Press coverage quoting sex worker organizations

Recent press coverage of the murder of a number of women on Long Island has quoted sex worker organizations about the issue. The Long Island Press quoted SWANK and SWOP-NYC using information from their press release on the issues. CNN’s Susan Candiotti spoke to SWOP USA representative Stacey Swimme and SWOP-NYC’s Kate D’Adamo. This coverage is helpful because communities whose members may be effected by this kind of violence are situated as credible sources of information rather than “helpless victims.”

Further, the recent coverage has explored new angles on the story of the “Long Island Serial Killer.” CNN considered whether or not police fail to investigate crimes committed against sex workers. Susan Candiotti noted that that “police officials say that they treat crimes against prostitutes like they would for any other victim” and then presented evidence to the contrary. Stacey Swimme of SWOP USA, who has been an escort for seven years, said that because sex work is criminalized “predators target us because

they know that we can’t trust the police for help.” The mother of Melissa Bartholomew, one of the women killed on Long Island, said that valuable time was lost when New York City police found out that her daughter was a sex worker and failed to pursue the case.

CNN also covered the fact that sex workers and their organizations are now calling for an amnesty on arresting sex workers on Long Island so that workers will not be afraid to come forward to report information about the crimes. The negative consequences of the fear that sex workers have of the police and arrest are very real. In my own experience working with different sex worker communities for over twenty years, I have observed that sex worker are very reluctant to turn to the authorities when serious crimes have been committed against them. For example, on one occasion I was assisting a sex worker who had been raped by a man who posed as a customer. We discussed the option of contacting the police about what had happened but she was terrified that the police would arrest her if she revealed that she had met her attacker in the context of a sex work interaction. With her permission and without using her name, I called the precinct and asked if we could come down to make a report without fear of arrest. The officer I spoke to was supportive and said that he and other officers who could take the report were far more concerned about the rape than anything to do with prostitution-related charges. Even with this information the woman decided not to report what had happened to her. Her choice was understandable given the way police frequently treat sex workers. In many situations the police harass sex workers, physically and sexually abuse them, extort sex from them saying it is a way to avoid being arrested and then arrest them anyway. Why should she have trusted the police to act any better in this particular instance?

The fact that solutions like the amnesty are being highlighted as option in the media in the context of this series of murders on Long Island is helpful. And much more change is needed in terms of how police address crimes against sex workers. In some countries police have established special liaison units (not unlike LGBT liaison units that already exist in parts of the United States) to ensure that sex workers human rights are respected. However, these kinds of actions are limited unless oppressive laws which allow the police to act with impunity–which as Stacey Swimme pointed out when she spoke to CNN are at the root of much violence against sex workers–are also addressed.

By Penelope Saunders