June 2nd is International Sex Workers' Day/International Whores'* Day, marking the anniversary of the first major protest staged to forward sex workers’ rights.
On 2nd of June 1975 over a hundred street sex workers in Lyon occupied the Église Saint-Nizier, to protest inhumane working conditions and police who both gave sex workers harsh treatment and reacted with indifference to crimes committed against them, including two recent murders.
During the week-long occupation police refused to engage with the protestors’ grievances and threatened increasingly harsh punishments for maintaining the protest. When the police eventually threatened to have the sex worker’s children removed many outraged women from the town joined the occupation in solidarity, daring the police to have their children removed too.
Police eventually broke the occupation (with some violence), but it was a success, many of threatened fines were written off, serious investigations into the murders began, and the action sparked similar protests in other cities and it became the foundation of the international sex worker rights movement.
As well as celebrating the sex workers of Lyon (and all of those who have done the same since) for taking a stand in the face of stigma, violence and oppression, and admiring their determination not to be silenced, June 2nd gives us all a lot to consider in the present day.
Not least is how current the protest seems, for all of the innumerable and drastic changes that the world has gone through in the past 43 years the story sounds all too familiar. Today sex workers around the world still walk the line between normalised violence against them, demonising social stigma and police intimidation and administrative indifference, many still face the fear of losing custody of their children.
In some ways the events at Lyon seem remarkably progressive event for today: rather than solidarity and empathy many openly attack sex workers’ attempts to organise, campaign for rights and improve their working conditions, ironically in the name of “protecting” them. This has an especial bitter irony given the fact that international studies by harm reduction and human rights organisations repeatedly bear out what the majority of sex workers’ themselves say when polled: that decriminalising sex work is the best way to make sex workers safer and less stigmatised. A comprehensive study by Medicins du Monde showed that the introduction of “end demand” laws two years ago has decreased the safety, health outcomes, ability to screen dangerous clients, ability to negotiate condom use and the quality of police relations for sex workers in France, and so it could be easy to feel that the message of the Lyon protest has been lost somewhere along the way.
However, the core lessons of the occupation and its consequences still ring true:
Sex workers supporting each other and making themselves heard can accomplish real change, even in the face of a society that marginalises and abandons them; even in the very centres of social power that perpetuate stigma and implicitly ratify violence against them.
Sex worker allies exist wherever people are able to see past stigma and stereotypes and connect to the shared humanity and right to not just safety but dignity that are the foundations of all communities that reject exploitation and division.
Nobody deserves or should expect or accept violence, oppression and marginalisation, regardless of their background, their work or social mores.
Sex workers throughout history and in the present day have needed incredible strength, ingenuity, humour and resilience simply in order to work and enjoy the rights and social benefits that others take for granted. International Sex Workers’[/ International Whores'] Day gives us the opportunity to celebrate them for it, and it invites us to imagine just what sex workers could accomplish, for themselves and for everyone, in a society that treated them equally and respected all that they have to offer.
National Ugly Mugs
* The word ‘wh*ore’ is/is used as a slur, and as such is not language I personally or NUM use or support in general, however I also believe it would be inappropriate to alter or question the name used for this memorial within some parts the sex worker community. I want to acknowledge that the word is problematic, and state that in using here I am trying to walk the line between neither presuming to reclaim it nor undermining any reclamation that the sex workers wish to perform by its use. As such I welcome feedback from any sex workers who deem this use inappropriate and will be more than happy to modify this choice accordingly