Stacey Swimme

Innovative Thinking On The Sex Industry & Social Justice

10 Years of Fighting Violence Against Sex Workers

Image 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.

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One thought on “10 Years of Fighting Violence Against Sex Workers

  1. Thank you for all you do and for sharing your experiences. I appreciate in this blog, how you address the connections between social justice struggles without conflating them all together. I also worked as an exotic dancer and was bothered by the financial arrangements, though something that happened to me while dancing at a club pushed that into the background.

    This was at a “no touch” club–the type where the clients are supposed to just sit with their hands by their sides during lap dances. A client I was dancing for didn’t “play by the rules” and started to grope me without my permission or consent. I felt so dis-empowered and my mind drew a blank, not knowing what to do or say…or how to handle the situation. Yet, I can’t say the same for the general manager. He came over, tapped me on the shoulder, and in a very stern voice said, “No touching!” I’m thinking, “Say what…This guy is groping me and I’m the one being scolded?” Of course, the general manager said nothing to this guy about his behavior.

    After I stopped dancing for him, the client immediately left on his own accord. Not surprisingly, the general manager who scolded me still saying nothing to this guy as he left. Then, after the customer left, the general manager again came up to me, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “No touching!” This time, I responded, telling him that this guy was groping me and it’s wrong to just blame the dancers for everything. Then, his tone mellowed out, but he still fired me. Yes, I was fired for being groped.

    The financial structures are what I often think of in terms of working conditions at strip clubs, such it being really fucked up how dancers have to pay to go into work considering that the club already has so many other ways to make money and uses the dancers to do this…such as commonly charging customers way more than they would pay at a non-strip clubs for drinks-especially when they buy drinks for us. (At one club I worked at, it cost customers $10 to buy a can of soda for a dancer.) Not to mention, the split the house gets when dancers bring customers back to the VIP rooms, and the list goes on.

    Yet, after the incident I described above, I wasn’t even thinking about these financial arrangements. In fact, I don’t remember exactly how much money I walked out of there with that day, but I remember doing well money-wise and walking out with way more than I walked in with. Though I would normally be happy with that, I felt so distressed because of how I was treated. The way the general manager reacted was far more distressing than the customer groping me. Considering that I was fired, the financial arrangement at least at this club was no longer relevant to me personally…though I’m not going to downplay this since it would be to dancers who were still working there.

    The treatment I was subject after being groped took precedence with me and the distress didn’t end after that night, but was powerful for days afterwards to the point that I had trouble focusing on anything else I needed to do. I would find myself starting to cry at random time and public places, doing my best to be discreet about this because I didn’t want anybody to notice and ask what was wrong. I didn’t know what to say and worried they may blame me, too. In fact, though I was angry at the general manager for taking this customer’s behavior out on me without holding him at all responsible for it, there was a part of me that felt so “dirty” , “icky”, and wondered if it was my fault. Like, should have I have been more assertive from the get-go to prevent this from happening. I felt so alone, so horrible, and didn’t know whom I could speak with about this.

    This was when I started reaching out to sex workers’ justice organizations. At first, I was looking for a support network, but then became involved in more direct advocacy, and have participated in International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers’ events for the past few years.

    Though I felt alone at the time, I now know I’m not. The stigmas, “what did you expect” type attitudes, and in some cases-criminalization play major roles in keeping sex workers silent and feeling alone, feeling afraid that we will be blamed for whatever happens to us (though the degrees vary among different groups of sex workers). This just adds to the trauma–not of being sex workers, but of experiencing violence or other forms of injustices and then worrying about the repercussions of speaking out against these and for justice…or just looking for some support.

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