The latest atrocity out of Texas involves the murder of a young sex worker and the utterly unbelievable acquittal of the admitted perpetrator. On June 5th, Ezekiel Gilbert was exonerated of criminal charges after shooting and killing a sex worker because she did not engage in sex with him. Gilbert shot Lenora Frago in the neck on Christmas Eve three years ago, after she denied his requests for sex and wouldn’t return the $150 he had paid her for her time. She died a few months later.
Gilbert’s defense won the case by citing a Texas statute related to the defense of property. By this provision, an individual is authorized to use deadly force to ‘retrieve stolen property at night’ and Gilbert’s lawyers reasoned that Frago had stolen $150 from him by taking his money without delivering sex. This statute allows individuals to take the law into their own hands and to exact punishment, including death, for offenses that would never result in the death penalty if the person were actually convicted. Even with the vigilantism made legal by the statute, Gilbert’s behavior was still not legal, because escorts are not required by law to engage in sex (in fact, it’s illegal to do so).
There are many elements of this act of violence and the subsequent ruling that are deeply unjust. One is the valuation of property as more significant than human life – at least, the life of certain humans. The assertion that the loss of $150 justifies murder is outrageous, and conveys the message that sex workers’ lives are not valued or protected, and neither is their right to bodily autonomy. This case also sets a deeply distressing precedent regarding consent. A person’s refusal to have sex with someone can be punished by murder if the perpetrator alleges that the victim ‘owes’ them something.
The issue of violence against sex workers is much larger than this most recent event in Texas. Violence against sex workers is widespread, and accountability for perpetrators of violence against sex workers is rare. Many states and localities reinforce, through legislation or practice, the notion that sex workers surrender their basic human rights by engaging in labor that is illegal. This has been demonstrated through countless unprosecuted rapes, beatings and murders of sex workers locally and globally.
One result of the criminalization of sex work is that there are no protections in place for workers – no guidelines for the behavior of clients, and no recourse for the violation of those guidelines. There is an extensive history of sex workers being targeted by violent individuals because of their vulnerable status. In one famous case, Gary Ridgewood, the ‘Green River Killer’, released this statement after being convicted of murder: “… My plan was I wanted to kill as many women I thought were prostitutes as I possibly could … I picked prostitutes as my victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed.” Ridgewood knew that sex workers weren’t protected by the law, and that he would be less likely to be caught and punished for their murders.
An estimated 41 million people worldwide are engaged in the sex trade, but they are not considered legitimate workers and are thus not afforded basic worker’s rights. Because of stigma and the necessarily secretive nature of this enormous industry, sex workers are subjected to violence for which perpetrators are often not held accountable. This lack of justice is problematic for society broadly in contributing to a culture of misogyny and sex-shaming, but it is also deeply damaging to individual sex workers, who consistently receive the message that they don’t matter.
A longitudinal study published in 2004 found that the homicide rate for *female prostitutes is approximately 204 per 100,000, which is a higher occupational mortality rate than any group of women ever studied. Though there are few reliable sources, it is reasonable to surmise that the homicide rate for trans-feminine sex workers is even higher than the number cited for ciswomen. Despite this violent reality, within the broader movement to prevent ‘violence against women,’ sex workers are often left out of the equation. Although sex workers are engaged in anti-violence advocacy on many levels, there is little mention of violence against sex workers in UN conversations regarding violence against women, and the issue is ignored by many mainstream feminist groups.
The bottom line in this case for me is that ‘property before people’ (or people as property) is not an acceptable guiding philosophy for legislation, and that the criminalization of sex work leads to violence against workers. It’s time for the mainstream anti-violence community to help to organize to prevent violence against sex workers, and time for sex workers and allies to take a dramatic and unapologetic stand against the denial of our humanity. Sex workers are people, people with rights that should be honored and protected.
Jury acquits escort shooter, My San Antonio, June 5, 2013
Texas Says It’s OK to Shoot an Escort If She Won’t Have Sex With You, Gawker, January 6, 2013
Jury Acquits Texas Man For Murder Of Escort Who Refused Sex, Think Progress, January 6, 2013
Jury acquits escort shooter: Comments, My San Antonio, January 6, 2013
Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide Research Project
About the Guest Blogger
Cassandra is a radical social worker, grassroots activist, and performer. She works with LGBTQ and court-involved youth as a clinician and advocate, and is an Executive Board member for the Sex Worker’s Outreach Project. Her primary areas of professional interest are LGBTQ health, reproductive justice, anti-oppressive sexuality education, sex worker’s rights and youth development. Cassandra earned her Master of Social Work from Jane Addams College at UIC. Cassandra has an affinity for adventuring, and has lived in five countries and been lost in many more. She hosts a queer feminist book club in her home, and is a member of a fabulous dyke choir (or quoir). She is interested in creating intergenerational queer spaces, and in facilitating discussions that challenge popular discourse related to sexuality, gender, class and race.