Chicago sex workers demand the right to work without threat of violence

By Rebekah Frumkin

On December 17, a crowd of 30 formed a vigil in front of the Cloud Gate in Millennium Park to honor the lives of sex workers lost to violence. The vigil marked the end of a turbulent year that saw sex worker Alisha Walker sentenced to 15 years in prison after defending herself in a violent altercation with a client.

The occasion was the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers and the crowd was composed of current and former sex workers, their friends and supporters. The event was organized by Support Ho(s)e, an activist collective of sex workers building community for fellow sex workers in Chicago. The group has gained notoriety for rallying in support of Walker.

“It’s important to publicly demonstrate our grief, and publicly demonstrate our demand that the violence end,” said Support Ho(s)e organizer Red Schulte. “We’re saying to the state and the police, ‘Stop criminalizing us.’ It makes it easier for clients to victimize us when they know you won’t protect us.”

As the assembled held candles, heads bowed, the organizers read aloud the names of roughly 140 sex workers who were killed as a result of practicing their profession in 2016. The list, compiled by the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), reflected only deaths that were reported to the police.

The victims hailed from cities all over the world: Tallahassee, Aberdeen and Nakuru to name a few. They were Black, Indigenous, white, Asian and Latinx, transgender/gender nonconforming and cisgender, migrants and non-migrants. Their aggressors included clients, intimate partners and the police. After the names had been read, the vigil closed with a collective scream, an outlet for the attendees’ anger and pain.

“When you’re a sex worker, you’re so deeply aware of the fact that you could get murdered at any time,” said 26-year-old Cathryn Berarovich, a Support Ho(s)e activist who has been doing sex work since she was 17. “And when you get murdered, they’re not going to say, ‘Young woman slain.’ They’re going to say, ‘Prostitute murdered,’ or ‘Hooker killed.’”

Violence against sex workers is prevalent. A 2014 study published by the American Journal of Public Health showed that sex workers around the world have a 45 to 75 percent chance of experiencing workplace violence. And the problem isn’t a new one: according to an Annals of Emergency Medicine survey of over 460 sexual assault cases in a British Columbia emergency room between 1993 and 1997, more than one fifth were filed by sex workers. Relative to other victims of sexual assault, sex workers were found to be “younger, [have] lower incomes, and were more likely to be heroin and/or cocaine users.” They also suffered a greater number of injuries than the assault victims who were not sex workers.

Berarovich emphasized that many sex workers are marginalized people who are unable to make their livings through other, less stigmatized lines of work.

“There are a lot of intersections of oppression, and the most basic is class oppression,” said Berarovich, who comes from a working class background, was unable to attend college and found sex work to be one of few jobs that paid her a good living wage. “There’s ableism: if you’re physically disabled or mentally ill, it’s pretty difficult to hold down a regular job. You can’t call in depressed to work, but with sex work you can — you just turn your phone off.”

For vigil attendee Cidney F., sex work represents an opportunity to change her life. Although Cidney is able to pay rent with money from her office job in the tech industry, she does not make enough to fund the cost of desired gender transition surgeries.

“Trans-related surgeries are incredibly expensive, so I decided to start doing sex work in order to start putting money away for them,” she said. “When I came out as a trans woman at my day job, I wasn’t sure what kind of discrimination I would face, so I maintained sex work as a fallback career as well.”

Cidney is an indoor worker, meaning she meets clients indoors and is able to screen them ahead of time. Workers like Cidney advertise their services on websites such as Eros and Slixa, which charge workers membership fees to join and screen clients for financial viability. Verification sites allow workers to perform informal background checks on potential clients before meeting them as well.

Cidney recognizes that being able to use these websites is a privilege not all workers have. Eros and Slixa are selective about whom they feature: white, cisgender workers are overrepresented in Cidney’s experience. Outdoor workers — i.e. workers who encounter clients on the street and typically work out of their cars — are not able to make use of the internet in the same way.

“[These websites] are resources that are only going to be available to sex workers based on the kind of work they do,” Cidney said. “Obviously street-based workers are not going to have the opportunity to go online and check a national blacklist site before they see a client.”

Outdoor workers who lack the financial resources to solicit and screen clients ahead of time are most likely to face violence from clients and police, says Support Ho(s)e organizer Alex G. These workers are also more likely to be non-white, homeless, transgender or gender nonconforming and queer, according to recent statistics compiled by SWOP.

“A lot of people in this industry who have to work the street economy are trans women of color, and those are the people who we’re showing up for today,” Alex said. “They face the most harm, the most violence. They literally put their bodies on the line because they have to.”

According to Schulte, Support Ho(s)e has been organizing to meet the needs of outdoor workers by bringing them supplies such as gloves, lip balm, condoms, lube, pads, tampons, extra socks and snack bars. In doing so, the activists hope to serve as the outdoor workers’ first line of defense against the brutal winter.

At the vigil’s end, attendees hugged one another. Many broke down into tears. The mood contrasted starkly with the joyful banter of tourists snapping photos in front of the Cloud Gate.

“We’re taught that some labor is more valuable than others, and I want people to take a step back and destroy that internalized whorephobia,” Schulte said. “We’re talking about dignity, respect, decriminalization of our consenting labor. We want to be respected as workers like anyone else.”

(Photo at top: Support Ho(s)e organizers end their December 17 vigil with a collective scream. Photo by Rebekah Frumkin.)

Rebekah Frumkin is a writer and reporter living in Chicago. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Granta, Pacific Standard and In These Times, among other places. Her novel, The Comedown, will be published by Henry Holt in 2018.