December 17: International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

Nine years ago, I observed the first vigil of what would become the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Sex workers, friends, and family from Sex Workers Outreach Project invited us to gather outside San Francisco City Hall. Over the first few years, there were so few of us standing in that circle that we could all make eye contact across its diameter.  (I couldn’t find any media coverage of 2003. The San Francisco Bay Guardian covered the 2011 vigil in San Francisco.)

Here’s a photo that I love from San Francisco in 2008, the last year I lived there. It’s by Steve Rhodes. We had taken the vigil that year to the steps of the police station, then marched in the streets past the Federal building to St. James Infirmary, the sex worker run community clinic.

I first met St. James staff at the vigils in 2003, 2004. I got to go to work there in 2006, and stayed for two years. When I look at the photos from this march, I remember how easily defiant we were – taking the streets, no cops to harass us, unimaginable now. And in many ways, it will feel like how I said good-bye to that community, as someone within it. In a few months, I’d move to New York, retire from sex work, and focus on work as a journalist and writer. From then on, when I went out to cover sex work marches, vigils, and actions, I was greeted first as press. I met people who never knew I did sex work myself. There’s benefits to that, that I hope make me better at the job I do now.

This morning, close to a decade after we first gathered in San Francisco, I woke up to YouTube messages from the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, Facebook updates from New Orleans and Providence and Los Angeles, and tweets from a march in Kenya. I read this post from Anarchafeministwhore, hitting that hard note that this day does: fighting violence against sex workers might appeal to people – even people who consider themselves allies – who mostly see sex workers as victims. Will those allies support sex workers who also want to fight violent systems? The police who ignore violence, the social service agencies who stigmatize, the rescue industry concerned more with their own numbers games, the so-called “rights” activists who still see jail as a solution to injustice?

In the industry I’m in now, I know very well that I’m part of one of the many systems that has done tremendous harm to sex workers, who daily publishes the names and addresses of people arrested on suspicion of being sex workers, who helps feed money and public support to the rescue industry without asking enough critical questions, who gets acclaim for doing all of this. So I ask myself questions rooted in values from sex worker communities: How can I take care of myself? How can I find ways to resist? How can I do no harm?

Tonight, people will gather for 2012′s vigils. I’m not sure yet, but I’ll probably be home tonight, observing privately, and writing and listening to this.