Illegality, Cops and Johns: Why American Prostitutes Are 400 Times More Likely To Die On The Job

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Guy Bentley Research Associate, Reason Foundation
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Prostitutes in the United States risk violence and death on a much greater scale than their peers in countries where prostitution is legal, according to the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP).

In the run-up to the “International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers,” a memorial day since 2003, SWOP released a wealth of facts revealing the full extent to which prostitutes are vulnerable to violence from both johns and police.

The memorial day began as a vigil for the victims of Gary Ridgway. Ridgway was convicted in 2003 of killing 49 women and girls, most of whom were prostitutes. The event has since become a rallying point to draw attention to the huge risks and active hostility that face prostitutes across the world on a regular basis.

Working as a prostitute is notoriously dangerous in the U.S. but is even riskier than other hazardous professions like policing or driving a taxi cab. According to SWOP, prostitutes are 400 times more likely to be murdered on the job than the average worker.

The violence inflicted on prostitutes is especially dangerous with almost half of attacks involve a weapon. The plight of American prostitutes is so bad that in 2013 more prostitutes were murdered in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. So far this year more than 40 prostitutes have been murdered in America.

But prostitutes aren’t just in danger from clients but also those entrusted to keep the population safe from violence. According to SWOP, “in rape cases involving Chicago street prostitutes, 25 percent of prostitutes identified the rapist as a police officer.”

Police are consistently identified as a threat to prostitutes in several cities across the country. SWOP cites a study of New York street-based workers where 27 percent of those who participated say they suffered violence at the hands of cops.

A paper published in 2010 focusing on Washington, D.C. recounts 104 interactions between prostitutes and law enforcement. Almost 10 percent of prostitutes involved say they had been assaulted and 17.3 percent say cops requested sexual favors.

The risk of being assaulted while working as a prostitute varies dramatically from country to country, but it has an intimate connection with the legal system. In the U.S., where prostitution is illegal, prostitutes are 40 times more likely to suffer assault than in the United Kingdom where prostitution is legal.

The risk of clamping down on prostitution can be significant, with Norway experiencing a rise in assaults against prostitutes of 50 percent since buying sex was criminalized in 2009. Groups such as SWOP hope that if governments across the world recognize the right of prostitutes to work legally the risk of violence against prostitutes will diminish.

This view is shared by the prominent human rights group Amnesty International, which stirred controversy in August with a report urging governments to decriminalize prostitution.

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