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COYOTE RI observes the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers



The criminalization of sex work does nothing to help sex workers pay for childcare or their rent. “When people are going to jail, they’re losing their apartments, they’re losing their vehicles, they’re losing all this stability they’ve created,” said Bella Robinson, executive director of COYOTE RI.

COYOTE RI‘s observance of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers yesterday began, as always, with a video of tho 48 sex workers who lost their lives to violence or drugs or just neglect by society in 2019. On this day, the commitment to the ongoing struggle for the safety, wellbeing and rights of all sex workers is renewed.

In 2003, renowned sexologist, educator, and former sex worker Annie Sprinkle organized the first International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers. For over a period of more than 15 years, from 1982 through 1998, a total of 49 girls and women disappeared in King County, Washington and were later found dead. The media dubbed the unknown perpetrator as the Green River Killer because some of the victims were found in or near that river. In November of 2003, Gary Leon Ridgeway pleaded guilty to 48 counts of murder and related charges and on December 17, 2003, he was sentenced to 48 life terms in prison plus 480 additional years. The first December 17 memorial observance was held the very day that Ridgeway was sentenced for his crimes.

Ridgeway and other killers preyed on sex workers because law enforcement does not consider them fully human. Samuel Little said he strangled 93 victims between 1970 and 2005. Little confessed to 93 murders, and FBI crime analysts believe all of his confessions are credible. Most of Little’s victims were women of color, sex workers, hitchhikers, and individuals from other marginalized communities. Due to a lack of interest by police, many of his victims’ deaths were originally ruled overdoses or attributed to accidental or undetermined causes. Some bodies were never found. For many years, Little believed he would not be caught because he thought no one was accounting for his victims.

Sex Workers in Rhode Island are far from immune to violence. Remembered at last night’s vigil were 20-year-old Mary Grier, an online escort, who booked an appointment and went to a man’s home in Cranston where she was beaten to death and 24-year old Ashley Masi, a young mother who struggled to support her three young daughters, who was strangled with a zip tie and murdered in her third-floor apartment in Elmhurst.

The International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers is an opportunity to come together to publicly honor Sex Workers that we have lost to violence. The majority of violence against sex workers is not just violence against sex workers – it is also simultaneously violence against transgender women and people, against women of color, against drug users, against the undocumented and migrants, and against the homeless. We cannot end the marginalization and victimization of all sex workers without also fighting rampant transphobia, racism, stigma, the criminalization of drug users, and xenophobia.

Bella Robinson has been the director of COYOTE RI for over ten years. She introduced the program of speakers.

Prabhdeep Singh Kehal, a Brown University PhD candidate in sociology and COYOTE RI’s communications director explained much of the history I opened the piece with above.

Robinson spoke about “the mass surveillance of sex workers” propagated by trainings given by law enforcement and other anti-sex worker rights organizations that focus on “rescuing” sex workers. “Rescue usually means handcuffs,” said Robinson. “You’re put in cages, the courts give you fines to pay and the state’s allowed to kidnap your children. The United States federal government is spending about a half a billion dollars a year funding any NGO that will create awareness about trafficking.

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“This is all because of community surveillance,” said Robinson. “We’ve seen what the surveillance with the drug war has done… I can’t remember the name of the bill, but there’s a federal bill they’re trying to pass that says if you sell drugs to a sex worker, you will be a sex trafficker. And we all know the government still consider weed a drug. So if you sell me a joint, you’re going to be labeled as a trafficker. Last year we had an 18-year old girl charged with sex trafficking. I’m pretty sure both of the girls were 17. engaging in survival sex, running away, then one of them turns 18 and she is now going to be charged with sex trafficking…”

The criminalization of sex work does nothing to help sex workers pay for childcare or their rent. “When people are going to jail, they’re losing their apartments, they’re losing their vehicles, they’re losing all this stability they’ve created,” said Robinson.

Ari Toole is COYOTE’s Youth Coordinator and the host of Coyote’s cable-access TV show The Good Neighbors. Here she talks about her involvement with “the first TV show about sex worker rights in the country.” You can watch the first episode here.

Arya Serenity broke my heart talking about her life engaging in “survival sex” as a youth. She is COYOTE’s Transgender Service Coordinator.

Zoe Dash spoke about HIPS, an org that workers with sex workers and drug users in Maryland.

“HIPS has been working on getting legalization in DC. The most recent bill they put forward in 2019 did not go through… All it asked for was the decriminalization of sex work, and the ability for sex workers to communicate directly to law enforcement without being persecuted by them for the communication.”

“Healthcare workers are told that sex workers should be immediately reported, that the cops should come into the ER or the hospital, and that patients should not be informed about these policies. One of the biggest parts of this continuing education program is getting healthcare providers to sit with what their role is at as a healthcare provider. Basically their role is to provide healthcare and meet someone where they’re at. Their role is not to pass judgment, not to report someone, not to separate them from their children, from their support systems, from their work that allows them to support themselves as they see fit.”

Elena Shih, COYOTE’s Research Director. Shih is an Assistant Professor of American and Ethnic Studies and a Faculty Fellow at CSSJ-Brown Human Trafficking Research Cluster. She spoke about Asian massage parlor outreach.

“The policing of Asian massage work has had deadly consequences,” said Shih. “In 2017 Yang Song, a Chinese migrant worker working in flushing Queens, fell to her death when the NYPD raided her workplace.

“All over North America we’re seeing the emergence of new massage parlor ordinances that are the ways that the police and ICE are able to police these areas. Just last week, the Pawtucket Police Department and Homeland Security raided three massage shops in Pawtucket and arrested 19 people and notably only three were arrested for solicitation of prostitution charges and the rest were arrested for violations related to licensing.

“In 2016, Gina Raimondo passed a body works ordinance that was intended to distinguish Asian massage work as a kind of racialized, low work and unregulated industry from formal licensed massage therapy. You see these bills popping up all over North America because anti-trafficking forces have partnered with the police, have partnered with professional associations like the American massage therapy association, all people who are in favor of gentrification and fear decreasing property values when they see the threats of so-called Asian massage bars.”

Matthew Marciello, COYOTE’s office manager and an undergraduate student at Brown University spoke about legislation introduced last year and to be introduced again this year to “to create a special legislative commission to study the health and safety impacts of revising commercial sexual activity laws.” The bill, introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams (Democrat, District 9, Providence) died in committee last year.

“Basically what this will do is create a 12 member commission that will include a force of people that are getting at the angle of sex work and anti-sex work laws from scholarly, activist and political dimensions. Two of those seats would guarantee having a member of COYOTE and Amnesty International on that study commission to make sure that the laws that are being created are created through discourse with the people affected.”

“Basically it’s about having a grown folk conversation,” said Representative Williams. “That’s all, and folks are so afraid of that, but they talk about it behind closed doors. Let’s be adults and let’s just be honest and open for once period. It’s not mandated anyone to do anything that they don’t want to do. But if you have two consenting adults, that’s their business. That is not anybody else’s business but theirs, period.”

In her closing remarks, Robinson reminded those attending that Representative William bill for a sex work study commission was going to be introduced at the State house on March 3, 2020, also known as International Sex Worker Rights Day.

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.