December 17 is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. As we reflect on policy solutions aimed at achieving this goal of this day, a strong emphasis must be placed on addressing the structural forces that expose sex workers to high rates of community and state violence.

Sex workers are subjected to higher rates of violence than any other group. According to a systematic review of research, globally, sex workers have a 45% to 75% chance of experiencing sexual violence on the job. Sex workers of color, migrant sex workers, and sex workers who identify as transgender, nonbinary, or gender non-conforming experience even greater risk of sexual violence and assault. Transgender women of color, especially Black transgender women, are particularly vulnerable. The inequities and prejudice Black trans women face don’t just take the form of physical acts of violence. A study by the National LGBTQ Task Force indicates that Black transgender people have a 26% unemployment rate — four times the unemployment rate of the general population. The study also found other troubling disparities: 41% of Black transgender people have been homeless — more than five times the general population — and 34% of Black transgender people have household incomes less than $10,000 — more than eight times the general population.

These inequalities contribute to why Black transgender women enter into the sex trade at six times the rate of the general population. A 2020 report published by the O’Neill Institute, the Whitman-Walker Institute, and HIPS found that while some sex workers experience their entry to sex work as a genuinely autonomous decision, others feel that it is their only option in a housing and job market that consistently shuts them out.

Criminalization is a central obstacle to sex workers’ access to safer work environments, social support systems, and legal protection. Because sex work continues to be criminalized in the United States, there are very limited options to reduce one’s exposure to violence or to report this violence. Criminalization also contributes to the stigmatization of sex workers, which increases their vulnerability to violent perpetrators and inhibits their ability to seek help. Sex workers are often reluctant to report incidents to police, due to deep-rooted mistrust and fear of criminal charges, stigma, or further abuse. This inability to access justice enables perpetrators to abuse sex workers with impunity, perpetuating high levels of violence.

In order to address the root causes of the violence and discrimination experienced by sex workers, their experiences and needs must be at the center of conversations about legal and policy reforms. Given the disproportionate impact that the criminalization of sex work has on Black and LGBTQIA+ individuals — and Black transgender women in particular — it is of vital importance that special attention be given to their needs and priorities. This requires engaging with these communities — and in a way that is both meaningful and of value to them.

This month, the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition (SWAC) launched the SWAC Storytelling Project, which promises to do just that. The SWAC Storytelling Project creates paid writing opportunities for sex workers in Washington, D.C. In addition to compensating sex workers for their writing with initial support from the O’Neill Institute and HIPS, the project provides editorial support that is tailored to the wants and needs of the storyteller, as well as media outreach services.

By paying sex workers to tell their stories, we can expand access to the privilege of time to write and make art as strategies for self-care, healing, and community connection. The project also aims to destigmatize sex work by generating nuanced and humanizing narratives that come directly from sex workers. At the core of the project is the belief that sex workers deserve to be compensated for their perspectives and expertise, and that their stories are valuable. In the words of Trixie, the project’s first storyteller, “storytelling serves that purpose — to try and get other people to connect to us and see our value. In another vein though, it reminds sex workers that we do have stories that are full and colorful. We were all not just dropped off on a corner somewhere or forced into this work, we are not poster kids for anti-trafficking campaigns. The storytelling can really help us self-reflect on how far we have come and how much we have evolved as a result of doing sex work.” 

In the same crafty and creative spirit that the Storytelling Project came about, SWAC is coordinating a pole dancing showcase and competition on December 18 with On Muvas to fundraise for the project. This will be an opportunity to gather and rally around the talent and skills of D.C.’s sex worker community, not to mention respond to the current venue shortage where dancers can demonstrate their work. Trixie, one of the event’s coordinators, explained that “sex workers need safe spaces to work, when we neglect strip clubs and areas that have high volumes of sex workers in a space as far as infrastructure is concerned — we create the environment for violence to fester and it often does with very little oversight.” The pole party is a sex worker-led initiative to provide those safe spaces.

By investing in projects like the showcase and the Storytelling Project, policymakers and community stakeholders can reduce harm and promote the change necessary in order to make our city — and our country — safer for sex workers.