It began with a protest: A short history of International Whores’ Day

It began with a protest: A short history of International Whores’ Day
Image: Lyon sex workers occupying the Saint-Nizier church in 1975.

This story was originally published on City Hub.

June 2 marks International Whores’ Day, otherwise known as International Sex Workers’ Day, a day dedicated to advocating for sex workers’ rights and raising awareness about their often exploitative working conditions.

The origins of the annual observance can be traced back to June 2, 1975 in France, when sex workers and their allies stormed and took over the Saint-Nizier church in Lyon. Though sex work was legal, workers lacked legal protections and faced heavy stigma and regular violence. The catalyst was the death of two sex workers and the unwillingness of the police to properly increase protections and prevent crimes against sex workers.

As part of the highly publicised eight day long strike, the sex workers and their supporters demanded that fines, stigma and police harassment stop, and that the ten sex workers who had been imprisoned a few days earlier for soliciting be released.

When we occupy the churches
You are scandalised
Religious bigots!
You who threatened us with hell
We have come to eat at your table
At Saint-Nizier
This was the first verse of a protest song written by the sex workers. They challenged police to come and arrest anyone who they could identify as a sex worker. Many brought their children, making the statement that women doing a job such as sex work could not be told apart from other women doing other jobs.
The protestors were removed by police after eight days of striking. And though the movement failed to achieve law reform or lasting change, its impact instead marked a social change, and the beginning of an international movement. The next year marked the first International Whores’ Day.
According to Valerie Jenness in Making it Work: The Prostitutes’ Rights Movement in Perspective (1993), the sex workers’ rights movement emerged during the 1970s to “challenge the traditional views of prostitutes as social misfits, slaves, victims of pimps and drug addiction, and tools of organised crime.”
Decades on, sex workers’ rights movements are still fighting for sex work to be recognised as a legitimate occupation deserving rights.

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