As tourists shopped for Christmas gifts in the brightly lit Westlake Center, sex worker and performance artist Vee Chattie sat half-naked in the rain on a towel in front of Nordstrom Rack and wrote down names from a 14-page list of sex workers who have been killed this year alone. Sadie. Leila. Sonia. Unknown. Their hands were shaking from the cold as they transcribed the names onto individual pieces of paper blotted with fake blood. They had poured the blood from a vessel marked "FOSTA-SESTA," a reference to the House and Senate bills that have effectively worsened conditions for sex workers and censored free speech on the internet.
A few bicycle cops rode up to make sure they weren't actually bleeding. A passerby asked if they were okay. Another stopped by to voice his agreement. "We have to stop the violence," he said. In that moment, these Seattleites showed more human concern for Chattie than many show for sex workers on a regular basis. It was effective performance art.
Sex workers endure inordinately high rates of violence in the U.S. and across the globe. We've known this for years. But, as we've been covering on Slog all day, recent laws and corporate cowardice are conspiring to make life more dangerous for those who labor in the world's oldest profession.
Chattie was protesting FOSTA-SESTA, but they were also honoring the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Work, which has been held every year on Dec. 17 since 2003. Local post-porn modernist Annie Sprinkle started the day to acknowledge the victims of Gary Leon Ridgeway (aka The Green River Killer), but Sex Workers Outreach Project and others have expanded it "to call attention to hate crimes committed against sex workers all over the globe," according to the ICRSE.
"This has been a really hard year for sex workers," said Savannah Sly, an organizer and sex worker who demonstrated with Chattie. "We've seen an uptick of people turning to the streets and bars for hustling. The strip clubs are flooded, which is compromising labor rights for dancers. And we're seeing a decrease in screening practices, an increase in pimp recruiting, and clients asking for 'freebies' or wanting to decrease safer sex practices."
"A lot of predators are sniffing desperation right now," Sly added. "They know that sex workers are economically compromised. And so sex workers have considerably less leverage now."
Shutting down websites such as Backpage.com and Craigslists Personal ads and wiping out "adult content" on websites such as Tumblr has made sex workers much more vulnerable to exploitation, Sly explained, because they can no longer work as independently as they did before. The internet created a buffer between sex workers and their clients, giving them time and a place to speak with one another on backchannels and to vet new clients.
"FOSTA and SESTA criminalize this communication," Sly said. "We are absolutely against sex trafficking. But censorship bills are not the way to go about it. A rights-based approach is the way to go about it. Decriminalizing sex work for one, would be a great start. Protecting sex workers from having their kids taken away, or being evicted from their homes, or losing their straight jobs—there's lots of work we could do that doesn't have to feed the prison industrial complex."
Locally, Sly called for Seattle to reevaluate its policy of prosecuting johns in an effort to deter demand for sex workers, a strategy known as the Nordic model, and to change course. The approach doesn't work, she argued, because reducing the number of available clients decreases sex worker leveraging power and increases the likelihood of running into predators.