I have been an advocate and activist for sex workers’ rights since 2009, when I began volunteering at St. James Infirmary in San Francisco ― a one-of-its-kind peer-based medical clinic for sex workers. I started my activism focused on anti-violence within the sex industry and have made that my focus ever since.
As a former sex worker and a trafficking survivor, I have experienced both terrible exploitation and exhilarating liberation through my work in the sexual economy.
This year, for Dec. 17, which was International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, I wanted to do something special. I had been working on a blog for Sex Worker’s Outreach Project Behind Bars about the victims of the man known as the Green River Killer, and the blog research deeply and profoundly affected me.
Gary Ridgway was a cis white man who sought out sex workers, many of them teenage, and raped and murdered them throughout Seattle and the surrounding cities of SeaTac, Tukwila, Kent, Des Moines, Federal Way and further south into Oregon. Ridgway was arrested and convicted of killing 49 girls and women, though he said the count was probably closer to 70-80 victims between when he started in 1982 and when he was arrested in 2001.
Most, if not all, of his victims were street-based prostitutes. Many were teen runaways just trying to survive. My plan was to honor the victims by visiting as many sites as I could where they were either last seen or where their bodies were found, placing flowers and saying a little prayer.
It had already been raining nonstop for days here in Seattle as I exited the freeway onto Aurora Avenue North. As I drove, it felt like something bigger than myself or perhaps even a younger version of me, was riding with me. I drove down Highway 99 thinking about the countless times I had done outreach here, in this exact neighborhood, or come here for hotel parties or to trade sex for drugs when I was a substance user.
Aurora Avenue North, also known as Highway 99, is an industrial stretch of highway through Seattle. It goes as far north as Everett, and goes all the way through SeaTac, Kent and Des Moines, Federal Way and Fife to the south. It is industrial, it is harsh, and until recently it was mostly barren, outside of the mom-and-pop motel where homeless people could find pay-by-the-week lodging and drug users a safe place to use out of the cold and the rain.
I stopped at a roadside motel, infamous for the amount of drugs and violence over the many years it was operating under its former moniker. Picking one of the singular flowers I had bought at Fred Meyer, I got out and stood on the wet pavement with drops still falling from the sky.
I said a silent prayer and put the pink daisy down in front of the motel where 16-year-old runaway Linda Jane Rule, known to her friends as “Janie,” was brutally raped and murdered, after which her lifeless body would be dumped in an area that’s now the parking lot of Northwest Hospital, not far from the motel.
Janie had been on the streets since she was 14. She had hopes and dreams and aspirations for her life. She wasn’t just an alleged prostitute, or a murder victim. She was an innocent child.
Standing in the rain, on the curb in front of the place she was last seen, my heart was heavy. I had worked here before, and whenever I come to this neighborhood now, the tears come as easily as the rain.
Very few sex workers in this part of town are doing sex work because it’s their dream career. But a lack of options does not mean that someone is any less deserving of safety. Janie was not a throwaway just because she was devoid of options.
As I drove down the streets where tens of victims of the Green River Killer were last seen or had their bodies found, my sadness and anger ramped up commensurately.
Marie Malvar, 17, was last seen by her boyfriend and alleged pimp getting into Ridgway’s pickup on Pacific Highway South, a notorious stroll just outside Seattle. I got out at 216th Street. It is a busy intersection now. I wondered how it must have looked in 1982, before I was even born. I watched these cars zip by, completely oblivious to the fact that a young girl, barely old enough to drive, was last seen here, before being raped and murdered.
As I placed several more daisies on the intersection, I felt like I was in an alternate reality, within which existed a veil, behind which only I could see. A veil of lost lives.
The sex industry has the propensity to be very dangerous. But not for the reasons you think. It is work, it is labor, and it can even be empowering for those who have few other options, or who just really enjoy the work.
There is other work that can be extremely dangerous as well: farming, deep sea fishing, mining, to name a few. We don’t outlaw this work; quite the opposite: We continually push to make it safer and less dangerous.
(It’s important to note that all sex workers’ rights activists agree that sex work is and should be only for consenting adults over the age of 18. Children having to trade sex to survive is always abuse and it is always trafficking under the law.) By making sex work decriminalized for adults to participate in, we also make it harder for children to be trafficked into the industry.
Violence in sex work exists because of systemic oppression. It exists because of racism. It exists because of poverty. It exists because of capitalism. It exists because of sexism, and transphobia and whorephobia.
Decriminalizing sex work is not a silver bullet and will not make these thing go away overnight. We still need to be doing anti-racism work and work to dismantle the patriarchy and work to end poverty, homelessness, and other forms of needless human suffering.
If we had a system that was meant to work for everyone, we wouldn’t have poverty and homelessness and people going hungry. We wouldn’t have sexual exploitation of 14-year-old girls who have to run away from home and turn to the streets to survive. Then I wouldn’t have to write this article. And maybe Janie and Marie and many others would be here today.
My spiritual journey to honor the ghosts of the Green River Killer’s victims has just confirmed in my mind that the real atrocity is not the sex industry. It is a system designed to throw sex workers in the garbage, before they even become sex workers. It is a system that garners generational wealth and capital for white people while Black, Indigenous and other people of color have been made to go without. It is a system that looks the other way to familial abuse or domestic violence and poverty in a child’s life until, not unlike Janie, she is on the streets, too young to get a mainstream job and with nowhere to turn.
The bottom line is that these girls and women needed protection; like many living on the margins, they needed systems in place that would catch them, not set them up to fail and watch uncaringly as they drowned. Society has simply failed (and continues to fail) people like Marie Malvar and Linda Jane Rule and Ridgway’s other victims, as well as countless others.
As I sit and write this at my desk, I can’t keep from looking up at the leftover pink daisies I bought for the victims, that now sit in a lovely red vase. I had bought more than I could possibly use, not wanting to run out.
There are so many more victims, and the goal of both my journey and this article is to honor each and every one of them. But the real way we honor them is by changing the system.
By decriminalizing sex work, as a first step, so we can finally acknowledge, socially and legally, that it exists and then be able to make it safer ― so that we can stop child sex trafficking, and all sex trafficking and violence.