Monday, December 19, 2016

U.S. Media Ignores International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

The NFL probably embodies American culture more than any other organization. Violence against women has become one the public relations priorities for the league due to the actions by some football players. Putting aside the NFL’s motivations, this public relations campaign will likely have some positive impact on society. However, there is one group of women who the American public isn’t particularly concerned with protecting -- sex workers.

Last Saturday (December 17th) officially marked the thirteenth anniversary of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Most likely, you have never heard about this day if you live in the U.S. because the American media doesn’t cover this topic. With that said, there were numerous news reports involving prostitution raids over the weekend. The U.S. media covers the issue of prostitution quite frequently, but the reporting is generally reactionary. In other words, these stories usually describe recent raids that include quotes from police officers and mug shots of the arrestees. 

On the other hand, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was only mentioned in one paid news publication, Providence Journal.[1] Otherwise, SF Weekly (a free alternative paper in San Francisco), bloggers, and activists were responsible for spreading the word. According to Rhode Island Future (a progressive politics NGO), there were 132 sex workers murdered this year and 53 of those victims in the U.S.

Understandably, prostitution is a controversial topic and many people find it offensive. Nevertheless, countless reporters have covered the subject of sex trafficking with the narrative that we have to protect women against that form of violence. However, it’s remarkable that only one American journalist took the time to cover the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Then again, the topic of sex trafficking has received increasing coverage by the media in recent years, but this genre of news is often exploitive and sensational. In fact, sex trafficking has become the new buzzwords for bureaucrats to brand themselves as “tough on crime.” (There are many details about the cynical nature of the anti-trafficking movement and the parallels with the drug war in my upcoming book series, Rackets.) 

Unlike the American press, the International Day to End 
(Photo Jenn Farr-Flickr)
Violence Against Sex Workers was reported in several nations in a fair and balanced manner, including Canada and the U.K. It is no coincidence that these stories took place in countries that have a form of decriminalized prostitution. Decriminalization recognizes the fundamental rights of sex workers; the indirect consequences of prostitution laws put the lives of sex workers in danger. Case in point, prostitutes are estimated to be 18 times more likely to be murdered than all other women.[1] The primary reason is that sex workers are unlikely to contact the police to report violent crimes in which they have been the victim. Several serial killers have specifically targeted prostitutes for those reasons. Look no further than the words from the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, who killed as many as 49 women, most of whom were prostitutes:

 “I picked prostitutes as my victims because I hated most prostitutes, and I did not want to pay them for sex. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”[2]  

Ridgway was sentenced on December 17th and the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers has served as a memorial those victims, along with all other sex workers. It is also not a coincidence that SF Weekly covered this topic in the birthplace of the sex workers rights movement -- San Francisco. That’s where an activist and former sex worker, Margo St. James, established COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in 1973.

The Rhode Island Chapter of COYOTE filed a civil class action lawsuit in 1976 in the U.S. Federal District Court of Rhode Island. That lawsuit, COYOTE v Roberts, challenged the constitutionality of the state’s prostitution laws. In reaction to that case, the Rhode Island Assembly decided to reduce prostitution from a felony to a misdemeanor in 1980. In the process, they also accidentally created a loophole that decriminalized indoor prostitution. This loophole remained unknown to most people in the state until 2003 when some newspapers reported about this issue. The loophole, however, remained in place until 2009.

Thankfully, Bella Robinson, the current executive director of the Rhode Island Chapter of COYOTE, has been a vocal leader who is trying to bring about change. In fact, she served as an expert witness by testifying before the state representatives of New Hampshire when the state considered decriminalization earlier this year. Bella Robinson’s activism efforts undoubtedly prompted the Providence Journal to cover the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. That recent report presented the human side of this issue in a non-sensational manner by reporting about the vigil held by Robinson and Elena Shih, an assistant professor at Brown University. Shih has conducted various studies demonstrating the adverse effects from criminalization for the human rights of sex workers.

[1] John J. Potterat, Devon D. Brewer, Stephen Q. Muth, Richard B. Rothenberg, Donald E. Woodhouse, John B. Muth, Heather K. Stites, and Stuart Brody. “Morality in Long-term Open Cohort of Prostitute Women.” American Journal of Epidemiology. Vol. 159, Issue 8, 778-85
[2] Mark Prothero and Carlton Smith. Defending Gary: Unraveling the Mind of the Green River Killer. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006. Print. P. 496

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