Sex work activist Annie Sprinkle was the mind behind the original International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. After the conviction of “Green River Killer” Gary Ridgway, Sprinkle and activists from SWOP decided that a holiday was necessary to commemorate people in our community who have been the victims of violence, and to draw the public’s attention to the danger of working without legal protection and under harsh societal stigma.
Eight years later, the holiday is unfortunately as poignant as ever, as the Long Island serial killer has been occupying headlines for the past year. Annie spoke with me about the origins of December 17th, and the most memorable moments in her several decades of activism.
So, the International Day to end Violence Against Sex Workers started in 2003 after Gary Ridgway’s conviction. Can you tell me more about how you began?
I worked 20 years in prostitution in New York, from ’73 to ’93, and there were always all these serial killers who mostly preyed on prostitutes. While I was working, I was really aware that yes, I loved my job and I loved my clients, and I was a happy hooker. But there was always that danger.
When Gary Ridgway came along, pimps and hookers knew who this guy was but they were too afraid to report him, either because they would get arrested, or because they knew the police just didn’t believe them. This was a nice “family man” who would drive around in his pickup truck with his little kid, and he’d leave the kid in the truck when he was out murdering a prostitute. It was just such a horrific thing. I was so angry that this could go on, him murdering over 50 prostitutes. He said it was [even] more. It probably was close to 90.
It was just such a sad story because people just didn’t seem to care. I thought we should do a memorial service for women, many of whom were very young: 17, 18, 19, 20, 21. It was just so upsetting to me, and I mentioned this to a few people, including Robyn Few. I really wanted to put together a memorial to let the families of these victims—who are really victims of the bad laws, frankly, as much as anything. [The laws] make them unsafe [because] people wouldn’t believe the prostitutes or pimps, the people who were brave enough to report this guy.
So Robyn Few said she’d do it. I officiated it and she brought a sound system, which was really great, we had really beautiful music and we gathered about maybe 60 or 80 people. We made a big circle at San Francisco City Hall on the lawn. A lot of us were crying as we read the names. It was just such a sad thing, that first one. We had been so busy trying to say, “We like our work, we’re not victims.” And so a lot of us had never acknowledged that there are risks. You can be a proud whore but also acknowledge that it is dangerous and people really do get raped and robbed and suffer. We like to say, “Oh, it’s not that dangerous, we love our clients,” but really we are vulnerable in certain situations.
Robyn Few is wonderful and brilliant, and she said this thing that really resonated. She said the anti-prostitution people are really pissed off that the sex workers came up with this, as opposed to them, who are always calling us victim, victim, victim. It’s a very different thing that we’re doing, that the hos are doing it, than if the anti-prostitution people are doing it. Of course, everybody is welcome. We welcome these folks to the memorials, because we actually do share that [concern about violence], we have that in common.
So when you began it did you imagine that it would be a yearly event or was it just to commemorate these women initially?
I don’t know if as I conceived it I thought it [would be annual], but the minute we did it, I was like, this is powerful, this is important. We need to do this again. Just the minute it started.
What are some of the more memorable December 17th events you’ve been to over the past few years?
Well, they’ve all been very meaningful to me. I’m really looking forward to this one in San Francisco. I’ve organized and hosted several of them, but I’m not doing it this year. SWOP is doing it. They’ve taken the reins and they’ve done a great job. … The ones we’d been doing were sad, and still beautiful and fun, but they’ve taken a more festive approach. In a way, it’s kind of the evolution. We’ve done the sad part, we’ve done some mourning. … I think I’m ready to celebrate the occasion as a beautiful memorial. Memorials can be really beautiful.
During your years as a sex worker activist, what have been the most memorable milestones for you?
I got into COYOTE and PONY in New York when I met Margo St. James in 1975. I think the second Whore Congress in Brussels [in 1986], that was organized by Gail Pheterson and held at the European Parliament, it was the most exciting thing.
Prostitutes cames together from all these different countries and there were translators. That was huge. This was so well funded and organized. It was just incredible. I met a lot of activists, Dorlores French for example, all these sex worker activists came from Italy and the Phillipines, and all over. And the European Parliament, it’s kind of like the United Nations, right? Can you imagine that kind of environment for a whore conference? And AIDS was in full force. That was huge.
And then, I think the sex worker film festival that Carol Leigh started, was also huge. That was very powerful in the same way the first gay film festival was. It was really whore culture at it’s best.
And the Goddess Temple bust in Phoenix, that’s going to be very important in the prostitutes’ rights movement. It’s a big case in Phoenix. It’s a really teachable moment for the tantra community, for sex worker rights people, for the spiritual community, for religious people. The raids happened and they’re just mobilizing and getting ready to fight—or enlighten, shall we say. These incredible charges, the bail at half a million dollars for Tracy Elise. And her daughter spent a month in jail just for decorating the temple. She’s charged with pimping and pandering, or conspiracy. It was totally brutal and unwarranted.
Their temple practices are truly their religion and their spiritual practice, and their gift to the world. … [Meanwhile], the sheriff in Phoenix ignored 400 sexual assault reports. Ignored or under-investigated, or messed up. It’s unbelievable. There were all these kids being molested. And then they were doing a six-month undercover investigation on the Goddess Temple? There are no victims in the Goddess Temple case. None, except those arrested and the community torn apart. It’s not like anyone complained about the Phoenix Goddess Temple. There were no victims. It’s sad, now this community, their place was torn apart, closed down, things were stolen or confiscated.
It’s really a big important case and it’s interesting to see how whorephobic the spiritual people are, and how religionphobic a lot of whores are. It’s really bringing some interesting things forth. I’m sure they will come out winners in one way or another because that’s the kind of people they are.
I’m sure you’ve been following the story of the Long Island serial killer, and how the remains of Shannan Gilbert were discovered this week. If you Google the story, one of the first media outlets that comes up is The New York Post, where they refer to her as a “hooker.” This got me thinking, because I tend to use the word hooker a lot when I’m writing for the blog, if it’s a less serious topic. Do you think as activists we should be avoiding that language, as to not let the mainstream media feel entitled to use it in such an offensive context?
I think that the word is not the problem, it’s the intention behind it. What is the intention? Words can be neutral. It’s how they’re used. I like the word hooker in some contexts; in other contexts I find it pretty offensive. … The New York Post, that’s their style.
They’re not a respected newspaper, people don’t expect responsible journalism from them necessarily, but at the same time they do have a lot of influence just because they reach so many people. And they’re likely to be the first, or maybe only, place where some people will read about this murdered woman. So it was really upsetting that they chose to talk about her this way.
You know, at least that’s a step up from NHI, no humans involved, you know? There’s worse than “hooker.” Actually if they said “whore” that might even be more offensive.
If you could make a wish for 2012 in sex worker activism, what would it be?
It would be kind of like if the Berlin Wall came down, if people just suddenly realized that everybody’s better off with decriminalization. Police officers, a lot of them are just following the law. From what I’ve heard, most of them don’t like to arrest prostitutes and don’t think it should be illegal.
Do you have any other upcoming events that you want to let our readers know about?
On Sunday morning, on Bernal Hill, we’re marrying the sun in an ecosex wedding. We’re in the seventh year of our Love Art Laboratory project that we’ve been doing all about love, my partner Elizabeth Stephens and I. If you go to LoveArtLab.org, you can see the projects. We’ve done seven years now exploring love through art, because we already did sex. We did a lot of work about sex, and sex is included in the piece, but it’s about the bigger umbrella of love. … Everyone’s invited. Everyone that wants can marry the sun and it’s going to be a big performance art event. … Our neighbors will blush when they see this wedding. So I’m excited about it.