It may have been a small crowd on a Tuesday night in East Los Angeles, but the solidarity in the room was palpable.
December 17 is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, on which the sex worker community remembers those lost to violence in the past year.
This day of remembrance and activism was established 2003 by sex worker, artist, and activist Annie Sprinkle and the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) USA to memorialize the victims of serial killer Gary Ridgway. Known as the Green River Killer, Ridgway preyed on vulnerable women in Washington state during the 1980s and ’90s, exploiting the stigma against sex work to avoid capture. He famously told the court, before his sentencing, “I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up, without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away, and might never be reported missing,”
On the evening of Tuesday, December 17, 2019, a group of around 20 sex workers and allies came together at Altamed’s chapel location in East Los Angeles to support one another and grieve collectively. Attendees enjoyed hot coffee and other beverages from Altamed and a meal of kale salad, empanadas, lentil patties, and mashed sweet potatoes courtesy of the Los Angeles chapter of SWOP. There were safer sex supplies and informational resources such as Know Your Rights materials available, and AltaMed provided free HIV screening for guests. Reporters from LA Magazine and Voice of America circulated, shooting footage of the event and interviewing organizers and others present.
On the walls hung art by sex workers and their allies, created as part of the Vision Quilt at last year’s event. Inspired by the AIDS Quilt, the Vision Quilt is a nationwide community art project which invites members of impacted communities to imagine an end to gun violence. 14 of the 49 sex workers who died in the United States in 2018 were killed by gunshot, higher than any other cause of death, and over half of the women in the United States killed by intimate partner violence — including violence from clients — are killed with a gun. Earlier this year Vanessa Campos, a transgender, Peruvian migrant sex worker, had been shot to death in the streets of Paris as she tried to stop a group of men from robbing her client. For these reasons, the theme of the workshop had been imagining an end to gun violence against sex workers, and participants had created panels addressing a number of factors contributing to the problem including the criminalization of and stigma against sex work, as well as capitalist exploitation.
After eating and socializing, those gathered began writing holiday cards to incarcerated sex workers through SWOP Behind Bars National Pen Party Project. Lotus Lain, Industry Advocate for the Free Speech Coalition, and Riley Reyes, Chairperson of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, two organizations that aim to protect workers in the adult film industry, were both participants.
Lain noticed that the prisoner shares her birthday and, like Lain, is a black woman. Struck by this coincidence, Lain took down the woman’s address so that she could write to her again in the future. Another woman remarked that the person she was writing to shared a birthday with her mother.
Finally, it was time for the vigil portion of the night. The lights were dimmed, and everyone stood in a circle holding electric tea lights and passed around a smart phone, taking turns reading names from a list of those who had died during the year. The list was so long this year, over 200 sex workers killed internationally, that after it went around the circle three times, I finished reading it myself, and by the end a number of us were weeping.
The majority of people on the list were, sadly and unsurprisingly, transgender women, and many of them were from Brazil, where the murder rate for trans women is horrific. According to a 2017 report by the National Association of Trans People and Transsexuals, a trans person is killed in Brazil every 48 hours, and 94 percent of them are women. A number of workers on the list were as young as 19 or 20, the same age as many of my students at the University of Southern California. “People are out there killing children,” I thought to myself.
Following the vigil, a member of SWOP-LA led the group in healing exercise. We breathed in, said, “Let’s end violence against sex workers,” breathed out, told each other, “You are loved,” and gave each other hugs. One person tearfully confessed that never before had they felt so supported by their community. It may have been a small crowd on a Tuesday night in East Los Angeles, but the solidarity in the room was palpable.
Lauren Levitt is a PhD student at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication.