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Activists call for end to violence after string of sex worker murders

Sex work activists have called for an end to stigma and violence after the murders of several sex workers, including Sydney trans woman Kimberley McRae.

Since her death last month, much of the mainstream media has afforded her case relatively little attention, while others have sensationalised her work and gender.

McRae, 69, was last seen on Tuesday 7 January, before being found in her Coogee unit the following Tuesday, ABC News reported.

“Investigators are aware Kim worked in the sex industry and may be known to some of her associates as Isabella, Samantha, and Sabrina,” said Homicide Squad Commander Detective Superintendent Danny Doherty.

“Of course, we’d be keen to speak to anyone who has information or knowledge of Kim’s social activities.”

The police have established a taskforce to investigate McRae’s death and have asked anyone with possible information to come forward.

Stigma and violence

Sex workers held a memorial for McRae in Sydney last week.

Speaking at the event, trans sex worker representative Mish Pony from Scarlet Alliance said they had been disappointed to see the disrespectful commentary on McRae’s death.

“I was deeply upset, hurt, and angry about the disrespect shown by people feeling they had the right to make cruel comment on the lives of trans people and sex workers, fuelled by the media’s choice of language and imagery,” they said.

“It appears even in death, as in life, our lives as sex workers and trans people are constantly subject to public scrutiny and derision. “

Pony blamed politicians and law enforcement for “state-sanctioned oppressions” of sex workers.

“Because of all this, trans sex workers face a high rate of violence from living at the intersection of transphobia and whorephobia, which leads to entrenched social stigmatisation and marginalisation,” they said.

“We have a right to respect, dignity, privacy, and safety.

“We have a right to live our authentic lives without fear, without violence, and to thrive.

“Kimberley McRae had those rights, and she deserves to be remembered as a whole person who deserved more.”

Pony told Pink Advocate that the violence and oppression sex workers face is often overlooked or seen as separate to women’s issues.

“When women who aren’t sex workers face violence, there’s a lot of media coverage,” they said.

“But then as soon as that woman is also a sex worker, it becomes no longer about violence against women – it’s violence against sex workers, which society doesn’t really care that much about.

“That just exemplifies the ingrained discrimination that sex workers face in society.

“The media have used Kimberley’s trans and sex worker status as a bit of titillation, not giving her the dignity she deserves.”

Pony noted that questions remain about McRae’s death, and suggested the community might demand more action for someone who was cisgender or not a sex worker.

Murders worldwide

McRae is among several other sex workers recently killed worldwide.

On New Year’s Eve, Christchurch woman Bella Te Pania was “brutally” murdered, in the city’s fifth sex worker killing in 15 years.

She was found after being dumped in a vehicle at the airport.

Te Pania’s accused murderer is due to face trial this week.

In Canada, Quebec sex worker Marylène Levesque was found murdered in a hotel on Friday.

The man who has confessed to her murder was on parole from a life sentence for violently killing his partner.

The parole board had discussed the need for a strategy to “meet women in order to meet [his] sexual needs”.

Sandra Wesley, of Canadian sex worker organisation Stella, said that the board failed to address the killer’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies.

She added that Canada’s de facto criminalisation of sex work had also been a factor in making Levesque vulnerable.

“It is very obvious that criminalisation of sex work facilitated the violence of this man,” Wesley said.

Advocates around the world are calling for decriminalisation of sex work as a step towards addressing issues of violence and stigma.

If you are a sex worker who needs support, please contact your state or territory sex worker peer organisation.

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