Philadelphia made history with media coverage of the 14th International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers. Thank you to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly dot com for the fair and balanced coverage. http://www.dec17philly.com

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Philly vigil set for 31 sex workers slain in U.S. this year

Philly vigil set for 31 sex workers slain in U.S. this year

Updated: DECEMBER 11, 2017 —

by Bob Fernandez, Staff Writer Twitter icon @bobfernandez1 | Mail icon bob.fernandez@phillynews.com

Rickie Morgan was beaten with a brick and stabbed, her naked and bloody body found in a Philadelphia alleyway in July 2016. Prostitutes who worked the same Kensington area remembered her has a sweet girl.

Advocates say her death didn’t come as a surprise. Alone and vulnerable, sex workers like Morgan face potential violence from johns and from police, they say.

This year, 31 sex workers have been killed in the United States, including a stripper from western Pennsylvania. A vigil will be held for them Sunday afternoon at Thomas Paine Plaza.

Dozens of similar events will be held in cities around the world to bring attention to sex workers who were killed and to advocate for “de-criminalization.” It’s the 14th annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

“People equate prostitution with the opioid crisis, but there are sex workers who are mothers or who are college students,” said Melanie Dante, a co-organizer of Sunday’s vigil in Philadelphia. She said the full extent of the violence against sex workers hasn’t been documented because it is difficult to collect information.

Dante said she’s passionate about the vigil and the issue because she said she feels “blessed to have made it off the streets alive and I want to see other young people off the street and thriving.” Dante lives in Pennsylvania and spends some of her time speaking on the issue in Philadelphia.

The names of victims will be read at the two-hour vigil scheduled for 3 p.m. No identified victims this year are from  Philadelphia, but at least one is from Western Pennsylvania.

Ashley Ugoletti, a stripper in a Pittsburgh club, was found stabbed to death inside a home of a man who worked as a salon nail tech in Westmoreland County. The man who police say stabbed Ugoletti hanged himself minutes later inside a closet in the home, authorities said.

Rachel West, spokeswoman for the U.S. Prostitutes Collective, said that violence against prostitutes is not prioritized by police or district attorneys, leaving it a shadowy issue mostly hidden from society.

Making sex work a crime “gives a green light to violent men to attack sex workers and get away with it,” West said. “These men know that sex workers are afraid to report crimes for fear that they will be arrested, and if they are immigrants, they fear that they will be deported,” she said.

Published: December 10, 2017 — | Updated: December 11, 2017 —

by Kathy Boccella, Staff Writer Twitter icon @Kathy_Boccella | Mail icon kboccella@phillynews.com

 TOM GRALISH / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Saying her cousin was a murdered sex worker, Anita DeFrancesco spoke at the 14th annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers vigil in Philadelphia Sunday. Organizers, including Melanie Dante, right, read the names of 34 sex workers killed in the U.S. this year.

by Kathy Boccella, Staff Writer Twitter icon @Kathy_Boccella | Mail icon kboccella@phillynews.com

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.

 TOM GRALISH / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Participants with the Trans Equity Project join the vigil. Dozens of similar events were to be held in cities around the world.

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.”

Published: December 17, 2017 — 6:23 PM EST

Photo Tim Cwiek ePGN