December 17th will be the 10th anniversary of The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (lovingly nicknamed Red Umbrella Day). The red umbrella is a symbol of safety for sex workers and was first used for this purpose at a march in Venice in 2002. Red Umbrella Day was born in Seattle as a memorial and vigil for the many women murdered by Gary Ridgway, the “Green River Killer”, who had targeted sex workers for over 20 years before being caught. Today this day is about resistance. Sex workers all over the world have a rich history of resistance; resistance of stigma and criminalization, and resistance of violence.
In Canada, sex workers in Ontario demonstrated this resistance by bringing a challenge of the prostitution laws all the way to the Supreme Court. These women have challenged the laws that deny sex workers rights including the right to free speech, and the right to safety under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In Vancouver, we see this resistance as sex workers fight the police and the city to have their safety taken seriously. In Canada, hundreds of women working the strolls have gone missing and have been killed. Red Umbrella day is a time to remember and mourn the sex workers murdered by Robert Pickton.
While exchanging sex for money or other goods is not inherently dangerous or illegal, the stigma and shame around sex work results in sex workers being seen as easy targets for abuse. Many sex workers have resisted this by implementing precautions to help to keep themselves safer, and by relying on strong systems of support with other workers. However, for many sex workers, other marginalizing factors such as racism, disability, poverty, addiction, and exploitation can decrease their ability to keep themselves safe. For some sex workers, the complex oppressions they experience decrease their ability to negotiate condom use or screen their clients before entering their vehicles or homes.
There is an urgent need for the public to stand up for the basic human rights of sex workers. Sex workers have the right to be safe. For far too long, jokes about sex workers being harmed or killed have been accepted, resulting in a general consensus that sex workers’ lives are not of value. The criminalization of sex work often means that sex workers experience barriers to accessing the police when they are harmed, for fear of being charged as criminals themselves. This means that very often violent individuals go unpunished when they target sex workers. Sex workers are our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons: They deserve to be safe.
At Shift, we strive to help our clients fight for their safety and heal from any traumas they may have experienced while working. We do not believe sex workers ‘deserve’ to be harmed, no matter what situation they are in. We are honored to get to work with sex workers and support the fight for their right to be safe. We will continue to offer our support to any adult who is currently, or has previously been involved in sex work. This day is for them.