A Day to End All Days

Michael's picture

December 17


Today is December 17th, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. There have been many days related to sex work and violence over the last month or two and many days that remember a myriad of other causes. The danger of days of rememberance is that each special day obscures the next. Will we remember today tomorrow? Is a day sufficient for such an important subject? Don't other causes have awareness months? Will violence against sex workers have ceased by tomorrow?


On the other hand such special days allow communities and their allies to come together and create a new and more powerful voice than isolated protests throughout the year, and perhaps more pragmatically are more likely to capture the attention of media, and maybe policy makers.


Violence is abhorrent in any shape or form, no matter who it is directed against, and by seizing on one group we run the risk of particularism, diminishing the importance of others. So why is violence against sex workers so different and so important? Perhaps because we have made some progress over the last century in reducing violence against a number of other communities, whether identified by race, religion, gender, disability or choice of sexual expression. Such progress in some ways highlights the ignominy of the violence against sex workers that so much of society appears to either condone or  feign indifference over. Silence in itself is a form of approval.


There is a danger, though, in concentrating on violence in a singular sense, which for many conjures up extremes of physical abuse and even death. This in itself diminishes the far more prevalent yet more insidious forms of abuse and discrimination that exist, of which murder is but an indicator and a by-product. Violence in its broadest sense can take many forms, physical, verbal, mental and social. We do violence to others when we treat them differently based on one or more attributes.


However, no matter how many media columns or seconds such activities create the probability of significant changes in the policy landscape are minimal. This is because there has never been much political or even social capital to be gained by advocating for marginalised groups, and quite possibly negative repercussions from those whose moral values do not encompass the existence of such groups.


It is only by highlighting the implications of such policies for larger sectors of the populace that any real change is likely to occur. It has been repeatedly stated that the morality of a society is judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable members. The condoning or passive acceptance of violence within our society diminishes all of us, and makes it easier to justify violence and discrimination against others. 


We also need to consider the way violence against sex workers is customarily framed as situational or predatory, or how when sex workers are the victims the job and not the person becomes privileged, and the crime becomes portrayed as just another disposable person. What is not conveyed by such reporting is how it is the state itself that becomes the agent of violence, creating the structural factors that shape and facilitate the observed violence.  Similarly the agents of social control, policing and criminal justice, are the major determinants of much of the violence. We must also realise that the agents of social control are just tools by which society disciplines subdominant cultures and that equally destructive is the violence of stigmatisation.


If we are to advance this agenda, we need to reframe the issues in their broader societal context of the impacts of social exclusion, and the denial of social citizenship to specific communities.




Jeffrey LA, MacDonald G: Sex workers in the Maritimes talk back. UBC Press, Vancouver 2007