come home.

To everyone who will gather to share safer space in comradeship today, in whatever forms that takes, thank you. Organizing these gatherings can be so damn difficult, but it’s crucial, more so than ever, to collectively grieve.

If we are to commit ourselves to ending violence against sex workers and all those in the sex trades, then we must see that fight as intimately connected, if not one and the same, with the struggle to abolish the criminal legal system, police and prisons. We must commit ourselves to a fierce opposition of borders, and their policing. We must commit ourselves to building, dreaming and sustaining an abolitionist world. Here’s to holding each other with care, making space for our collective mourning and grief, and fighting like hell for the living in the names of those taken from us.