What’s the Right Way to Protect Sex Workers?

Photo: Erik Schottstaedt/Corbis

“Heather,” an independent call girl in Charleston, West Virginia, has become a sex-industry superhero of sorts: Last week, she fatally shot a would-be attacker with whom she’d connected through the escort section of The assailant, Neal Falls, forced his way into her home, pointed a 9-mm gun to her chest, and asked her, “Live or die?” He then tried to strangle her, police reported. When Falls put the gun down momentarily, Heather grabbed the weapon and blindly shot him once in the head, killing him instantly.

A local police official revealed that Falls had a “kill kit” in his car, which included four sets of handcuffs, bulletproof vests, a box cutter, an ax, a machete, knives, a large container of bleach, and a large number of trash bags. Police also found on Falls a list of the names, ages, and phone numbers of six other escorts in the region.

These discoveries led police to surmise that this was likely not Falls’s first attempt at a violent crime, and they now believe he may be linked to the unsolved murders of prostitutes in nine different states. Small wonder prostitutes everywhere are toasting Heather and voicing support. The Twitter hashtags say it all: #sexworkerheroheather, #hookers4heather, #heatherisahero, and #heatherisaSHEro. Kristin DiAngelo, executive director of Sex Workers Outreach Project Sacramento, who identifies herself as “a survivor of sex trafficking, beatings, and sexual assault, and a sex worker who uses the internet to meet clients,” posted a statement about Heather on the organization’s site. She said that she wanted to express her “solidarity and support” for Heather, and went on to consider the conditions that gave rise to her attack.

“Neal Falls targeted sex workers because he knew that we live in quiet isolation,” DiAngelo wrote. “We live in daily terror that police will arrest us for the simple act of earning a living. We are driven underground and painted as either victims or as villains in the media. The laws that dictate our conditions are driven by these myths and misrepresentations.” A crowd-funding effort to help Heather retire from prostitution was started earlier this week. Both among sex workers and in the mainstream media — which has been refreshingly kind toward a sex worker — people are wondering: How many lives might Heather have saved by saving her own?

Meanwhile, a group of Hollywood stars are taking it upon themselves to protect sex workers in a different way. Amnesty International is scheduled to review an internal policy document on sex work this August; and Meryl Streep, Lena Dunham, Anne Hathaway, Kate Winslet, and Emma Thompson are among those who signed a letter calling on the organization to reject a proposal that would endorse the decriminalization of the sex trade worldwide.

“Every day, we combat male access to women’s bodies through power and control,” read the letter. “The exchange of money for such access does not eliminate the violence women face in the sex trade … Amnesty’s reputation in upholding human rights for every individual would be severely and irreparably tarnished if it adopts a policy that sides with buyers of sex, pimps and other exploiters rather than with the exploited.”

In response, Amnesty pointed to research indicating that the criminalization of consensual adult sex work can actually lead to greater abuse against sex workers: “These violations include physical and sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion and harassment, forced HIV testing and medical interventions and exclusions from healthcare, housing and other social and legal benefits,” reads a statement from the organization. Keeping sex workers safe isn’t as simple as Hollywood feminists might believe. Both the Amnesty dustup and the story of Heather connect to a larger issue: What is the best public policy for sex workers?

“Serial murderers who have targeted escorts have admitted they did so because they knew there wouldn’t be much of an investigation, if any,” says Audrey, an escort in Chicago. “Killers of sex workers know that law enforcement and society at large see us as disposable.” If prostitution were broadly decriminalized, this could change, she says. “Let’s say Neal Falls had changed his mind and fled, leaving Heather bruised and battered. Heather would have been able to report the incident without fear of legal repercussions, as her profession would be legal. Keeping prostitution illegal helps no one. No one.”

There are plenty of paradoxes inherent in activism vis-à-vis prostitution — how to protect someone in a vulnerable occupational situation while not appearing to endorse that occupation? How to condemn the ugly realities of coercion and violence without appearing to condemn the women (and men) working as prostitutes? In a line of work where the financial and social inequality on either side of the transaction can be quite pronounced, is true agency possible on the prostitute’s part? These questions are all perfectly legitimate. The problem arises when the proposed answers have more to do with the askers’ distaste for prostitution than with research-supported solutions to help sex workers. It becomes more about the morality and feelings of the savior than those being saved.

“Because some of these [celebrity activists] espouse progressive politics, you’d think they’d consider their own privilege, reserve judgment to some extent, and consider ideas and research from sex worker, academic, and health rights advocates,” says Bay Area sex-work activist Carol Leigh. “The abolitionist approach demonizes commercial sex, and sex-worker-rights activists.”

The chilling reality for prostitutes is that social stigma and fear of tangling with the law all but ensure that they toil in the margins, which leaves them to fend for themselves when it comes to personal safety. Stories like Heather’s, sex-worker activists say, are something that those who oppose decriminalization should keep in mind. For all the celebrities concerned about keeping women in charge of their lives, bodies, and sexual agency, Heather is someone who, literally, took her best shot at it. What better choice did she have?

What’s the Right Way to Protect Sex Workers?