The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers Calls for Decriminalization

Posted Dec. 20, 2017

MP3 Excerpts of talks by Sex Workers and Allies Network cofounder Beatrice Codianni and Connecticut Bail Fund Executive Director Brett Davidson at The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers rally in New Haven, CT, recorded and produced by Melinda Tuhus

sexworkers

The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was observed this year on Dec. 17 in cities here in the U.S. and around the world. A group in New Haven, Connecticut – calling themselves Sex Workers and Allies Network, or SWAN, held a rally and march in solidarity with sex workers – and to mourn the many women – and some men – who have died or were murdered on the street. Those attending the rally also remembered two local women who disappeared and are now presumed dead.

Beatrice Codianni co-founded SWAN and spends time almost every day walking New Haven’s streets to offer help and comfort to sex workers. SWAN members engage in daily outreach and harm reduction in the city, handing out winter clothes, clean needles, condoms and naloxone, a medication that treats opioid overdoses. She works together with Brett Davidson, executive director of the Connecticut Bail Fund.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus attended the Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers rally in New Haven and recorded the speakers who addressed the gathering. We first hear from Beatrice Codianni, co-founder of SWAN, followed by Brett Davidson of the Connecticut Bail Fund.

Learn more about the growing sex workers rights movement by visiting International Day To End Violence against Sex Workers at december17.org; and december17.org/about.

BEATRICE CODIANNI: At the end of October last year, I happened to pick up my phone and on one of my news apps I saw the faces of 14 women, and it said, “14 women arrested in prostitution sting” and it made me go batshit crazy because years ago I was strung out on heroin and I was out there on the street – and I was in the closet about that for 50 years because I was so ashamed and so stigmatized. And here they were doing it to these women. But what really, really made me go batshit crazy was it said, “This sting was a massive undercover operation.” So I got in touch with the chief of police, who claimed he didn’t know anything about it, that it was done below him and he doesn’t hear about these things. So I told him, “A massive undercover operation? All that money, all those resources, could have gone to help the women on the street instead of arresting them and stigmatizing not only them, but their children.”

So, he agreed to meet with Brett and I. The end result was the chief called the stings off, which was really amazing because usually they don’t do that. So then after that Brett and I and other activists in the community got together and said we have to do more. So we – not knowing what we were doing – got little goodie bags with things that people in the organization donated – hats, gloves, scarves, hand-warmers, a little personal item, coffee cards to Dunkin' Donuts so people can get off the street for a minute and keep warm. And we just walked down the street and we saw women and we told them about the rally we had and we invited them to it. They didn’t come, but we just kept coming back and talking to the women – if you know someone who’s a sex worker, we had a card and we had information about it, and gradually the women started talking to us and pouring their hearts out. We asked, What do you need? And every one of them said “housing.” We couldn’t supply that because we are broke.

But we pass out condoms, we do needle exchange. We’re a part now of the Greater Hartford Coalition for Harm Reduction. They supply us with Narcan kits and they came in handy for one of our members who overdosed, but the person she was with knew she had a Narcan kit, and he saved her life. We also partner with Phil Costello, who works with Cornell Scott Hill Health Center. He’s an APRN (advanced practice RN). He comes out with us in the street and does street medicine. He will write a prescription if somebody needs an antibiotic for cellulitis. He’ll help clean out abscesses. He sat on the ground and bandaged feet of women whose feet were a mess because they walk so much their feet were blistered.

So, we’re building up a reputation on the street of being a very useful organization among our members. I’m very proud to say that SWAN was invited to the George Soros Open Foundation for Sex Workers Summit. We’re getting recognition. We spoke in Albany. Jackie and I spoke in California and next month Yale Global Health Justice Partnership is partnering with SWAN. What we’d like is for the city to do something. We are just a grassrootS organization making huge changes, building a coalition, getting trust and respect. This could have been done years ago, and it hasn’t. I don’t want to talk too much; I know it’s cold. So I’m going to turn it over to Brett. Do you want to say about the bail fund? [Applause]

BRETT DAVIDSON: It’s not easy work coming out here every day because there’s constant crises. People are out here dying, undergoing a lot of violence. All kinds of political violence, violence from people on the street. And Beatrice, often by herself, is there as the only witness and the only source of protection for a lot of people out here. So our whole community owes a huge debt of gratitude to Beatrice.

CROWD VOICES: I know. Thank you, Beatrice.

BRETT DAVIDSON: And then a quick word about the way the Connecticut Bail Fund has been able to work with SWAN. One of the issues that sex workers in our community face is criminalization, and a lot of time sex workers are profiled by the police, targeted, arrested, if not for prostitution, for other charges because the police are profiling them as sex workers just for standing on the street. And so we’ve had a handful of people in our community taken out of our community and incarcerated in Niantic over the course of just the past year we’ve been doing this work, and so, we’ve been really honored to partner with SWAN as the Bail Fund in order to bail people out so we can make sure no one in our community is being incarcerated for doing sex work. We believe sex work should be completely decriminalized. Our next move on this front is that this Tuesday the CT Bail Fund, in partnership with SWAN and a few other organizations, is going out to Niantic to bail a number of women out who are incarcerated at York Correctional. [Applause]

[My colleague] Ana Maria and I were looking at the data this morning about who’s incarcerated right now in the state of Connecticut. And we know there’s lots of sex workers incarcerated and there’s at least seven people who are there explicitly on prostitution charges. So, the criminalization is real, and there are people there whose bonds are as high as $50,000 for being arrested for prostitution, who are incarcerated right now, so we’re marching in solidarity with them, too. Yeah, I just want to close by saying I’m grateful for being here and committed to the future of SWAN.

Related Links:



Subscribe and get Between The Lines' Weekly Summary in your inbox!