Yesterday, approximately 40 people marched down Bourbon Street in observance of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers
. Wearing red petticoats and carrying red parasols, the group paid tribute to the 174 women who were murdered while engaging in sex work this year. Of these victims, a disproportionate number were black.
"In the U.S., more than half of the victims have been African-American consistently, which is totally disproportionate," says Katherine Koster, communications director for the Sex Workers Outreac
h Project (SWOP). "There's a strong connection between violence against sex workers and police brutality and the criminalization of people of color. This really is an intersectional
Twenty-three percent of GBLT homicides recorded in the 2012 Anti-Violence Report
were connected to sex work. The stigma and cultural hatred toward sex workers is a second motivator in these murders, Koster says, making them hate crimes.
member Hellena Handbasket says minority and trans women sex workers are targeted by police in New Orleans. "When Nola.com reports on prostitution stings, it's always a lineup of trans women of color," she says. "There is a reason why they are targeting minority and trans women — racism and trans phobia. Sex workers are targeted by violent criminals and law enforcement alike."
The New Orleans Police Department was recently investigated by the Office of Inspector General for failing
to investigate 86 percent of 1,290 sex crime-related calls
. "This is a testament to how we see sexual violence and how we deal with it in this city, not just for sex workers, but even in the most noncontroversial cases," Handbasket says. "Think about what happens when the target is not the perfect victim."
In most of these cases, the victim does not come forward at all, which is one reason criminalization of sex work contributes to violence against sex workers. Koster says there are many instances of sex workers being handcuffed and raped by people posing as police officers. Handbasket says the majority of sex workers who are victims of sex crimes do not report them.
"It's not even that [the NOPD] won't investigate it, but sex workers are afraid of being arrested themselves," Handbasket says.
Koster says sex workers experience sexual exploitation by police officers. According to a 2004 study
by the University of Chicago, for every sex worker arrest a police officer makes, there is at least one instance of a sex worker engaging in coerced sexual contact with a cop. "We have shown sex workers repeatedly engage in sex with cops to evade arrest," Koster says. "It is another form of sexual exploitation of already marginalized populations."
Part of SWOP's mission is raising awareness "that violence against sex workers is a really big issue," Koster says. "Sex workers are human beings, and this is an important women's issue, police misconduct issue, GLBT rights issue and human rights issue." SWOP's members also seek to support and be a resource for local sex workers, some of whom don't understand what the term "sex work" means, according to Narcissa, an exotic dancer at a Bourbon Street club.
"There were some street-goers [at the march] who thought 'sex work' only means prostitution. It does not," she says. "Sex work is a blanket term for those of us who work in the adult industry. This includes phone sex operators, cam girls/boys, strippers, exotic dancers, escorts, adult entertainers, pro-dommes and so much more."
Narcissa calls the Dec. 17 march "completely successful."
"As we walked, groups, individuals and couples of all ages were smiling and asking to take pictures," she says. "Some were even raising their fists in the air, and then to their hearts. ... We as sex workers should not be mistreated in any way because of our professions. So many people seemed to agree."