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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.

 
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