Sex-worker advocates strive for safety and human rights

Marsha Powell, an inmate at Perryville prison in Goodyear, spent the last hours of her life not in an indoor cell, but in an outdoor wire cage.

Powell waited four hours in the 107-degree heat to be transferred between wards on May 19, 2009. She collapsed from heat exposure and died the next day. Powell was serving time for prostitution.

On Wednesday, March 3—International Sex Worker Rights Day—her death will be remembered as an example of the lack of human rights and dignity that sex workers often experience. Members of the Tucson chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) will hold a private meeting in memoriam.

SWOP Tucson ( evolved out of the Sex Workers Arts Festival, held here annually from 2001 to 2004, says Viv, a sex-worker advocate. (See "Whores on Tour," Nov. 14, 2002, and TQ&A, Oct. 9, 2008.) "The point of SWOP is for sex-worker advocates to have a community, and to share information and resources in regard to what's going on with the sex-worker-rights movement."

Having a sex-worker community is a powerful anecdote to violence, stigma and discrimination, says kittenINFINITE, a sex-worker advocate who started the SWOP Chicago chapter five years ago.

"The public sentiment around sex workers is not positive," she says. Common viewpoints are that sex workers are either "the street-based crack-addicted prostitute, or the high-class, senator-exposing call girl. I've yet to meet a sex worker who falls into those categories; most sex workers fall somewhere in between."

kittenINFINITE believes society almost tolerates violence against women who do sex work. " ... Notice and compare the outcry that we give when what we perceive to be innocent women ... are hurt by strangers to the amount of attention we give when sex workers are raped and murdered. We're sort of fine with the idea of rape and abduction of sex workers. ... I may sound like I am being dramatic, but it's proven time and time again."

She references the case of Gary Leon Ridgway, who admitted to killing at least 48 women in the '80s and '90s in the Pacific Northwest, and is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. In a statement, he admits, "I wanted to kill as many women I thought were prostitutes as I possibly could. ... I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught."

kittenINFINITE says that the criminal status of sex work is the driving factor in violence against sex workers. "Because it's underground, there isn't a clear boundary there. ... The recourse for violence or harassment is slim to none for sex workers."

Viv believes the safety of sex workers is a basic human-rights issue. "What I think is violent is that people who choose to have consensual sex are criminalized. When they suffer from physical or sexual assault, they are afraid to go to the police for fear of arrest. That's a freedom you enjoy and not a freedom sex workers enjoy."

The situation is different in New Zealand, where sex work has been decriminalized. "Decriminalization means the removal of criminal statutes and government regulation so that sex work falls into a business category ... and wouldn't be subjected to more intense scrutiny from the government or special taxing," explains kittenINFINITE.

There, sex workers can report instances of violence against them without prosecution. She says the New Zealand model of decriminalization is advocated by sex workers globally, and is different from Nevada-style legalization, which can carry heavy government oversight, a lot of taxing and oppressive work conditions.

In addition to supporting decriminalization, sex-worker advocates would like to see attitudes change toward sex workers and sex work. "Sex workers are your next-door neighbors and the parents of your children's friends; they are serving soup at the homeless shelter. Sex workers are productive and capable," says Viv. "Sex work is about human connection. There are people out there who need compassion and intimacy, even if only for an hour or two."

Compassion toward sex workers seems to be nominal in Arizona's legal system. A person who is convicted of a first prostitution violation is sentenced to 15 days in jail. Meanwhile, first offenders of driving under the influence serve 10 days, and sometimes only one.

Evidently, the scales of justice are not balanced.