Sex Workers and Sexual Trauma

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When one imagines a “perfect” rape victim (meaning the type of victim commonly viewed as credible and undeserving of harm, and therefore most likely to receive community support), we imagine a young, virginal, white woman who is submissive, is dressed modestly, and is being ladylike at the time of her assault.

While it’s true that people with these qualifiers do, in fact, experience sexual trauma, they’re not the only ones who experience it—and they’re not the only ones whose experiences matter.

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People from diverse backgrounds and upbringings are at risk of experiencing sexual assault; there is not just one type of victim. In fact, those who commit rape and other sexual offenses often target victims whom they know most community members will not perceive as credible or deserving of respect. In an essay published on STAR’s blog last year, we wrote:

Survivors of sexual violence experience trauma from the violation itself, yet many will experience greater trauma in its aftermath. The stigma of sexual violence magnifies any other stigma associated with an individual. Offenders often target victims who they know can be easily stigmatized in our culture, such as women, girls, gay or gender nonconforming men, trans people, substance abusers, sex workers, homeless individuals, and people who are chronically mentally ill. Women are vengeful liars, adolescent and teen girls are fair game, gay men and trans people ask to be raped, sex workers can’t be raped…these are only a few of the pervasive myths that condemn survivors to repeated re-traumatization by keeping us focused on what the victim did (violated social norms) rather than on what the offender did (violated law and another human being).

“The Scarlett ‘R’: Stigma, Shame, and Speaking Out

One group in particular that continues to experience sexual trauma at high rates but meets skepticism from the community at large is sex workers. When a survivor comes forward to report a sexual assault, the critical magnifying glass is focused on them and their behaviors with great intensity. This is especially true for sex workers. Because sex work is criminalized and stigmatized, people in this occupation are already at high risk for sexual trauma, including re-traumatization through an unsupportive community response. And for sex workers who are also survivors of sexual violence, “Are you telling the truth?” becomes “How is this even possible?”

Mary Mitchell of the Chicago Sun-Times recently reinforced such attitudes about sex workers and sexual assault in a commentary about a case in which a sex worker reported a rape committed against her by a client. Mitchell writes,

I’m not one of those women who believe rape victims are at fault because they dressed too provocatively or misled some randy guy into thinking it was his lucky night, but when you agree to meet a strange man in a strange place for the purpose of having strange sex for money, you are putting yourself at risk for harm…

It’s tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim. And because this incident is being charged as a criminal sexual assault — when it’s actually more like theft of services — it minimizes the act of rape.

In fact, statements like Mitchell’s minimize the act of rape and increase the risk of harm experienced by sex workers. The line of thinking presented here is that sex workers do not have the right to set sexual boundaries and have them respected. As long as that is how we as a society think, our views are aligning with those who commit rape against sex workers. This offers aid and comfort to rapists while compounding the trauma experienced by people who have been raped.

As Jillian Keenan of The Daily Beast poignantly points out:

The police and criminal justice systems treat sex workers as though rape were a mere ‘occupational hazard’ of their work — an accusation that would never be thrown at a bank teller who survived a robbery.

The argument that sex workers can’t be sexually assaulted because it’s an “occupational hazard” furthers the belief that nothing can be done to end sexualized violence against sex workers—that it is a fact of life. The thing is, rape is only a fact of life as long as we view it that way. And it is only a fact of sex work as long as we view it that way.

When Mitchell writes, “it’s tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim,” she speaks for herself and many others in our society. She doesn’t, however, speak for STAR staff and volunteers. At a recent staff meeting, two of our Resource Advocates—Florence Fontenot and Courtney Brandabur—spoke up in frustration about Mitchell’s argument.

Florence and Courtney spend their days on hotline calls and providing in-person advocacy services at STAR and local hospitals for survivors of sexual trauma. This includes survivors who are or have previously been sex workers, and whose decisions to engage in sex work are made based on complicated combinations of choice and circumstance. Often, these survivors are or have been homeless:

Victims of sexual assault who call our office to seek help often say that they feel like they have been sexually assaulted, but because they are currently a sex worker, or were in the past, they don’t know what to call it. Many of them are homeless and have many needs, yet when they call to seek help, some may say that because they are or were a sex worker, they know that there isn’t much help out there for them.

– Florence Fontenot, STAR Resource Advocate

It’s not tough at all for Florence and Courtney to see sex workers as victims of sexual assault. “Sex workers are more likely to be victimized and less likely to report,” explains Courtney. What is tough for them is bearing witness every day to the traumatic impacts of behavior like Mitchell’s.  

When we asked Florence and Courtney about their experiences working with and advocating with survivors who are or have been sex workers, they were eager to share. First, they want people to understand that sex workers have the right to set sexual boundaries, and can be raped if those sexual boundaries are violated. If a sex worker withdraws consent at any point, that should be the end of the sexual encounter. Just as with anyone else, consent to certain forms of sexual interaction doesn’t equal consent to all forms of sexual interaction. Just as with anyone, consent to a prior sexual encounter doesn’t grant consent to any future sexual encounter.

 As a person, this woman still had the right to say no at any point during sexual contact with this man, and if he continued to sexually violate her against her will, that’s clearly sexual assault.

– Florence Fontenot, STAR Resource Advocate

Florence and Courtney also want you to know that sex workers are human beings.

I think that the only way that we can improve the systems that fail sex workers is to bring about awareness and social change. I believe that more systems as well as the community needs to be aware that this is a real issue, and that sex workers are not just objects, they are human beings who deserve a chance…I have come to realize that there is usually a deeper reason or cause for someone making the choice to become a sex worker, and that everyone has their own unique story. I have realized that if people stop making pre-judgments of others, they may be better at actually helping them instead of hurting them.

– Florence Fontenot, STAR Resource Advocate

Listening to sex workers is by far the most important beginning. If we truly represent the empowerment of the disenfranchised then we must take away as many obstacles as we can. Often, finding someone to listen in an open and non-judgmental manner can be a first step…Hold systems accountable. Hold yourself accountable in your personal and professional life. Make a conscious effort to vote for politicians who are actively improving both community and systemic responses. Encourage organizations you are a part of to actively seek more training on this issue. Educate your friends, family, and community members about the subject. It sounds cliché, but knowledge truly is power.

– Courtney Brandabur, STAR Resource Advocate

When we suggest that a particular type of person doesn’t possess basic rights, such as the right to set sexual boundaries and have them respected, we dehumanize them and make it more acceptable for them to be exploited, violated, harmed, and killed. We are saying their lives don’t matter. We make it harder for them to seek services and to heal. And we let their offenders go unnoticed, unaccounted for, and unrestricted to hurt more people. Part of treating sex workers as human beings means taking seriously the violence and harm others have committed against them. That’s something all of us can do.

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