Friday, 17 December 2010

International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

My heart is at Crossbones Graveyard tonight.  Today is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.  Today in many locations around the world people are coming together for workshops and seminars, for marches and peaceful demonstrations, for candlelight vigils and prayer to honour this day and bring awareness to mainstream society that even in this modern day and age, women and men are targets for violence and intimidation because of the work they do.

This Day was founded by the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA in 2003 as a memorial for the victims of the Green River killer, Gary Ridgway, who is known to have killed over 70 women (although it's believe he killed more than 90), many of whom were prostitutes.  In a confession, he admitted he targeted prostitutes because they were "easy to pick up and that he hated most of them".  Since then, this Day has become internationally recognised as a call to end violence and intimidation against sex workers as well as to remove the societal disapproval and discrimination against sex workers.

When I learned of SWOP's efforts in the US, I was surprised to see that there was seemingly no organised effort in London to recognise this Day.  London is famous for being the site of the Jack the Ripper murders, probably one of the first, if not the first, internationally recognised campaign of hate crimes against prostitutes in more modern times.  For me, the Ripper murders still hit home as the sites of the murders are but 10-12 miles from where I live and I've done "the tour" and visited the most of the sites.  The victims - Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly - are all buried in cemeteries that are but 5 miles from where I live.  I previously lived less than a mile from one cemetery where several of these women were buried and passed it on a regular basis.  Now I regularly pass by the cemetery where Mary Kelly is buried and I often think of her when I do.  

Although the Ripper murders were a very long time ago, murdering prostitutes is still not unheard of in present times in the UK.  Let us not forget a mere four years ago in Ipswich, Suffolk, five women -  Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton, Annette Nicholls and Paula Clennell - all prostitutes were murdered by Steve Wright in 2006.  I remember the many news stories about these shocking crimes and the relief of the nation when the killer was finally caught.  But they never should have happened.  

Crossbones Graveyard would have been the perfect location for a candlelight vigil, being the unconsecrated "single women's graveyard" (a euphemism for prostitutes), many of whom were no doubt subjected to violence, intimidation and threats throughout their lives.  Unfortunately, the weather has been against me today.  Although it would have been a beautiful to see a plethora of candles lit up against a clear night sky and a background of snow, I could not consider it safe when conditions are quite icy and the temperatures below freezing.  I became aware, after organising the vigil at Crossbones, that someone else was organising another event to commemorate the day (with speakers and whatnot - and unfortunately the details are now gone from my Facebook) so I felt better for knowing that the day would not go unrecognised in London if I cancelled.

I do not know any statistics.  I imagine they would be inaccurate anyway.  The fact is that people who work in the sex industry are still stigmatised as being somehow less than human, less than worthy of protection or being treated with respect because of the work they do.  The biggest perpetrator is society as a whole.  Despite the radical changes in modern thinking over the last 100 years, sex workers are still viewed with disgust and disdain.  This trickles down from the politicians, who won't do anything to change laws yet secretly partake of the entertainment offered by sex workers, the police officers who have no choice but to enforce the law and in some instances choose to enforce their own personal agendas by expressing their own personal bias against sex workers, the shady employer who threatens his employees with violence in order to keep them working and therefore supporting his way of life while his employees lack decent living conditions, health care and education, the client who cannot see beyond his own sexual urges to see the human being he is paying to entertain him as being an intelligent person worthy of respect, in some instances having no problem subjecting the sex worker to violence simply because s/he is a sex worker.  Let us also not forget the religious organisations, not just Christian, who continue to demonise sex workers and sex in general as being immoral, using fear to keep people believing that sex and anyone engaging in it in any manner outside of a consecrated marriage is bad, wrong and worthy of open contempt.  

For me, though, it goes beyond what happens in the secular sex industry.  As a Priestess of the Goddess I have many Sister Priestesses and Brother Priests who serve Goddess through sacred sexuality, as sex therapists, as temple prostitutes, sacred courtesans, as quadishtu.  For them, many feel this service must be in secret as their families, employers, co-workers, friends, etc. would not understand.  They are every bit at risk of being subjected to violence and intimidation as those in the secular sex industry from those who would view their service as criminal and those who would take advantage.  

It's clear that the time has come to stop criminalising sex workers and the sex industry.  With de-criminlisation comes a new paradigm that sees sex workers being given respect, proper legal protection and treated like human beings.  So it is on this day that we remember those sex workers who have been and still are subject to violence and especially those who lost their lives as a result.  We remember you this day and call for change so that women and men working in the sex industry no longer become "easy targets".  

Tonight I planned to invite people to make donations which would then be divided equally amongst the following organisations:-

The International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE)

x: Talk

International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW)

All three organisations are doing important work, mainly in the UK, but also Europe to promote social acceptance of sex workers and campaign for the rights of sex workers through political and legal change.  Please visit their sites and make a donation to support their work.  

I also planned to read out the following poem by Jacqui Woodward-Smith.  This poem has been read out many times on many occasions as it never ceases to bring a sense of empowerment.  Tonight it would have been appropriate.  

Blodeuwedd Rising (Song for Hazel)

Blodeuwedd, Magdalene of Springtime
Sweet flower face with wings of snow
You are the gateway to the seasons
Fierce in passion, eyes aglow

And You will rise in fearless beauty
Afraid of You, they change Your face
But we remember Your true nature;
Reclaim Your love, Reclaim Your place

Defiled and changed and called a whore
If whore You are then so am I
As whore I'll be Your temple priestess
And You will give me wings to fly

Reclaim the whore and rise in beauty
With Goddess spirit deep within
Knowing our own Goddess nature
How dare they name our passion sin!

No one can shackle or control You
Owl of Secrets, flying free
No chains to bind Your hungry spirit
With You beside, no chains on me

And we will rise in raging beauty
To be what we've been all along
When we can stand alone as equals
We will sing Blodeuwedd's song

They left us here in silent fury
Thought that they had won the game
But as we reclaim our ancient birthright
Blodeuwedd will rise again

And we will rise in naked beauty
Revealing all we have to give
Loving in the ways we choose to
Deciding how we want to live

They try to make us pretty blossoms
Deny our claws, deny our power
But we must claim our truth and freedom
To choose the owl, to choose the flower

And we will rise in powerful beauty
Surrender to Blodeuwedd's cry
She draws us to the path of moonlight
On owl wings we must learn to fly

No one has the right to harm us
To name and shame, abuse and scar us
Call us hag and call us bitch.
Reclaim the owl, reclaim the witch!

And we will rise in all our beauty
For we have heard Flower Face's call
Our bodies glowing with our passion
Both owls and flowers, Priestesses all!

©Jacqui Woodward Smith

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