Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sex workers aren't "asking for it."

On December 27th, two police officers on foot patrol discovered an unconscious woman under a bush in Springfield, Massachusetts' South End. She had been raped and severely beaten, and in the frigid weather, her body temperature had fallen to 80 degrees. She was the third woman since October to be found raped and beaten into unconsciousness.

"If it were a half-hour later, we would have been investigating the city's 15th murder," said Sgt. John M. Delaney, aide to Police Commissioner William J. Fitchet.

The victim is a white woman with a long history with police, Delaney said, though he did not detail her arrest record.

"I hate to say it, I don't want to make her a victim twice," Delaney said, while cautioning the public that the attack did not bear the marks of a "typical" serial rapist.

"The general public should know that this was a woman who engaged in risky behavior, not someone who was abducted at random," he said. Stephanie Barry, Springfield Republican.
What Sgt. Delaney was trying to say, without coming right out and saying it, was that the woman was a prostitute. Similar statements made in October about the other two victims implied the same thing. What Sgt. Delaney was careful not to imply was that in spite of her "risky behavior," the woman was "asking for it." That particular judgment will be made by far too many others in the community.

Women's advocates know that no woman is safe from rape and murder. One out of every six women in the U.S. has been the victim or a rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, and the murder rate for women is 1.35 for every 100,00 women.

But yes-- violence against sex workers is way out of proportion to that of the general population.

The most recent victim's brutalization took place exactly ten days after the 6th Annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. The event was initiated to commemorate the more than 90 victims of the Green River killer Gary Ridgway, who targeted prostitutes because "I knew they would not be reported missing right away, and might never be reported. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught."

"Violence should not be an occupational hazard!" The Sex Worker Outreach Project, along with many others, believes that laws that criminalize prostitution help to put women in harm's way. Perpetrators often count on sex workers not going to the police for protection (there are occasional exceptions: see my post on Officer Jacobson) and the stigma creates the idea that sex workers, especially street prostitutes, are a disposable class of people.

Sadly, as women as a whole experience less discrimination and greater possibilities, the women's movement, if it even still exists, shows little or no solidarity with women who use their bodies to make a living. Radical movements to prevent violence against women have turned into service providers with close ties to the state. I have heard no outcry from the YWCA, no word from any battered women's shelter or rape crisis center. My own organization, Arise for Social Justice, , used to frequent places where we would find sex workers and pass out flyers about safety and resources, but our own resources have been very thin of late. Thinking about this, I have to ask myself if we could have done something to make these womens' assaults less likely.

The real question, though, is what can we do now?

Photo from SWOP-Tuscon.


Anonymous said...

Sgt. Delaney was correct to make that statement. Springfield is viewed as high crime area,the crime seems to be focused in the high risk area. Just a point of information for the general public!

Nancy Green said...

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but you won't see it in theatres because no one will show it

Caty said...

I feel like Delaney should have focused on why sex workers are such a preyed upon population rather than (in my opinion) subtly shifting the blame on the woman by saying sex work itself (rather than stigma and criminalization making it so) is a "risky behavior". The police quoted did take pains to say they didn't want to victimize the woman twice, which I appreciated, but I feel like a truly courageous piece of reporting from the Republican would have been one in which they spoke about how sex workers have a disproportionate, awful amount of violence inflicted upon them and how this is one more example. Rather than insulating the general public from feeling any identification by letting them know this woman did things that most "decent women" in the general public wouldn't stoop to doing, if you know what I mean.
This was an incredible blog piece on the issue. I do want to mention, though, that violence against sex workers is not just a problem for women--it is a problem for male sex workers as well (some male youth sex workers were the prey of gay serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, for example), and actually, transgendered teens who work the streets are hit hardest of all by the combination of transphobia & whoraphobia exploding in violence--I see at least one story from NYC about the violent deaths of this population every year. Sometimes, when transgendered women die in suspicious circumstances, local police don't even make much of an effort to investigate, declaring "suicides" after a couple of desultory phonecalls, not truly valuing these marginalized trans women's lives. I've heard of this happening countless times from trans activists.
Lastly, I want to say that we can do something about it--Michaelann herself suggested something very low effort & simple, like putting up posters warning women doing sex work in the area where it seems like this predator is operating. Oh, good point, Michaelann, by the way, about not seeing any response from the mainstream anti-violence against women movements. Maybe someone should write a letter to these orgs? Do people think we could perhaps stir them into action?

Adam Cohen said...

An effective solution is to decriminalize the sale of sex, but increase penalties for paying for it. This removes legal jeopardy from those who are prostituted and puts the burden on pimps and johns, where it belongs.

This approach is working in Sweden.

The blanket decriminalization of prostitution has been tried in several places and routinely shows poor results, for the fundamental reason that many johns believe when you pay someone for sex, you can use them as you will.

Realist said...

The worst enemies of decriminalizing sex work are women themselves.

A female friend who is a psychologist once described a hierarchy that women use to define each other. The top of the scale was the married woman (extra points for motherhood) while the lowest was the prostitute.

Assuming that this is a true assessment, women will never support better treatment for sex workers until their attitudes about sex-for-pay changes. Without all women behind such a movement, no changes can occur.


Anonymous said...

The photo array reminds me of the photos of the Vancouver missing women.Willie Picton was convicted in a few cases and claimed 49 but he was probably just parroting the number of known missing at that time.The list grows and how long depends on who you talk to.I was a downtown addict with a working woman for a wife and the things she went through would turn your stomach.Pills and heroin allowed her to cope.People break for any number of reasons and working the streets is the end result for so many.My wife is no longer with us.I've lost count of the number of friends that have gone the same way.Until people stop having sex,there has to be some kind of protection for women that are caught in the cycle of drug abuse and prostitution.Just say no is no answer and never has been.

Caty said...

Sex workers are not just victims. Before people make public policy decisions for us, they should consult sex worker's rights organizations composed of sex workers, like SWOP or Desiree Alliance. & there are a lot of happy sex workers in places in which sex work is decriminalized, like Holland, Australia, Germany, etc. Also, realize, that in the laws of many countries (including this one) *anyone* who knowingly receives $ from a prostitute is a pimp--is a prostitute's husband or child guilty of being a pimp? The woman herself would respond with a resounding no. Sex workers should have the same right to share money with their families as other people do.

Michaelann Bewsee said...

Thanks, everyone, for the thoughtful comments on this post. The more we criminalize behavior, the more we drive women who are sex working into the shadows.

Anonymous said...

Adam; penalties for BUYING sex but NOT for selling it? That's like having a gun law saying it's legal to sell handguns but illegal to buy them. Basically, it's another version of "gay means being the catcher"

It's saying that it even though it takes two to tango, you are still supposed to regard the tangoers as separate contexts and view them one at a time.