About two dozen activists gathered at Center City's Thomas Paine Plaza on Sunday to mark the 14th annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers with a grim recital of 2017 murder victims and new hope that local officials are finally taking seriously their pleas to decriminalize sex work.
"This day is a day where we come together to bring light and commemorate these women across the world who went unnoticed – and lived a life that perhaps wasn't a choice," said the vigil's main speaker, Anita DeFrancesco, a local activist whose cousin Donna Marie Gentile was a sex worker who went missing and was found murdered in San Diego in 1985.
DeFrancesco and the event organizers hoped their yearly vigil – which has drawn little attention in past years – could rally support for their goals of keeping sex workers out of jail, as well as encouraging more local support to end violence against the community.
The vigil organizers were encouraged by the attendance of a surrogate for Philadelphia district attorney-elect Larry Krasner, T.J. Ghose, an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice. Ghose said the incoming DA had pledged during his campaign to drastically reduce criminal prosecutions of sex workers as part of his goal to reduce the number of women of color behind bars.
"Sex work is a gateway," said Ghose, who has worked with a 70,000-member union of sex workers in India. "If we're going to end mass incarceration, prosecuting sex workers has to stop."
Under an initiative known as LEAD, for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, law enforcement and prosecutors working under outgoing District Attorney Kelley Hodge have already made strides in diverting women who once might have been charged with prostitution into social-service programs, Ghose said.
Melanie Dante, one of the vigil organizers, said the event has drawn support from an array of nonprofit community groups since the first one in 2012, but had never before received an endorsement from a prominent politician. "The stigma of sex work proved too controversial to be identified with," she said, "which greatly saddens and disappoints us."
The global anti-violence event was launched in 2003 in response to the Green River serial killings of sex workers in the Pacific Northwest; its founder was a Philadelphia native, a well-known sex educator and adult performer who goes by the name Annie Sprinkle. Sunday's attendees gathered in a tight circle under a steely-gray December sky as shoppers bound for the nearby Christmas Village strolled past.
When the vigil was initially planned, organizers said they would read the names of 31 sex workers murdered across the United States in 2017, but then the number grew to 34 with three additional killings just this week. Dante said the problem fails to draw attention from the news media or public officials, even though studies show sex workers face a risk of violence on the job as much as 400 times the average person on the job.
One of the vigil attendees – Carl Henkle, 43, a nurse-practitioner from Lancaster County who has worked in correctional facilities there – said he wanted to show that supporting sex workers "is sort of a humanitarian issue, because when sex workers are criminalized and need health-care services, they're shut out."
"It's a community of people who are literally not allowed to speak up when they're being victimized or attacked, which is a human-rights violation," said co-organizer Eris Vayle, 32, of Philadelphia. She explained that the risky legal status for sex workers leaves them exposed to predatory behavior by law enforcement officers.
Phoebe Jones, coordinator of the Crossroads Women's Center in Germantown, agreed that criminalizing sex work makes women much less likely to report violence, and thus leaves them more vulnerable.
Many of those who rallied to show support on Sunday were men, such as Ethan Jacobi, 32, a hospital data analyst and a local podcaster who tried to produce a program about sex workers and said he found their myriad problems to be overwhelming.
"The best thing I can do is support them," he said, "mostly by showing up and listening."