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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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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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