December 17 is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
It happens every year.
It's not only a day to raise awareness of the dangerous conditions many sex workers are forced to operate under as we continue to campaign for decriminalisation of our jobs, but it's also a day on which sex workers — and our allies — can remember those who we have lost over the past year.
The day was first observed in 2003, when Dr. Annie Sprinkle and the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA founded it as a memorial for the victims of serial killer Gary Leon Ridgway. Despite often complaining about the amount of sex workers in his city, he also visited them frequently and a vast majority of the ninety-something women he murdered throughout his life were sex workers of whom he was a client.
It's a case that has startling similarities to US Border Force Agent, Juan David Ortiz: in September this year he was arrested and charged over the deaths of four women, all of whom were said to be sex workers who were working at the time he targeted them.
As a sex worker myself, I can't begin to describe how it makes me feel to see people with whom I share a profession targeted and killed simply for doing the job that they have chosen to do.
While the examples of Gary Leon Ridgway and Juan David Ortiz are certainly extreme, I think that they are absolutely representative of a common belief that sex workers not only wave their right to safety, but are explicitly deserving of violence, for simply existing.
Sex workers challenge many of the beliefs we are raised to have about sex and sexuality, the agency we have over our bodies, and — crucially — the way money can be exchanged for labour.
In a society where women in particular are told that so much of their value lies in their own sexual purity and inexperience, sex workers do exactly what many women have been told not to do.
We have sex, a lot of sex, and not just with our husbands or partners; and we charge money for the act. Regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, this can be a deeply confronting concept. When we're confronted by things we don't understand, our first reaction can be fear, and when we're afraid, we often turn to violence.
A few days ago, I was scrolling through some Twitter replies to one of my columns when I saw a comment left by a man. "Who cares," he wrote, in reference to sex workers.
"They are just holes in the wall."
A few days earlier I had woken up to find a Facebook message still freshly glowing on my screen. It read, succinctly, "You should be raped."
I receive comments like these pretty frequently, and even though I don't reply, I do look at the photos of the people who send them. They're not always the kind of people you imagine would spend their time harassing sex workers on the internet, either: some of them are people my age. Some are teachers, some work in hospitals. Some are women and some are even mothers, their daughters smile up at me through their photos on my screen.
I write from a particularly privileged position. I'm a white, cisgendered woman working in New South Wales, one of only a few places in the world where sex work is decriminalised. Decriminalisation is the legal model that most sex workers believe creates the safest and fairest environment in which to work, and it's also been endorsed by Amnesty International and the World Health Organisation.
In a place where sex work is decriminalised, I could go to the police if something were to happen to me at work — if a client assaulted me, for example — and report the crime without worrying that I'm also reporting myself as having committed the crime of doing sex work.
A recent study from the UK found that sex workers living and working in places where sex work is criminalised were three times more likely to experience sexual or physical violence from a client than sex workers in places where their work was legalised or decriminalised.
Where sex work is illegal or heavily criminalised, sex workers are frequently forced to take great risks.
Individuals are forced to avoid encounters with the police and often don't feel that they can screen clients safely, work in pairs or groups, or enforce safer sex practises during bookings. Sex workers in countries operating under the Nordic Model of sex work legislation — where it's legal to be a sex worker but illegal to pay for the services of a sex worker — faced similar dangers, with some workers reporting that their clients' fear around being caught by police meant they had to rush in to jobs with little time to negotiate over prices and services.
Anecdotally, I know that many sex workers working in places where sex work is illegal will not go to the police if a crime is committed against them: meaning that violence against sex workers is not only rife in these places, but also highly under-reported.
Decriminalising sex work would, I believe, go a long way in preventing violence against sex workers and helping us to live and work safely, healthily, and happily. But it's not enough.
There has to be a societal change in the way that sex workers are viewed and it has to come fast.
As long as we continue to allow sex workers to be seen as invisible, disposable, fallen women and punchlines to "dead hooker" jokes, we create an environment in which our lives have less value than those around us and our deaths are worth no more than a headline in a newspaper.
Sex workers are powerful and intelligent people, but as the International Day to End Violence Against us passes for the fifteenth time with sex workers still fighting for their rights and their lives around the globe, we need allies as well.
Whenever you can, speak up for sex workers if you see us being used as punchlines or headline fodder.
Show us respect. Demand decriminalisation.
Our lives, quite literally, depend on it.