Vulnerable

09.27.14 10:45 AM ET

Sex Workers Don't Deserve to be Raped

In the oldest profession, rape, assault and murder are a constant threat, but even in areas where prostitution is legal, sex workers face discrimination

At the peak of her career as a high-end escort, Veronica Monet got a call. A new client wanted to hire her at the usual rate: $500 for one hour. At first, Monet hesitated. His address was in a poor part of Oakland. It wasn’t the kind of neighborhood where clients could typically afford her services. Not wanting to discriminate against low-income clients, though, she scheduled the appointment. And when Monet arrived at his house, her earlier concerns disappeared. She liked him. He spoke movingly of his work with a church choir and of his history in the U.S. Army.

Then things changed. When Monet asked for the money they’d agreed on, the client became threatening and aggressive. He told her that she was going to take a check, although they had previously agreed on a cash payment. Monet decided to leave. But she couldn't.

“I realized that his house was a cage — there were bars on the windows, bars on the doors, and everything was locked with a key,” Monet said. “There was no way to get out. I was trapped.” So when the man grabbed her and threw her onto the floor, Monet went into survival mode. She decided that the most important thing was to get out alive. The physical wounds from the attack left her torn and bleeding.

Monet knew how the police would treat her if she tried to report the assault, so she fought back the only way she knew how: she spoke to her friends and colleagues in the sex work community, warning them to stay away from the man who had raped her. But the warning didn’t travel quickly enough. Three weeks later, the same man raped another sex worker.

But that time it was different: The woman fought back. He stabbed her in the face.

“We tried to convince her to report it because we thought the police would take her more seriously than the rest of us — and it turned out there were a lot of us,” Monet says. “But she was 18. She was terrified of the police.” The second victim didn’t report her rape, either.

Monet said the girl disappeared, and she doesn’t know what happened to the man who raped them. She assumes he’s probably still out there, waiting for his cage house to trap its next victim. If history is any evidence, serial rapists target sex workers first. And when they get away with it, they’re still out there: free to hunt all women.

“We need prostitutes to be able to report these things, because the bad guys prey on prostitutes first,” Monet said. “When sex workers are afraid of the police, it makes the world a more dangerous place for every single woman.”

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Sex worker’s fears are grounded in the realities of a justice system that criminalizes their livelihood. Prostitutes who report sexual assault to police can be laughed at, ignored, accused of lying, arrested, or worse — even when the assault didn’t necessarily happen on the job. “If a woman [sex worker] tries to bring charges against a partner who has raped her, chances are they’re going to use her job against her in court,” Audacia Ray, whose New York City-based Red Umbrella Project supports current and former sex workers. “It’s the chilling effect of knowing that the law is not with us.”

Reliable statistics about rape and prostitution are nearly impossible to find, since a huge number of survivors don’t report their assaults, but one recent study found that sex workers have a 45 to 75 percent chance of experiencing sexual violence at some point in their careers. Our criminal justice system’s explicit bias against sex workers only compounds the problem. In 2007, a judge in Philadelphia dismissed rape charges against a man who organized the gang rape of a prostitute at gunpoint, saying that his crime was merely “theft of services.” New York State’s 1975 rape shield law—which protects rape victims from having their sexual histories used against them in criminal proceedings—explicitly does not apply to anyone with a prostitution conviction on her record in the past three years. And when another Oakland sex worker, who goes by the name Ms. R, applied for state-funded victim compensation after the serious injuries from a rape left her unable to return to work immediately, she was denied support on the grounds of her job. The police and criminal justice systems treat sex workers as though rape were a mere “occupational hazard” of their work — an accusation that would never be thrown at a bank teller who survived a robbery.

“Sex workers are seen as ‘criminals,’ so it allows a whole section of society to not care if we’re attacked,” said Mariko Passion, an activist and current sex worker who said the police made fun of her when she tried to report a rape. “Criminalization allows people to imagine that we don’t have boundaries, voices or labor rights. It allows them to forget that we can say ‘no,’ too.”

