In 2003 I was working as an exotic dancer in San Francisco. I liked the work. I didn’t like the management as much. I resented the financial structures that defined my relationship with the house and the poor maintenance of areas of the facility that were primarily utilized by the dancers, our dressing room and the women’s restroom. I didn’t have a problem stripping for money; I just wanted better conditions in which to do my work. My privilege as a white, adult, cisgender woman created a relatively safe experience for me as an exotic dancer.
While I was dancing I was also taking classes at a local liberal arts college. I enrolled in courses with titles like “Women, Sex and Money” and “Activism for Social Change.” In some classes I found myself defending sex workers of all stripes against ridicule and judgment when topics of exotic dancing and sex for money came up. We viewed films like Hima B’s “Straight for the Money” which examined the experiences of lesbian women who have sex with male clients for cash. We took a field trip to a local movie theater to view a feminist-made porn that focused on full-figured women. Despite these unique looks into the sex industry and the women who work in it, some of my classmates still seemed to feel a divide between women who do sex work and women who don’t.
Outside of school I was organizing. I had been meeting other women who worked in various parts of the sex industry. Robyn Few and I started the Sex Workers Outreach Project with the intention of mobilizing sex workers into a fight for justice. Later in 2003, Gary Leon Ridgway was finally convicted after 22 years of getting away with the rapes and murders of dozens of sex workers and young runaways in the state of Washington. As the news of his trial and sentencing spread sadness and fear among our community, Dr. Annie Sprinkle had the idea of holding a ceremony to honor the lives of his victims, who were easy targets for him because of the stigma and oppression they faced as young runaways and poor women, most of whom were women of color. SWOP joined forces with Annie and created the International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers on December 17th, 2003.
Ridgway, better known as the Green River Killer, famously said that he targeted women living and working on the street because he knew he could kill as many as he wanted and get away with it. Predators like Ridgway are opportunists who use society’s prejudices against poor people, people of color, transgender folks and sex workers as a cover for getting away with abuse and murder. Laws that penalize sex workers who engage in prostitution exist to reinforce the state’s oppression of racial and gender minorities and deny these groups their right to safety and economic security.
Today, on the 10th Annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, I’m reminded that my struggle for better working conditions is in many ways a privilege. And the privilege of that struggle drives me to work as an ally for the deeper struggles of resisting hate and oppression. December 17th is an opportunity for me to stand up and honor all of the sex workers who’ve been harmed or died due to violence. And it’s an opportunity for me to declare solidarity with people of color, transgender people, migrant workers, low-wage workers, poor women and mothers who aren’t just negatively impacted by the bad laws and poor working conditions affecting sex workers, but are engaged in a broader struggle. Not just a struggle for worker and civil rights, but a struggle for their lives.