On December 17th of 2003, Annie Sprinkle, Robin Few, and Stacy Swimme stood with one hundred fellow sex workers and allies who had gathered on the lawn outside City Hall in San Francisco. There was music, a candle light vigil and a microphone for people to share stories of sex workers who had been lost to violent crime. People walking by stopped on the street and joined them in the growing darkness to speak a name or nod their head in silent remembrance. This was the very first International Day to End Violence against Sex workers.

Since that somber evening, December 17th has grown into a word-wide phenomenon with dozens of celebrations across the globe. Dr. Annie Sprinkleis widely acknowledged as the founder of December 17th. Annie is a legendary sex worker rights activist and adult performer. Like me, she has dabbled in many areas of sex work—from porn to prostitution and back again. Dr. Sprinkle also holds a PhD. In Human Sexuality from the Institute for Advanced Study in Human Sexuality. I remember reading about her in my college classes. When I learned about her most famous performance, Public Cervix Announcement, in which Annie invites audience members to gaze into her vagina and peek at her cervix, I realized that I wanted to be Annie Sprinkle when I grew up. She is a huge inspiration to me and many other sex worker activists with a flair for the dramatic.  Needless to say, I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to sit down with her and chat about the sex worker’s rights movement and the birth of December 17th.  

When I asked Dr. Sprinkle about her time in the industry she said in a voice resembling Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother: “I was a prostitute for 22 years. The truth is, I loved being a prostitute. I really did. I thought it was really cool to get naked with total strangers and have a lot of fun sex. I really cared about my clients and they cared about me and it was a love fest.” Despite Sprinkle’s sunny disposition she has been bravely confronting the harsh realities of the criminalization of sex work since the very start of her career.

Annie began her career in the adult industry by selling popcorn at porn movie theatre where the controversial 1972 film Deep Throat was playing. Annie was later subpoenaed to appear in court to testify during the obscenity hearings for the film. “Back then, if you got caught making porn, you would be arrested.” she reminded me.

The making of pornography is no longer illegal in the United States, but prostitution still certainly is. Moreover, the stigma that haunts every sex worker informs and dictates a system that does not protect us. “If you’re a prostitute that’s raped or robbed you can’t really go the police in the same way someone else can because they’re going to come back and arrest you.” Annie told me of a colleague of hers who once went to the police to report a crime. Years ago, there was a man in the Bay Area who was targeting sex workers and then assaulting and robbing them. Annie’s friend went to the police and turned the man in; the police arrested him and took him off the streets. A week later the police also arrested the sex worker who had reported him. Sex workers face forms of institutionalized violence like this every day.

Annie first conceived of the International Day to End Violence against sex workers as an event to memorialize the victims who were murdered by Gary Ridgeway, more commonly known as “The Green River Killer”. Ridgeway admitted to the murder of close to 100 women, many of who were sex workers. “Gary Ridgeway was the catalyst.” Sprinkle says. ““I had this idea that we should do something to remember those victims.” Though Annie gets the credit for having come up with the idea, she is quick to point out that collaboration within the community is what made the event happen. San Francisco sex workers Robin Few and Stacy Swimme had recently founded the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) with the intention of mobilizing sex workers into a fight for justice. Annie joined forces with SWOP and December 17th was born!

“I’m an activist at heart” says Sprinkle. “I believe that sex workers are a benefit to humanity, [but] here’s a lot to be scared of out there: the stigma, the serial killers, the bad laws,--It’s a scary job.” Indeed it is. This year alone, dozens of sex workers were lost to violent crimes too terrible to name. Their names, as well as their causes of death will be read at events all over the world today as communities gather to mourn their dead. “We often spend 360 plus days a year talking about how we love our work. One day a year we acknowledge that yes, it’s a tough job and there are real victims.”

Dr. Sprinkle has seen the sex worker rights movement grow and evolve over the course of more than 30 years. Thankfully, this year we also have something to celebrate: Last week sex workers in California won the right to claim victim’s compensation. It’s a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction. Today, Dr. Sprinkle and I both encourage you to acknowledge the day in whatever way seems appropriate. Find a vigil in your area and go to it. Blog about it, tweet about it, or even just think about it. Dream of a world in which sex workers can live free of stigma and violence is no longer an occupational hazard. We’ll get there. I promise.

Find an event near you. www.december17.org