The early 1990s and 2000s marked a challenging period for the sex worker rights movement, particularly in the United States. Concerns about human trafficking were being manipulated to further stigmatize sex work. The AIDS crisis and the satanic panic further complicated advocating for sexual freedom. Despite strong support from gay rights advocates, sex workers faced violence from serial killers and abusive law enforcement officers as the “tough on crime” era swept the nation. The movement was struggling to be heard.
During this challenging time, the emergence of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers marked a generational shift. This event was largely facilitated by Robin Fue, a key figure in the founding of SWOP USA, a leading sex worker rights advocacy organization. Robin Fue’s activism was ignited by her own experiences, including arrest for conspiracy to promote prostitution. Her focus shifted from marijuana legalization to decriminalizing sex work following this arrest.
The events of December 17’s inception and growth were heavily influenced by Annie Sprinkle, an internationally recognized advocate and artist. The initial event, held in 2003 in San Francisco, brought together sex workers, allies, and loved ones of victims to publicly mourn and remember those who had lost their lives. Organizers and attendees aimed to challenge the prevailing, dehumanizing narratives around sex work and underscore the need for change. The event quickly gained global traction, with vigils and gatherings held in various cities worldwide.
The power of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers lay in its ability to shift public perception and challenge the narrative around sex work. The first press release, designed by Annie Sprinkle and Robin Fue, called for the repeal of laws against sex work and emphasized the importance of decriminalization. The event focused on reading the names of sex workers who had lost their lives, helping to humanize them and foster empathy among those in attendance. By doing so, the vigil exposed the tragic consequences of violence against sex workers and highlighted the urgent need for change.
The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers played a significant role in solidifying relationships within the sex worker rights movement and facilitating public engagement. It offered an accessible entry point for allies, friends, and family to learn about the experiences and struggles of sex workers. The event’s ritualistic nature allowed people to express their grief and anger while finding the strength to continue advocating for change. The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers twentieth anniversary on December 17, 2023 is a testament to its enduring impact and serves as a call to action for continued advocacy.
The Oldest Profession Podcast reminds listeners that sex workers have always been part of the story. Each episode focuses on an “old pro” from history, contextualizing that figure in their own time and connecting their story to the ongoing struggle for sex worker rights. Kaytlin Bailey created The Oldest Profession Podcast to be an accessible and entertaining resource for anyone who wants to learn more about sex workers and our place in history.