Violence Against Sex Workers

Trafficking is only one form of violence experienced by sex workers. The World Health Organization breaks down the different types of violence experienced by folks who trade sex. Below are descriptions borrowed from their breakdown (citations below) and recommendations for types of policies which actually *do* begin to change the paradigm.

Types of Violence

Violence against Sex Workers

Violence Against Communities

  • Physical violence: Being subjected to physical force which can potentially cause death, injury or harm from direct action. This can be enacted by different interpersonal experiences such as clients, colleagues or partners. Institutions also enact physical violence through arrest and physical detainment, or the forcibly detoxing someone who is using substances. Systemic inequality also causes non consensual physical harm through malnutrition, lack of access to health care because of discrimination or stigmatization towards sex workers, or a lack of stable housing when a prostitution arrest leads to forcible eviction.
  • Sexual violence: Sexual violation happens in a variety of ways for sex workers, and can often be a complicated experience when so few conversations about consent/coercion include discussions on the weight of a person’s need for resources, or when public dialogue does not leave space for the experiences of sex workers. Sexual violence against sex workers is any of those experiences where your boundaries and consent are violence, or that someone finds degrading or humiliating. Interpersonally this could mean assault, the crossing of sexual boundaries, or sexual harassment. Institutionally this includes experiences like strip searches or groping, including to assess gender identity during an arrest. Systemic sexual violence against sex workers can manifest when sex workers are denied the right to declare what is and is not harm, or the forcible exposure of ones ad or photos.
  • Emotional or psychological violence: These behaviors are emotionally damaging and including insults, harassment, threats of calling law enforcement/immigration enforcement, degradation, and a range of other behaviors which are often experienced by those who trade sex or are profiled as such. Interpersonally this could be insults or emotional abuse from partners, family members, clients or colleagues. Institutional emotional and psychological violence can come from the institutions denying care or kicking someone out of school, legal professionals making disrespectful or degrading comments, or anti-prostitution voices espousing derogatory ideas about sex workers or silencing their participation from conversation which directly impact them.

Contexts of violence

  • Workplace violence: This may include violence from managers, support staff, clients or co-workers in establishments where sex work takes place (e.g. brothels, bars, hotels).
  • Violence from intimate partners and family members: Stigmatization of sex work may lead partners or family members to think it acceptable to use violence to “punish” a woman who has sex with other men. It may be difficult for sex workers to leave an abusive relationship, particularly when perpetrators threaten them, or have control due to ownership of a home, or the power to harm or refuse access to their children.
  • Violence by perpetrators at large or in public spaces: In most contexts, the antagonistic relationship with police creates a climate of impunity for crimes against sex workers that may lead them to be the targets of violence or of other crimes that may turn violent, such as theft. Some perpetrators specifically target sex workers to “punish” them in the name of upholding social morals, or to scapegoat them for societal problems, including HIV. Sex workers may also face violence from individuals in a position of power, e.g. nongovernmental organization (NGO) employers, health-care providers, bankers or landlords.
  • Organized non-state violence: Sex workers may face violence from extortion groups, militias, religious extremists or “rescue” groups.
  • State violence: Sex workers may face violence from military personnel, border guards and prison guards, and most commonly from the police. Criminalization or punitive laws against sex work may provide cover for violence. Violence by representatives of the state compromises sex workers’ access to justice and police protection, and sends a message that such violence is not only acceptable but socially desirable.

World Health Organization, Addressing Violence Against Sex Workers, 23-24.

Policies Which Begin to Address Violence Against Sex Workers

Decriminalization of the sex trade: Criminalization is a powerful tool of isolation and violence which radically increases violence against sex workers. The inability to access police, and everyone else’s awareness of that, create a target population for victimization.

Divestment from law enforcement-based interventions and investment in community resources: When someone is being victimized, very often there feels like no one to turn, and for most criminalized folks, calling the police can do more harm than good. And yet, police are continually tasked and funded to be the ones to call in any situation, whether it’s a neighborhood with a noise concern, an individual experiencing a medical emergency, or a possible situation of exploitation. The end of mass criminalization means defunding the tools of criminalization. Read more about the Invest-divest Model here, from the Movement for Black Lives.

Bringing Sex workers impact assessment groups into policy spaces: During many of the conversations of what would happen if SESTA passed, it was sex workers who knew the impact. The level of expertise has been demonstrated over and over, and it is communities trading sex who are most familiar with how laws actually play out. City councils, state legislatures, trafficking tasks forces and other bodies which enact and recommend policy and legislation should make efforts to develop impact committees of sex workers and the organizations led and served by them.

More resources:

The Global Network of Sex Workers Projects, The Impact of Criminalization on Sex workers’ Vulnerability to HIV and Violence [Policy Brief] [Community Guide]. 2017.


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