The criminalization of sex work leaves women in that industry without the basic protections and labor standards that apply to people in other risky professions. But another problem — which may be harder to erase — is the stigma: even legal sex workers, such as exotic dancers and phone sex operators, told me they feel afraid to report rape and assault. And while some sex workers turn to advocacy groups, even rape support organizations sometimes perpetuate stigma. After Ms. R’s attack, she sought help from Bay Area Women Against Rape, San Francisco Women Against Rape and the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault — all three of which turned her away when they learned about her job. A male employee at Bay Area Women Against Rape even drove Ms. R to tears when he told her that she was “responsible” for the assault against her.

It’s shocking to hear stories of victim-shaming within the world of advocacy organizations, but that attitude is common to all sexual assault survivors. A recent Washington Post column, for example, mocked a rape victim for having previously “hook[ed] up” with her attacker, and social media rushed to declare the Steubenville rape survivor a “slut” or “prostitute” after her assault. So when our culture rushes to discredit all rape survivors with the implication that they are figurative “prostitutes,” what happens to victims of sexual assault who are literal sex workers?

“I wanted to call the police,” says a soldier in the U.S. Army reserves who works as, in her words, “a massage-centered companion.” “But what could I tell them? That I’m a prostitute and he anally raped me, even though I screamed at him to stop? I knew exactly what they would say. I knew no one would help me.”

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In lieu of legal protections or even support from anti-rape NGOs, some sex workers turn to organizations that specifically campaign for their rights. When Ms. R learned that her victim’s compensation claim had been denied, she reached out to the US PROStitutes Collective, the Erotic Service Providers Union and the ACLU. They took on her case, and successfully campaigned to have California’s discriminatory prohibition overturned. It was a huge — but rare — victory for sex worker rights.

For many, the fundamental problem remains that as long as sex workers fear they might be arrested for doing their jobs — or merely for trying to report an assault — they are driven even deeper underground, where violence and rape thrive unchecked. Hawk Kinkaid, the president of HOOK, the nation’s only grassroots organization that specifically supports male sex workers, said that in most parts of the United States, former prostitutes can be fired for having previously worked in the sex industry. In other words, the criminalization of prostitution makes it difficult for sex workers to change jobs — even when they want to.

A recently leaked policy document from Amnesty International agreed that the criminalization of prostitution leaves sex workers vulnerable to “violence and abuse by police and clients.” Even the criminalization of sex workers’ clients — the so-called “Nordic Model,” which decriminalizes prostitutes but criminalizes their customers — has been “proven to drive those engaged in sex work underground, increasing the risk of violence and abuse.”

Many sex worker advocates also argue that anti-human trafficking initiatives that focus specifically on sex workers depress human rights and labor standards for women who are consensually involved in the erotic industries. They point out that forced labor exists in many industries — in fact, the International Labor Organization estimates that people trafficked into “forced sexual exploitation” make up only roughly one-quarter of all people trafficked into forced labor worldwide. The agriculture industries, for example, have some of the highest rates of forced labor in the United States, but it’s hard to imagine that police would arrest an Alaskan crab fisherman to “protect” him from the risk of trafficking. This double standard puts willing sex workers in danger.

There is some strong evidence to suggest that decriminalization can protect sex workers, and all women, from violent crime. According to a recent paper from the Bureau of Economic Research, rates of rape dropped dramatically after the state of Rhode Island decriminalized indoor prostitution for six years. (In fact, the 31 percent drop in number of reported rapes as so significant that the researchers re-confirmed the data with three separate statistical methods.) After Germany and New Zealand decriminalized sex work, rates of violence against sex workers in those countries similarly decreased.

Several theories explain these trends. First, legal sex workers in frightening situations can threaten to call the police, which may discourage violent escalation. Open and transparent transactional markets also make it easier for sex workers to share information and vet potential clients. And many point out that the criminalization of any field, such as the prohibition of alcohol, has historically allowed criminal organizations (and their resulting violence) to dominate industries.

“No system works 100 percent, but we do know that decriminalization is the number one thing we have to do first,” said Kinkaid. “It’s the only way to have a productive, adult conversation about how to protect people who consciously make a decision to work in this industry.”