I 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. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught. – Gary Ridgeway
December 17th was the first day of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which I’ll discuss at greater length in my Christmas column. But that was a festive, “eat, drink and be merry” sort of celebration which is one of the direct ancestors of our modern Christmas festivities, and as such has nothing to do with the solemn observance modern sex workers hold on this day, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. On this day we remember our sisters who have fallen victim to violence in the past, and work to raise public awareness about the violence which continues against us over much of the world every day due to the marginalization and discrimination which is the inevitable result of the prohibition of our profession.
The story of this day begins on July 8, 1982 when Gary Ridgeway murdered his first victim, a 16-year-old prostitute named Wendy Lee Coffield, and dumped her body in the Green River near Seattle; his next four victims were also disposed of in the same way over the next several weeks, earning him the nickname by which he is best known: The Green River Killer. Over the next two years he killed more than 48 women, most of them prostitutes, but then slowed down dramatically in 1985 once he started dating the woman who was later to become his third wife. Though Ridgeway was suspected of the killings and was actually brought in for questioning twice (in 1984 and 1987), police largely dismissed testimony of prostitutes and didn’t exactly pursue the case with due diligence; as a result Ridgeway was released to continue murdering periodically until at least 1998. He was finally arrested and charged with many of the murders in November of 2001, then in 2003 confessed to 48 murders as part of a plea-bargain to avoid the death penalty (he later confessed to killing about 40 other women whose remains have never been recovered). On December 18th, 2003 he was sentenced to 48 consecutive life sentences plus 480 years. When Ridgeway finally confessed Dr. Annie Sprinkle felt the need to memorialize his victims, so she contacted SWOP founders Robyn Few, Stacey Swimme and Michael Foley and together they planned a vigil at San Francisco City Hall on the eve of Ridgeway’s sentencing. This was the first Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, which has since grown into an international observance with events and vigils in a number of cities around the world.
The red umbrella was first used as a symbol by Venetian prostitutes for a demonstration against human rights abuses in 2001; it was then adopted in 2005 by the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) as a symbol of resistance to discrimination. After this it was natural that the red umbrella become associated with the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers as well, and it appears in the event’s logo; in the last few years the red umbrella has become the symbol of sex worker rights and resistance to oppression.
As we’ve discussed many, many times in the past, violence from the police, bad customers and monsters like Gary Ridgeway, Jack the Ripper, Steven Wright and Maury Travis is all too common a part of the lives of prostitutes, most especially streetwalkers; too many men who don’t even have the excuse of sociopathy consider whores to be disposable, “non-persons” against whom assault, robbery or rape is permissible. A large part of the reason for this is the suppression of our trade; the laws criminalizing our profession allow weak-minded men (and even some women) to convince themselves that since we are “criminals” we don’t deserve to be treated like human beings, and the attitude of both the law and the police makes it difficult to impossible for sex workers of any kind, especially prostitutes, to even be heard by the police much less have crimes against us investigated. Hookers who dare to report rapes, robbery or other brutalization may even be arrested and subjected to further brutalization (including rape) at the hands of the police.
It’s impossible to overstate the extent of the problem; of the 160 columns I’ve published since July, 27 have referred to some sort of violence, threat of violence or other victimization against whores; you might consult the columns of July 25th and 26th, August 4th, 6th, 17th, 25th and 27th, September 11th, 24th, 28th and 29th, October 3rd, 5th, 14th, 19th and 29th, November 2nd, 4th, 6th, 12th, 14th, 16th and 27th and December 3rd, 7th, 8th and 14th if you have the stomach for it.
The news media are also full of it; here’s a report from New York on a possible new serial killer, at least one of whose victims appears to have been a prostitute. This one is about police violence against sex workers in Cambodia, and here’s an article and video of a woman being beaten by Sudanese police for “adultery and brothel-keeping.” And that’s just what I could find scanning a few websites Tuesday afternoon.
As long as our profession continues to be criminalized or de facto criminalized via “legalization”, these chronic abuses will continue; this day is therefore not merely one of memorial, but one to raise public awareness about the rights of sex workers and to speak out for decriminalization. Go to the SWOP website and read more about this annual observance; public events are scheduled in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Brussels, Belgium; Chicago, Illinois; Denver, Colorado; Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Hong Kong; Kingston, Ottawa and Toronto, Ontario; Lake Worth, Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada; London and West Yorkshire, England; Montreal, Quebec; Nairobi, Kenya; New York City; San Diego and San Francisco, California; Seattle, Washington; Tucson, Arizona; Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia; and Willimantic, Connecticut (details available on the SWOP site). If you don’t live in or near one of those places you can still participate by organizing your own informal gathering with sex worker friends; donating to the Sex Workers Outreach Project, Desiree Alliance, St. James Infirmary or other sex worker aid organization; spreading the word about the day; talking about the topic to people you feel may be receptive; or even just carrying a red umbrella. And to start you off, here’s a video called “Bad Rehab”, produced by the Asian-Pacific Network of Sex Workers to protest the abuse perpetrated against Southeast Asian prostitutes by police and “rescue” organizations.