n December 17th 2011, I stood on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall in the rain, fumbling to hold a lit candle, a printed list of names, and a red umbrella. A tight, small circle of new sex worker friends and a few loved ones had gathered for a vigil, to mark the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Just a few weeks after the OccupyLA encampment was raided, that tiny circle represented, to me, the way repression and stigma against my community reached deep into leftist circles.
Where were all the comrades who had flooded the streets for Occupy? Where were the people I’d spent those nights in jail with after the LAPD had raided the camp? When it was sex workers on the line, why was it so difficult to bring others toward our justified anger, our grief, our need for support? We read the names. We held each other. We kept on. I’m still asking the same questions.
For sixteen years, sex workers and their communities have gathered on December 17th to mark the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (#D17, #IDEVASW, #December17th) Beginning in Seattle as a vigil for the victims of the Green River Killer, December 17th has become a widely recognized day of remembrance and solidarity.
Volunteers at the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP USA) do the difficult work of compiling and organizing a list of names of sex workers lost to whorephobic violence in the prior year. Sex worker organizations across the U.S., Europe, and Australia hold candlelight vigils, red umbrella marches, potlucks, teach-ins, and other events to remember those who lost their lives to violence and support those who currently live under stigma and criminalization. You can see the events that have been registered with SWOP USA and get ideas for your own.
For cities with vibrant sex working activist communities, #D17 has become such a common rallying point on the calendar, some have begun to feel we need some new ways to mark the day. What would it look like for our many communities’ real diversities to be reflected in the ways we mark December 17th?
Can we keep a common goal of honoring and memorializing those we’ve lost, but without normalizing a single tone, activity, or organizational take? Many sex worker organizers I know feel guilty if they aren’t with other sex workers on that day, but also feel overwhelmed by the difficulty of organizing adequate space for the intensity of what the day represents. People with lived experiences in the sex trades should be the ones to decide how to best process the grief and struggle of criminalization and stigma. I extend this principle to the ways we mark a day like D17.
In the year following that rainy day at City Hall, we had a few more people join us, and the following year, a few more. One year we marched through West Hollywood, yelling slogans and carrying signs. Another year we rented a lush little theater with the last of our organizational funds and held a variety show with all sex worker performers.
One year we stayed quiet in a bar, preparing ourselves for the imminent attack of SESTA/FOSTA. In 2017, we organized a picnic in MacArthur Park, the site of so much violence from the Los Angeles Police, and read the names with an officer on horseback looking on. By then, I had co-founded a small group with some sex working friends called the Hookers Army, where we offer peer support and self defense training.
Looking at that cop, something clicked: what has always been difficult for me about D17 is that I believe there must be an answer to violence against our communities that is not simply grief or impotent anger. It has to be forms of self defense that support and protect our well being, whether those forms are martial arts, peer counseling, financial education, online strategies and tactics, or other forms of mutual aid.
I’ve been attending and organizing events for D17 for nine years, and while it has been an important and emotional day for me to connect with community, I am increasingly aware of how many people with lived experiences in the sex trades feel pushed out of activist spaces that are often dominated by white, cisgender women workers, ableist activist rhetoric, or assimilationist/reformist political agendas.
Given the way D17 brings our attention to the disproportionate loss of queer and trans people of color every year, the movement for sex worker rights should be full of entry points for sex workers who have critique of current movement work, who cannot join group events for reasons such as illness, disability, or poverty, or who find themselves struggling to connect with other sex workers for any reason.
In an increasingly surveilled and policed sex work marketplace, the cat and mouse game sex workers play to stay visible to clients and each other, but safe from arrest, is ramping up. Since the passage of SESTA/FOSTA in 2018, sex workers have been negatively affected in direct, material ways — we have lost community members to suicide and violence, and many of us have lost income, housing, access to our online platforms, and other forms of safety.
The anxiety and struggle for survival I’ve witnessed and felt has been sharp, unceasing, and destructive. For those watching the development of the anti trafficking movement through the history of repression of sexuality in general, what’s happening now is simultaneously familiar in structure and unprecedented in effect.
The shear numbers of sex workers currently active in the U.S. has never been higher due in part to the availability of online platforms, and at the same time, those platforms are constantly being shut down, or engaging in shadow banning, account suspension, denial of service, and other forms of deliberate erasure. SESTA/FOSTA and continuing anti-trafficking campaigns that seek to deny our existence do more than make it tough for us to post photos. They contribute to a culture that doesn’t flinch when we die in high numbers, every year.
Erasing sex workers from view does the opposite of what sex trafficking “experts” claim it should. In fact, the less able we are to connect with clients and each other, the more danger we are in.
This is true for underage people, too — recent research funded by the Department of Justice indicates that the majority of young people in the sex trades are escaping dangerous situations at home and banding together for safety, not getting kidnapped and trafficked by third parties. We finally have real data: full decriminalization of the sex trades is the safest route for all the people involved.
This does not mean “end demand” or other forms of john-shaming or client criminalization. This does not mean legalization for people with all their documents lined up and de facto criminalization for everyone else. This means removing the criminal penalties from the acts of buying or selling sexual services, period, and then fighting for all the other forms of justice we will still need, after.
As many social justice movements have proven, visibility of a marginalized population is key to social change. The problem with asking sex workers to be visible is that we are already targets for violent attention in a political culture that simply wants us eradicated, at the same time that our services are consistently solicited by real clients.
No one can or should try to tell another sex worker how best to navigate their safety. This is both the pain of D17 and what can make it so powerful for us. We need to see each other in person, to hold each other close, and, we need to be able to opt out of the intensity of memorial-based social gatherings without having to expend energy explaining ourselves to our peers.
Sex workers and especially queer and trans people of color and especially black trans women should not be forced to constantly rely on grief and rage to motivate non sex working people to act in solidarity. Non sex working people of conscience are being called upon to stand up like never before, as sex workers find more and more ways to offer our stories, our wisdom, our critiques of the murderous cultural structures we all live in.
We have called out for solidarity. Where is everyone? I’m still asking.
Oakland-based band Copyslut* is fronted by an uncloseted queer sex worker named Chatz, who is one of my dearest friends. When I watched “Copyslut’s D17 Holiday Special” video this week, I wept. Behind the scenes, we are all struggling to find a tone, a vibe, a way in to the absolutely unacceptable reality of how many names are on the list.
I was grateful for the earnest, tender, and self-amused way Chatz sang the lyrics to “Santa Baby,” “One thing I really do need/the deed/to a platinum mine/I’ve been an angel all year!”
The video’s sexy-cozy sleepover-with-a-stripper-pole aesthetic is not only a blending of sex work staples (Pleasers, lingerie, etc.) and post-work relaxation, it is a blending of sadness and anger (they use the neologism “smad — sad and mad”), of affection and stare-into-the-camera boldness. In other words, it felt complex and loving and true to the group of people who participated in its creation.
The video was intended as a gift, a way for those who may not be able or want to participate in the formal Dec 17th gatherings to light a candle and read the names of the deceased privately. The existence of this video is, to me, a sign that our communities are growing.
We are finding each other, and connecting. And that is ultimately what will keep more of us safer.
The Hookers Army of LA will have our last regularly scheduled meeting of the year, of the decade, on December 18th. At a regular meeting, we spend the first hour checking in, connecting with each other about work and the rest of our lives, offering support if someone is in a tough spot, and brainstorming ways to take better care of ourselves utilizing the collective wisdom in the room.
In the second hour, we train a set of self-protective skills: usually physical self defense techniques, but also breath work for anxiety, financial protection in case of lost accounts or tax problems, verbal boundary setting, and so on. Rather than compete with other organizations in the area for attendance on the 17th, I’ve let members of the collective know that our normal meeting space will be a bit transformed.
For the first time, our non-sex working loved ones are invited to share the space with us, to support our processing the intensity of D17. We will read the names. We will eat snacks. We will practice a few self defense techniques and talk about how our thriving together is the foundation for our freedom.
Rather than rage against the leftist machine that seems so slow to show up for us, I intend to connect as deeply as I can with those who DO show up, whether they can do it in person or not, on that day.
You can find an event or the list of names at December17.org
- Editor’s note: you can read PULP’s interview with Copyslut here.