When I first heard that Shannon Williams had passed away, I didn't believe it. I had seen her less than a month prior, rocking her signature Gothic-MILF look, all big smiles and warm hugs.
For years, Williams was instrumental in organizing the annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers on Dec. 17. When she passed away shortly after the 2014 event from complications with a newly discovered brain tumor, it rocked the Bay Area sex work community hard. I met Williams years ago while attending my first meeting of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, of which she was treasurer. Facing merciless scrutiny in the aftermath of a 2003 arrest during a prostitution sting, Williams committed herself to the sex worker rights movement. I still don't quite believe she won't be with us at this year's memorial. Instead, we will light a candle and speak her name alongside the names of others who passed on this year.
Sex workers and their allies will gather together on Thursday in bars, community centers, parks, courthouses, and homes across the globe to mourn the more than 120 sex workers who were lost this year, most of them the victims of violence and murder. The global movement, which was founded by San Francisco sex worker rights advocates Robyn Few and Dr. Annie Sprinkle in 2003, now boasts more than 50 events in locations all over the world.
Locally, the Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education and Research Project has coordinated a demonstration and press conference in front of Oakland's federal building on the morning of Dec. 17, part of the crusade against California's prostitution laws. This year's San Francisco memorial will be held at the much beloved and soon to be displaced Center for Sex and Culture, a community center, venue, library, and archive of the ongoing sexual revolution. Since Twitter's headquarters took up shop just around the corner, the CSC — along with its neighbor, the St. James Infirmary, an occupational peer health clinic serving sex workers — is now looking for a new home in 2016.
"The hostility of the real estate market in San Francisco today is resulting in widespread nonprofit displacement," St. James' executive director Stephany Ashley said in a statement in October. Both organizations are using crowd-funding campaigns to support the move.
Leading up to the big day, the local chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project has been posting daily infographics on its Facebook page about how criminalization contributes to the violence sex workers face. The numbers are sobering: Here in the United States, where sex work is still illegal, the rate of assault for sex workers is a shocking 40 times higher than it is in the United Kingdom, where sex work is legal.
Seventeen percent of sex worker murder cases this year were linked to serial killers, who often target sex workers because they assume they will have a better chance of getting away with it. Under the current criminalized system, sex workers' access to justice is incredibly compromised, and when law enforcement is involved, they often cause more harm than good. In rape cases involving Chicago street prostitutes, 25 percent of victims identified the rapist as a police officer. Thirteen percent of the United States is black, and only 0.3 percent are transgender, and yet 41 percent of the sex workers murdered this year were black, and one third of them were transgender.
This violence is not just about sex work stigma; it is one of the many symptoms of the racism, classism, and transphobia that plague our legal system and our society.
Honoring the sex workers who have lost their lives this year is only part of the power of Dec. 17. This day is also meant to help reaffirm and strengthen our commitment to fight toward the worldwide decriminalization of sex work. As we read each slain sex worker's name, we must sit with the sickening reality that to many in this world, sex workers are reviled and disposable. And yet, this somber day that sometimes shakes my core with fear and despair, is also a day of solidarity, and even celebration, of our fierce and fragile community that is so resilient even in the face of so much sadness.