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Do You Look Like a Prostitute? (Whatever That Means): It Might Mean No Taxi Cabs

Throughout history, laws that are supposed to "protect" women have pushed prostitutes to the margins of cities and the social order itself.
 
 
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We're told that being a prostitute will mark a woman for life. Yet after several millennia of practice, lawmakers and social reformers still struggle to identify what a sex worker looks like.

You know,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said (in a June 15 appearance on WOR's perfectly named "The John Gambling Show") when asked what might go wrong with a bill that could penalize taxi drivers who knowingly transport people in the sex trade, “if I were a young lady and I dressed in a ‘sporty way’ -- or however you want to phrase it, and there's nothing wrong with that -- I would not want somebody thinking that I’m a prostitute.”

Has Mayor Stop-and-Frisk given pause on an issue of criminal profiling? Even the reliably hooker-baiting New York Post came out swinging against the bill, citing a protest held by women bartenders, who “aren't hookers – they just look like they can be!” concerned that cab drivers would leave them stranded for fear of getting stung.

The intention of this bill, according to proponents like New York City Council Speaker (and mayoral hopeful) Christine Quinn, is to make it undesirable for taxi and livery drivers in the city to risk any involvement in what they call “sex trafficking.” But the bill doesn't actually say that: it hits taxi and livery drivers with a $10,000 fine and the revocation of their license if they “knowingly allow” their vehicle to be “used for the purpose of promoting prostitution.”

Attorneys at the Sex Workers Project (SWP) have argued that language like “promoting prostitution” is too vague. “It could include anyone who knowingly aids another person to commit prostitution and anyone who receives money from someone else, knowing it came from prostitution,” SWP co-director Sienna Baskin said in testimony to the city council. No matter what the bill's intentions, cab drivers could end up passing up fares from sex workers – or people they think might be sex workers.

Bloomberg is overstating the issue a bit: no matter how they are dressed, it's unlikely his daughters would be profiled as prostitutes. But he's not wrong: there's simply no way taxi drivers can tell if the woman riding in their backseat is doing sex work, and whether or not she has been compelled or forced to, just by picking her up as a fare.

Putting such a law into practice in a culture that harbors intense myths and fears about what a “prostitute” looks like only ends up perpetuating dated and sexist notions of how women ought to conduct themselves in public, which in turn can put women in danger. In this regard, 21st-century anti-prostitution politics are not so different from their counterpart a century ago. There might be one difference: while today's anti-prostitution advocates will at least cop to it not being easy to tell if someone is a sex worker just by looking at them, that doesn't actually stop them from trying.

Not all that long ago, any unaccompanied woman on an American street could be considered a prostitute. At the turn of the last century, the phrase “public woman” was still synonymous with a woman in the sex trade, based on the notion that women's work was to be confined within the home, and besides, wasn't really work. The low-wage jobs available to working-class and some immigrant women took them outside the domestic sphere, and offered them a measure of freedom, and for the first time, their own money. That mobility, as much as their growing financial independence, made those young women suspect in the eyes of social reformers.

As Elizabeth Alice Clement documents in her book Love For Sale, these working young women of the Progressive Era faced intense scrutiny from social reformers, for how they made their money and how they spent it. The social welfare reformer Jane Addams warned that girls who took jobs in department stores might be especially likely to become prostitutes. “It is perhaps in the department store more than anywhere else,” Addams wrote in her 1912 treatise A New Conscience and An Ancient Evil, “that every possible weakness in a girl is detected and traded upon. It is not surprising that so many of these young, inexperienced girls are either deceived or yield to temptation in spite of the efforts made to protect them.”

Addams' remedy to such a threat? Educating young women and their caretakers on how essential it is that they must remain chaste. Women, in Addams' estimation, could bring about a world in which they not fear being “despoiled” if they abstain not just from sex but from public amusements – rather than fighting to ensure their right to work and take up space in the public sphere without fear of rape or violence.

