The Dominican Republic and Beyond: It's Vital That Sex Workers Are Heard


“Bitch, this is what you’re good for.” These were the words spoken by a police officer just before he raped a sex worker in the Dominican Republic. The routine rape, beating and humiliation - sometimes at gunpoint - of sex workers by police in the Dominican Republic is deemed to be so widespread that it is considered an epidemic. The intensity of violence is so severe that Amnesty International classes it as ‘gender-based torture’.  

Transgender sex workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse, as there is, of course, added transphobia on top of the pervasive misogyny that already exists. For a woman to press charges against a rapist is universally acknowledged to be extremely challenging; police brutality is also something that in the 21st century we’re acutely aware of. Add to these two challenges the social stigma that surrounds sex work and it’s not difficult to imagine how rare it is for the accusations of these women to be taken seriously.

They’re trying to stand up to a supposed ‘justice system’ in a situation where it is all too possible that the very officer they have to report the crime to is the one who committed the crime in the first place. Even without this possibility, the nature of their occupation means that they are often treated as though they were 'asking for' rape, shifting the blame onto the victim, rather than holding the criminal accountable. 

Amnesty International has written a detailed report, entitled ‘If they can have her, why can’t we’ that aims to highlight the causes of this abuse. For the report, Amnesty interviewed over 60 cisgender and transgender women from the Dominican Republic about all aspects of their lives. Their findings show that women sex workers are targeted so frequently because they have been demonised by society and are seen as ‘immoral’ and ‘unnatural’. Although prostitution itself is not illegal in the Dominican Republic, various related aspects are, such as brothels or pimping, which means that sex workers in general are denigrated in the eyes of their society and likely to be arrested anyway. It is often in situations of arrest and questioning that violence takes place. 

Organisations such as OTRASEX and CONTRAVETD are fighting back against the discrimination, doing everything they can to bring awareness to the issue and let the voices of sex workers be heard – not just a collective voice, but a nuance of individual voices that speak of subtly different lives, experiences and attitudes towards the work itself.

Whilst the Amnesty campaign focuses specifically on the Dominican Republic, it highlights an issue of under-representation that is applicable the world over. It taught me a lot, and it is a lesson worth learning. The voices of sex workers remain silenced globally. Amnesty highlighted in its 2019 report that ‘the subject of selling sex provokes intense debate. Too often in the back-and-forth between people on both sides of the discussion, women sex workers themselves are sidelined and denied agency.’ We must shift the conversation, and give the floor to them. We must stop speaking over sex workers.

We need to place the voices and personal stories of these women themselves at the core of any discussion concerning sex work. We need to listen to their ideas on what can bring about lasting and effectual change. Statistics are important when investigating the figures behind any human issue, but I don’t believe that they are as powerful at instilling compassion and thus sparking action and change as real human stories. Stories directly oppose the dehumanisation that mere numbers can often provoke. 

As long as sex workers remain walking statistics of violence and misogyny, they will remain dehumanised. As long as they are dehumanised they will continue to be ignored and any particular attitude regarding the moral integrity of their work will be projected onto them by the society within which they exist, whether that attitude is based in religious idealism, male braggadocio or any basis for social constraints on sexuality and gender-expression. Only through discussion can we hope to eradicate the stigma that exists, protecting sex workers from violence in the first place and supporting them when they try to take action against any violence that has already occurred.  

For anyone who wishes to take action against this issue you can sign a petition and show solidarity, here: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2019/03/dominican-republic-sex-workers-rights. There is also a link on the petition page to the full Amnesty International report.