We are brought up to hope one day that we will have a little patch of earth to call our own, where we can celebrate life’s happy events and have a bit of shelter from the storm when things get rough. What we don’t picture in this fantasy is having that house located on a street where women work as prostitutes. Even the most devil-may-care person is quick to assert the oft heard phrase, “Not in my backyard,” at the very idea of living in such an environment. Enraged citizens will often rail at the police, urging them to find a way to move the prostitutes along – anywhere is fine, just not in my backyard. Prostitution does, after all, bring with it other social ills like drug addiction and so it’s easy to moralize and shame those who sell their bodies for money.
In Houston Texas, one neighborhood has been struggling to rid itself of sex workers, and recently, two gentleman decided to interview the women to hear their point of view.
There are certainly women who choose to engage in sex work, but for far too many, prostitution is their only method of survival and it is far from a choice. This is a dark reality, yet sex workers are subjected to slut shaming, ridicule and outright othering. Being a prostitute means existing as what is socially referred to as a spoiled identity. When one is in the sex trade, one is no longer someone’s mother, daughter, sister or friend; one is purely an object of sexual gratification without feelings or worth.
Many of the women in the above video make it clear that they are without options and the skills necessary to change how they live. Many of the women openly asked for help but their community — like so many communities in North America — aren’t actively interested in helping, but in getting them to become someone else’s problem. The fact that these women are engaged in an activity that is dangerous and harmful for their mental health, is not their failure, but that of a society all too willing to support and encourage the active abuse of minorities. People fall through the cracks because of an imperfect and biased system, which is specifically designed to ensure that the marginalized stay marginalized.
When poor women of color are forced to resort to sex work to survive, this should speak loudly about the ways in which we are targeted, undereducated and set up for failure from birth. No little girl grows up dreaming about the day when she will stand on the street corner offering her body to strangers, to pay rent, or buy food. Somewhere along the line, these women faced obstacles they could not surpass. The more isms one has to negotiate in life, the more difficult it is to survive and the more likely one is to be forced into sex work, be violently assaulted or die young. It is no accident that those who are most likely to engage in sex work are at the very minimum negotiating at least one site of oppression.
Perhaps one of the things that I found most jarring, were the discussions of rape by these women. As women, we are all under the threat of some sort of violence, but when it happens to a sex worker, too often it is seen as part of the job because women engaged in sex work are deemed unrapeable. Consider for a moment that in 2007, Municipal Judge Teresa Carr Deni refused to uphold a case of sexual assault in which the victim had been gang raped by gunpoint by three men because she felt it was “theft of services.” I cannot fathom what it is to be raped and still have to go to that corner everyday because that corner is all that stood between me and hunger. Predatory behavior towards sex workers has a long history and crimes against them are rarely investigated or reported. These women not only have to worry whether or not they will survive the night, they have to deal with the fact that if something does indeed happen that crimes against them will not be taken seriously by the authorities. Sometimes, the police, who are mandated to protect and serve, are the ones doing the assaulting. Where does one turn then?
What further troubles me about this is that it is always the sex workers who are targeted by the community. No one thinks to ask what about the johns. Without customers, these women would have nothing to sell. What kind of man gets into his car firm in the belief that he has the right to purchase someone’s body for his own purposes?
Every time we get on that moral high horse and scream about the safety of our streets, we forget that for these women, nothing is ever truly safe. We forget that long ago we extinguished hope in their eyes and that some of them never had a chance. As a society, we owe them more than moving them from location to location or locking them up in jail, further increasing the chance that they will be unable to find employment. Jail time for prostitution does not teach them anything and it is solely about punishing them for being vulnerable in the first place.
Moving these women from neighborhood to neighborhood may make you sleep better at night but it’s not going to stop the abuses they face, nor is it going to bring an end to prostitution. Criminalizing them does not change the circumstances that led to their participation in prostitution in the first place. If we want people to do better, we need to equip them with the tools necessary to do so, rather than shaming them. The only morality that we should be concerned with is the fact that these women are forced into work that is often violent and most definitely emotionally damaging.