Day of the Dead, Maimed and Missing: Dec. 17, International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

Demonstrators will light candles on Dec. 17 in remembrance of fallen sex workers. (sweis78 via Flckr)
As the federal government continues its war on sex work, sex workers push back and remember the fallen on Dec. 17, International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

In an apparent act of unintentional irony, just three days before International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a statement announcing the conclusion of its investigation into allegations that, “while working for the FBI overseas, multiple then-FBI officials solicited, engaged in, and/or procured commercial sex.”

Of these, the OIG found that four FBI officials “accepted commercial sex overseas,” while one merely solicited it and another failed to report it. There was a noted “lack of candor” amongst this group, with one person outright lying about obtaining commercial sex abroad, which is “in violation of DOJ and FBI policies.”

There were also allegations about one official providing “a package containing approximately 100 white pills to deliver to a foreign law enforcement officer.” Of those involved, “two resigned, two retired, and one was removed, all while the OIG’s investigation was ongoing.”

No names are given, natch. And there is no indication that charges have been or will be brought. Even if the FBI agents played John in countries where such transactions are legal, for ordinary schmos, lying to the FBI is a punishable offense. Just ask Martha Stewart.

It is true that the majority of Americans believe that consensual adult prostitution should be decriminalized. But the FBI ain’t most Americans.

Over the past two decades, the bureau has acted as a national vice squad, pursuing a war on all sex work, even the adult, consensual kind, in what it portrays as a crackdown on sex trafficking, or non-consensual commercial sex, which involves either children or adults coerced into the sex trade.

As the magazine Reason has reported, for years the feds invested untold millions into a multi-agency task force known as “Operation Cross Country,” which generally involved arresting adults and coercing them to cooperate as “victims” or face prosecution.

These nationwide vice busts were so unsuccessful at nabbing any actual sex traffickers that, with typical federal government logic, the FBI extended the length of the operation from one week to one month, changing its name to “Operation Independence Day,” which of course put sex workers in handcuffs just like its predecessor.

Asked about the recent OIG report, Juliana Piccillo, filmmaker, former sex worker and co-founder of the Tucson chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), found it to be, sadly, par for the course.

“It encapsulates the essential hypocrisy of attitudes towards sex work in this country,” she explains. “The very people who are most doggedly pursuing and arresting us are also customers.”

The policing of people’s sex lives, including the criminalization of sex work, almost naturally leads to violence, Piccillo observes. The trauma that sex workers experience at the hands of law enforcement, being subject to stings and arrests, is akin to rape, she says. And cops often coerce sex workers into sex as a form of protection or a way to avoid arrest.

“Criminalization is constantly reinforcing the stigma [against sex workers],” Piccillo says. “We lose our children. We can’t get jobs. We’re ostracized from family, community, other connections, churches. Sex workers also suffer intimate partner violence, because of this stigma partners often feel like they have the right to be abusive.”

Day of Rage, Remembrance

On Dec. 17, sex workers and their allies will push back on this stigma by lighting candles and reading the names of their fallen comrades as part of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Beginning at 5:30 p.m., Piccillo and others will gather at Tucson’s “El Tiradito” shrine in the city’s Barrio Viejo (old neighborhood) to read a list of 46 names of U.S. sex workers who died of violence in 2021.

COYOTE RI, the Rhode Island chapter of the legendary sex workers’ rights group, Call Off Your Tired Old Ethics, is hosting a virtual event Dec. 17, 7-10 p.m. EST, at this web address, https://tinyurl.com/bsdufym6. COYOTE has also posted a video for those who can’t make the virtual event.

According to Piccillo, locals have been marking the day at El Tiradito ever since this day of rage and remembrance was co-founded in 2003 by sex-positive feminist and porn-pioneer Annie Sprinkle and national SWOP leaders in response to the trail of victims left by Seattle serial killer Gary Ridgway, who confessed to killing 49 women, but may have killed nearly twice that.

Ridgway confessed that he targeted sex workers almost exclusively, “because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.” In that, he is not alone. Sex workers have been the preferred target of serial killers such as Jack the Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe (aka, the “Yorkshire Ripper”), and Samuel Little, the 78-year-old Ohio man believed to have killed more than 90 women in 19 states from 1970 to 2005.

Studies have shown that one-third of all sex-worker deaths are due to serial murderers.

El Tiradito
The shrine El Tiradito, the “little castaway,” at 420 South Main Ave., in Tucson, AZ Tucson. (Stephen Lemons)

The situation has only been made worse with the passage by Congress in 2018 of SESTA/FOSTA, which effectively outlawed anything that even resembled online ads for sex work in the United States. Subsequent studies by the federal government have shown that those ads have fled overseas, to sites that do not cooperate with law enforcement, making it nearly impossible for police to track down actual sex trafficking when it happens.

Even Craigslist, which had shut down its adult services section in 2010 in response to threats from Congress and state Attorneys General, felt the need to close its personals section, for fear someone might misuse it to advertise sex for money. Researchers studied the effects of Craigslist’s adult section going dark in a paper first published in 2017, finding that the adult listings “reduced the female homicide rate by 10-17 percent.”

El Tiradito
The plaque at El Tiradito, explaining its origins. (Stephen Lemons)

The indifference of the government and law enforcement to the victimization of vulnerable women is astounding. For Piccillo, this state of affairs makes El Tiradito the perfect location for Friday’s memorial.

The name of the space is Spanish for “the little castaway,” and refers to the legend of an adulterer, murdered by a jealous husband and buried in unconsecrated ground because the Catholic Church refused to lay the sinner to rest.

The parallel to the plight of sex workers is both terrible and moving.

“Sex workers are cast away,” says Piccillo. “Sex workers are considered outside of the ability to be saved, redeemed, forgiven, all these kinds of things. And that’s what that space represents . . . a place to pray for people who are cast out.”

El Tiradito Shrine is located at 420 S. Main Ave., Tucson, AZ. The event takes place Friday, Dec. 17, starting at 5:30 p.m.

And ICYMI, please read:
Judge Denies Defense Motion to Free Funds Seized by Government in Lacey/Larkin Case
and
Julian Assange: A Journalist Marked for Death by the United States

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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