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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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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.

 
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