To the editor:
We are the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP)-Philadelphia, the local chapter of SWOP USA, a movement fighting for the fundamental human rights of people in the sex trade, ending violence and stigma through advocacy and education. We are writing in response to the four-part series “Victims of the Night,” written by Victoria Brownworth. Within our large and diverse community, it is widely known trans women of color are some of the most vulnerable to physical assault and targeting by law enforcement — itself a kind of structural violence. The recent brutal murder of Diamond Williams by a client is a heartbreaking — and all too familiar — reminder. For too long, their stories have been ignored at best and treated as sensationalistic entertainment at worst. Adding pain to an already-traumatized community, the news coverage of Diamond’s murder used the wrong name and pronouns and a police file photo was published instead of one chosen by her family. While it is a sign of progress the Philadelphia Gay News wants to change that, there are some problematic aspects of the series we wanted to address.
First, there is the matter of language. Ms. Brownworth uses “sex work,” “prostituted” and “trafficking” interchangeably, when they have distinctly different definitions. Sex work is a type of criminalized labor entered through choice or circumstance. The technical definition of prostituted is to offer sex in exchange for money, but its contemporary connation is that of a prostitute/pimp relationship and complete lack of agency on the part of the person performing sexual labor — someone in need of rescue. No woman quoted in this story made reference or even alluded to a pimp, much less trafficking (the keeping of persons through threat, force or coercion). It is disingenuous for Ms. Brownworth to imply street-based sex work and trafficking are one and the same. When she uses the word “forced,” it is unclear whether she is referring to an individual or the larger structural forces around race, class and gender that severely limit choices for these young women of transgender experience. People in the sexual labor market, including trans women of color, are not a monolithic group. There are many types of sex work and myriad reasons, positive and negative, why one would enter the trade. To deny the reality of the situation in favor of a victim narrative is to deny the complexities of a whole person’s lived experience, and our ability as sex workers and allies to fight back against oppression. Only in the last paragraph of the fourth installment of the series is there any recognition of criminalization and other structural oppressions, in a quote by the local trans* rights activist Christian Lovehall.
We have no doubt in the good intentions of Ms. Brownworth and the editors at PGN. To begin to address this injustice, it must first be brought to the attention of the public. Yet by focusing solely on the individual experiences of assault without examining the society that perpetuates this individual and institutional violence, you do a great disservice to the community you wish to help.
— SWOP Philadelphia