A couple weeks ago, NCHRC and sex worker groups around the world on December 17th, participated in activities to mark “International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers”. This event was created to bring attention to crimes committed against sex workers all over the world. According to Sex Workers Outreach Project USA, “this day was conceptualized by Annie Sprinkle and initiated by the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA as a memorial and vigil for the victims of the Green River Killer in Seattle Washington, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers has empowered workers from cities around the world to come together and organize against discrimination and remember victims of violence. During the week of December 17th, sex worker rights organizations and their allies stage actions and vigils to raise awareness about violence that is commonly committed against sex workers. The assault, battery, rape and murder of sex workers must end. Existing laws prevent sex workers from reporting violence. The stigma and discrimination that is perpetuated by the prohibitionist laws has made violence against us acceptable. Please join with sex workers around the world and stand against criminalization and violence committed against our communities.” We at NCHRC marked the day by having Executive Director Robert Childs, our Harm Reduction Coordinator Tessie Castillo and NCHRC ally Doug Upp from Shaka Zine in Hawaii go around the streets of East Durham, providing sex workers risk reduction counseling and violence prevention information. On the marking of this day we wanted to let everyone know of a great resource available to sex workers of western North Carolina called Kelly’s line. NCHRC Harm Reduction Coordinator Tessie Castillo highlights this issue below with her interview with NCHRC ally Sarah Danforth of the Asheville Sex Worker Outreach Project.
NCHRC Issue Spotlight:
Sex Worker Violence Prevention in North Carolina:
An Interview with Sarah Danforth at the Asheville Sex Worker Outreach Project
Five years ago, dismembered pieces of a human body were found floating in the French Broad River in Asheville, North Carolina. Forensics identified the victim as Kelly Lane Smith, a local prostitute, and though all evidence pointed to a local man infamous for the brutalization and rape of sex workers in the area, he was never charged, never convicted, and he left Asheville a free man.
Why couldn’t an obvious suspect be convicted? Because Kelly was a prostitute. The police couldn’t get enough testimonies against the suspect from other prostitutes who had been beaten and raped by him because the women feared retribution if they admitted to engaging in sex work. Violence against prostitutes and sex workers is rampant, precisely because if and when these crimes are reported, the victim may be arrested for illegal activity, instead of the perpetrator. The dilemma is all too common.
Thankfully, some people in Asheville, like Sarah Danforth of the newly formed Asheville Sex Worker Outreach Project, are trying to do something about violence against sex workers. Sarah is part of a collaborative effort between several organizations, including the Asheville Police Department, the Jail Diversion Program, the Western NC AIDS Project, and two organizations who provide assistance to victims of domestic violence, Our Voice and Helpmate. In early November these organizations launched Kelly’s Line, an anonymous phone service that allows sex workers to report “bad dates,” or violent clients, to the police without fear of arrest on prostitution charges. Organizers of Kelly’s Line also compile a flyer of the reported information and distribute it to other sex workers to help them avoid falling into the same dangerous situations. “Bad date lines” are used in many cities across the United States to prevent violence against sex workers in a way that doesn’t compromise the worker’s identity.
In addition to Kelly’s Line, the Asheville Sex Worker Outreach Project provides outreach materials to sex workers and is attempting to launch a program to train law enforcement officers on sex worker issues.
“The ultimate goal of the project is to provide education and resources to sex workers and people involved in their lives, such as police, counselors, and hospital workers,” says Sarah Danforth. “It’s a safety issue, but we also want to create a culture of understanding and compassion for people who do sex work.”
About a year ago Sarah began investigating ways to stop violence against sex workers through her work with homeless populations in Asheville. “I see so many homeless people who have obviously been assaulted, but who are afraid to go to the hospital or the police because they’re afraid of being questioned instead of helped. Something has got to be done about this, and I’m glad we’ve been able to find people in Asheville who care about this issue and are willing to work on it.”
Fittingly, the logo for Kelly’s Line is a Forget-Me-Not flower to remind us of the lives lost through violence that was never acknowledged or reported. In this way Lane Smith lives on as she challenges us to denounce brutality no matter who the victim and to remember those who we’ve already lost.