With the agitation of Addams and other reformers of her time, laws against prostitution and “white slavery” swept the states. While some reformers meant for the laws to allow them to separate “innocent” victims from those “fallen women” who chose prostitution, the result was the closure of red-light districts in American cities, including raids on businesses that allowed prostitutes to patronize them and rooming houses that allowed prostitutes to live and work there.

All this was done in the name of “protecting” women, and yet prostitutes found themselves out in the cold, or pushed to work for managers who could act as go-betweens with customers and landlords, protecting the prostitutes from being known as prostitutes or discriminated against. The laws that were supposed to protect them ended up pushing prostitutes to the margins of cities and the social order itself.

Such attitudes – vintage victim-blaming or slut-shaming, meant to “save women” from themselves – shifted only slightly at the dawn of women's liberation and the sexual revolution.

When a young San Franciscan named Margo St. James was arrested and charged with prostitution in 1962, she attempted to defend herself to the judge, saying, “Your honor, I've never turned a trick in my life.” According to St. James, the judge replied that he knew she must be a prostitute because “anyone who knows the language is obviously a professional." St. James concluded, “My crime was I knew too much to be a nice girl.”

It was only after this encounter with the law that St. James became a prostitute, going on to found one of the first organizations in the United States to organize for sex workers' rights, COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics). By the 1970s, COYOTE had succeeded in getting the National Organization for Women to adopt the decriminalization of prostitution as a policy platform.

Even as some corners of the feminist movement reconsidered prostitution laws and the damage done, a national backlash was on against gains made by the women's and gay liberation movements. City governments moved to “clean up” neighborhoods that mixed porn theaters and gay bars with entertainment and tourism, like Boston's Combat Zone and New York's Times Square.

In 1976, New York state passed a law criminalizing “loitering for the purposes of prostitution.” How were cops to identify “intent” to commit prostitution? In reality, the law gave them the power to stop and question women walking in neighborhoods known for prostitution, or for “looking like” a prostitute in a neighborhood she “shouldn't” be in. In a report evaluating the law a few years after its passage, New York Women in Criminal Justice argued that the anti-loitering statute violated the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution, as it was overwhelmingly used to target women.

Loitering-with-intent charges are still brought against women today, and against women of color and trans women far more often than white women and cisgender women. Women also rarely fight these charges, as St. James did. The rise of “anti-prostitution zones” in cities like Washington, DC means that women can face arrest simply for entering one of these areas, declared at the discretion of the police. In practice, cops rely on racial and gender profiling in enforcement, a feminized version of “stop and frisk.”

You could be forgiven for mistaking 2012 for 1912. Jane Addams' philosophy is still alive, too, only with a pseudo-feminist twist. In a training for Georgia law enforcement offered by the anti-prostitution campaign “A Future, Not A Past” (AFNAP), they suggest ways that cops can identify young women in the sex trade. A few of the warning signs? “Inappropriate dress, including oversized clothing or overtly sexy clothing.” “Poor personal hygiene.” “Older boyfriend.” Acting “angry” and “tearful.” They also warn parents of daughters to be wary of “rumors among students regarding sexual activity – which your child may not necessarily deny.”

They say they just want to give cops and parents tools to help girls. But stoking fears that their daughters could be victims of trafficking if they're having sex, or expressing completely average feelings for a teenager? Likewise, instructing cops that it's okay to profile young women based on their dress, in order to stop and question them? Groups like AFNAP don't call it searching girls for evidence of “shame” or “ruin” anymore. Now they call it “empowerment.”

A hundred years of incoherent law has delivered us to a point in history where prostitution is as illegal as it ever has been, and yet politicians demand more laws against it. Contemporary anti-prostitution activists claim more women than ever before are trapped in what they have begun to call “modern-day slavery,” and yet, these advocates tell us they are hard to find. Yet neither prong of the anti-prostitution cause seems to consider how these laws against sex work drive its invisibility, and can turn any woman deemed to be doing the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time into a suspect or a criminal.

Melissa Gira Grant has written for Slate, the Guardian (UK), the New York Observer and Jezebel, among others. Follow her on Twitter: @melissagira.
 
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