DOWNTOWN RALLY

Sex Workers Criticize Law Enforcement

Robyn Few of the Sex Workers Outreach Project rallies her group in Franklin Square. The demonstrators were demanding better treatment from law enforcement officials of prostitutes who become crime victims.
Robyn Few of the Sex Workers Outreach Project rallies her group in Franklin Square. The demonstrators were demanding better treatment from law enforcement officials of prostitutes who become crime victims. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Theola Labbé-DeBose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dozens of sex workers marched through the streets of downtown Washington yesterday, demanding better treatment from law enforcement officials of prostitutes who become crime victims.

Clutching red umbrellas and carrying signs that read, "Sex Work Is Real Work" and "Stop Shaming Us to Death," the men and women came from San Francisco, New York and other cities across the country to publicize a rarely discussed issue that they say is not taken seriously.

The rally and march was organized by the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, and coincided with today's fifth anniversary of the sentencing of Gary Leon Ridgway, a Seattle man known as the "Green River Killer" who was convicted of murdering 48 prostitutes in 21 years. The lowly status of prostitutes in society, rally participants said yesterday, explains why the crimes went unsolved for so long.

"I'm just so tired of hearing, 'If I choose to do X, then I put myself on the line,' " said Charmus, 34, a transgender woman who gave only her first name. She lives in Maryland and said she has worked as a prostitute. "Transgender women, prostitutes, you have a right to fight for due process," she said to the crowd assembled at a downtown park.

As professional workers filed out of buildings in suits and ties on their way to business lunches, the rally crowd marched from Franklin Square at 14th and I streets NW to the Justice Department in the 900 block of Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Along the way, the marchers encountered some bemused looks at signs reading, "Be Nice to Sex Workers."

A 33-year-old man from New York City who gave his name as Wally said he works as an escort in Manhattan. He has been fortunate not to be a crime victim, he said, but he made the trip to show solidarity.

"I do this to survive," he said.

Once the protesters reached the Justice Department, they stood on the sidewalk and told their stories under the watchful eyes of federal police officers. Leila, a 24-year-old woman from San Francisco, shared an experience that she said showed the importance of sex workers banding together.

Leila said a client wanted to pay her at the end of their date and even provided his passport as collateral. She was skeptical, but agreed. Then the client said he needed to take money out of the bank, and she went with him. But at the teller, the client asked for his passport back for identification. When Leila handed it back, the man ran.

Leila told the protesters that she chased the man and even caught up with him. He punched her in the face. But when she complained to police, she said, they threatened to arrest her for working as a prostitute.

Since the date was arranged online, Leila said, she went to her computer and noticed warnings about the client posted by other women. The women shared information about him, and eventually they found his workplace and told his boss that the man had been meeting prostitutes during the workday and assaulting them. He was fired, Leila said.

"Alone, we're just prostitutes on the corner and no one respects us," she said. "Together we are a political movement, and we can change things."


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