Protecting sex workers: Why are they vulnerable to violence?

  • Sex workers have a 45-75% chance of experiencing sexual violence on the job
  • Advocates say stigma, penalties, and dehumanization play major roles
  • Some say sex work should be decriminalized, others — abolished

(NewsNation) — Jack the Ripper, Gary Ridgway, Peter Sutcliffe — each man a serial murderer who targeted sex workers. Their crimes were committed decades or even a century ago, but advocates say little has changed to stop this kind of violence today. 

On Tuesday, police finished combing through the Long Island home of 59-year-old Rex Heuermann. He’s charged in the deaths of three women; Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, and Amber Lynn Costello, whose bodies were discovered 12 years earlier on nearby Gilgo Beach. Each woman is believed to have been involved in sex work. 

Their families’ grief isn’t a footnote in a decade-long true-crime story. It is immediate and some say, preventable. 

“You are dealing with a community where everyone sees you as a victim of violence, where every representation is you going to jail or you in a body bag,” said Kate D’Adamo, a partner at Reframe Health and Justice. “Law enforcement hindered this investigation and it began with a refusal to even acknowledge that these were lives worth looking after.”

Advocates like D’Adamo say the stigma around sex workers can distance them from friends and family, discourage them from reporting to police and ultimately place a target on their backs. Convicted of 49 separate murders committed in the 1980s, Ridgeway said he “knew prostitutes would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing.”

News reports also revealed in the 1980s police in Los Angeles and New York sometimes recorded cases with victims who were sex workers as “NHI — No human involved,” along with other marginalized groups like Black and Latino victims.

Decades later, that dehumanization continues to put women at risk, said Ariela Moscowitz, director of Communications for the organization Decriminalize Sex Work

“Feeling like police are there to keep you safe is really a feeling that comes with having a lot of privilege,” she said. “A lot of sex workers have experienced their most traumatic encounters with law enforcement, whether it was in the law enforcement official capacity in their personal capacity, posing as a client…”

“This the case in Long Island — it goes back to the deep-seated, horrible ways in which, clearly the top law enforcement officials viewed sex workers,” Moscowitz continued.

The solutions to stop violence against sex workers take diverging paths. Some advocates believe decriminalizing sex work and reducing the stigma are vital steps toward making sure people within the industry are seen as humans whose safety should be taken seriously.

Others say the trade entails neither sex nor work, and that the practice is categorically abusive and exploitative, and needs to be eliminated altogether.

Where these sides do agree: There’s been little progress toward a solution.

“We always make the same mistake in these conversations that always comes back to the same thing: How do you mitigate against the worst of the harms?” said Rachel Moran, director of International Policy and Advocacy for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. “How do you keep a woman from ending up a corpse on a beach?” 

The question glosses over the emotional and psychological effects of the trade, said Moran, author of the book “Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution.” 

This combination of undated images provided by the Suffolk County Police Department shows Melissa Barthelemy, top left, Amber Costello, top right, Megan Waterman, bottom left, and Maureen Brainard-Barnes. Rex Heuermann, 59, is accused of killing Barthelemy, Costello and Waterman over a decade ago. He is also considered the prime suspect in the death of Brainard-Barnes. (Suffolk County Police Department via AP)

Recently, Maine enacted a law decriminalizing the act of selling sex but continues to punish the act of buying it. Moran considers it “the most important thing that’s ever happened in the United States on this issue.” 

According to Moran, “prostitution is inherently abusive.” By those standards, Maine’s law is the right step forward, she said. It doesn’t legalize prostitution but cracks down on the people who, under that law, are considered exploiters, including those involved in sex trafficking.

“This is not as simple as the trafficked women are over here, and the happy sex workers over there,” Moran said. “(That’s) incredibly simplistic thinking.” 

Others draw a harsher line between sex trafficking and sex work. 

Trafficking of any kind, which involves force, fraud, or coercion should be outlawed, D’Adamo said. But she and others like Moscowitz say targeting trafficking as a catch-all solution only increases policing and makes sex work more dangerous. Instead, the exchange should be fully decriminalized between consenting adults, both women said.

Getting there will take major cultural shifts in the ways people think about sex work, however, and more work would need to be done beyond that, according to Moscowitz. Something within closer reach might include immunity laws that grant sex workers and trafficking survivors legal protections if they make a report to the police, she said.

Such laws have been adopted in nine states and introduced in several others, but not in New York.

D’Adamo, who was a sex worker community organizer in New York at the time of the Gilgo Beach killings, said frequent arrests discouraged people from coming forward with information about potentially dangerous clients.

“Whether or not that information was about this individual, it was, ‘I know, these killings are happening. I had a really weird encounter with someone who fit these characteristics. I don’t know who to report it to safely. I don’t know how to do it safely, and ultimately could not report that information,’” D’Adamo said, summarizing her conversations with sex workers in New York at the time.

In the wake of Heuermann’s arrest, investigators now are speaking with incarcerated sex workers to glean any information they might have.

The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to NewsNation’s inquiries about whether they took similar action in the early stages of the investigation.


Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Trending on NewsNation