ProstitutionSpeak, ideology, and death

"Moral Reform Directory" of 1839: This town is a horrible sump of abominable corruption, and here are the addresses

The God’s honest truth is, I get so depressed when I think about sex work.   Nothing ever changes. Or — well, let me correct that a little. Sex workers change.  The conditions of sex work change. The demographics of who goes into sex work change. The clients of sex workers change according to time, place, the economy, and other factors. The collective consciousness of sex workers changes. Even the laws around sex work change. But two things never change: The way the media reports on sex work, and the way Nicholas Kristof goes out in the wild to save some sex workers whenever there’s a full moon.   And the immobile persistence of these overwhelming facts cancels out all the other changes: the same way the occasional wobble in the earth’s axis, though it might produce an Ice Age or a mass extinction on the local scale, doesn’t alter the drone of the planet’s endless billions of rotations around the sun. The sun is a fixed fact; Nick Kristof is a fixed fact; and phrases like “Street Prostitution Keeps Its Wily Hold” are fixed facts that will last till every newspaper and every computer chip are shreds of superheated carbon inside a red dwarf. And so it goes.

“Street Prostitution Keeps Its Wily Hold” was in the headline of a New York Times article this month.

Two men dressed as women strutted in and out of the shadows cast by the moon, past the locked doors of residences, just off one of Brooklyn’s nondescript commercial strips.

One wore knee-high boots and jeans with flowery designs. He had the straightened hair, exaggerated lashes and thick lipstick of a drag queen. The other was a rocker type, the bright red tresses of his wig bouncing giddily off his leather jacket whenever he peered over his shoulder into the headlights of an oncoming car.

Eight months ago, it was not uncommon to see as many as 20 scantily dressed women shimmying along the side streets near this one-block stretch of Madison Street between Broadway and Bushwick Avenue, selling sex for cash or other gifts, like drugs or alcohol. But a recent police crackdown and an influx of transvestite prostitutes have sent most of the women elsewhere — at least for now.

Who writes this stuff for the Times?  (Answer: Al Baker and Tim Stelloh.)  Who edits it? On what other subject would the Newspaper of Record slip into such purple prose, as if it were donning its own flowery off-the-rack fuck-me hooker outfits? What does it mean to have “the straightened hair, exaggerated lashes and thick lipstick of a drag queen”? Does that mean she is a drag queen?  Or did he just mug a drag queen and steal his facial features?  Why isn’t the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation nailing the Times to the wall for this, instead of standing up for Ellen, who can probably stand up for herself?  Oh, I forgot: “transvestite” prostitutes aren’t respectable, unlike camera-coddled or drug-addled celebrities, and even Neil Patrick Harris could probably get away with calling them “drag queens” or, as GLAAD puts it, “tr*nnies.”

Slumming: A resembles-a-drag-queen and her manner-of-a-pimp

The arbiters of what’s Fit To Print, I suspect, fall back on such adj.- and adv.-filled language because they still think sex work would be unprintable in bald noun-verb phrases. The reigning ideology is all about hiding the fact that something very simple is happening, the exchange of sex for money. Instead, sacred horror and legal revulsion must cast their nebula over the scene, made up of purple rain and red-tressed wig and elaborate lighting effects to allow fantasies of rot and exploitation full play. Nothing in ProstitutionSpeak (or Pr*st*t*t**nSpeak) simply is itself. Everything resembles something, everything is like something, as if the jism of metaphor spills over and obliterates the outlines of thought. It’s all swept up in the “vibrancy and persistence of the old-fashioned street hustle, which in the predawn darkness of Bedford-Stuyvesant on Thursday spilled forth in all its crafty, competitive mercantile ways”:

As the transvestites walked up and down Madison Street looking for clients, a man, who had adopted the dress and manner of a pimp, followed them, sometimes at a close distance. Their parade was interrupted by a Mercedes sedan that pulled up to a traffic light; a door opened and a prostitute bolted out. The Mercedes sped away.

Is this guy a pimp?  Or did he beat one up, like the drag queen, and make off with his dress and manner? How do you know that’s a prostitute? Maybe she just stole a prostitute’s profession. Jesus, it’s a dangerous neighborhood.

And now it’s even more dangerous. Why? Well, there’s the police. Wheeling their attention briefly from the omnipresent Muslim threat, the cops, over three days in January, “made 195 arrests and seized 55 vehicles in what police officials called Operation Losing Proposition.” (That’s almost as good as Infinite Justice.) It’s hard to tell how they even identify the sex workers underneath all the metaphors, but in their hard-boiled wisdom, they manage. Here’s my favorite sentence from the entire piece:

In a separate case underscoring the ubiquity of streetwalking, a 32-year-old Pennsylvania man was arrested on Feb. 6 after impersonating a police officer to extort sex from prostitutes, the police said.

Hilarious. But why does it show the “ubiquity of streetwalking”? Doesn’t it really underscore the ubiquity of … cops? Of real cops and fake cops alike, swarming everywhere, the greatest danger to prostitutes’ health and integrity? As Raymond Chandler wrote at the end of his greatest novel:

I never saw any of them again—except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.

So true. But then if you’re a cop, you probably don’t even notice that no one can get rid of you, or that anyone is trying.

The general gist of the article is that while “other crimes recede” in greater New York, prostitution-related arrests stay steady. But this isn’t surprising.   Those arrests, a fertile field for extortion, have always provided supplemental income for the police; and since streetwalkers are exposed pretty much by definition, it’s easy to nab them — and their clients. As it happens, Governor Eliot Spitzer (before he was brought down by the scandal over his patronizing a DC sex work ring) signed a bill changing the laws on prostitution in the state of New York. Selling sex remained a Class B Misdemeanor ( worth three months in jail or a $500 fine); but patronizing a prostitute, the crime and associated hypocrisy soon to topple Spitzer, went up to Class A, carrying one year in jail or a $1,000 fine. For cops, the clients have always represented a readier source of bribes, since they have both more money to offer and more reputation to save. Now they also face more risk. So it’s not surprising that Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s chief target in Operation Losing Perspiration was the johns.

Protest against Raymond Kelly: We don't just spy on Muslims anymore

The article tries to put the best gloss on this by suggesting the notoriously un-cosmopolitan Commish was in fact mimicking the famous “Swedish model” — a Nordic effort to target “the point of demand” rather than the prostitute herself. For Head Cop Kelly, the guy who goes to Bed-Stuy looking for a blow job is now engaged in “human trafficking”: the slave trade in women, or in “drag queens” or “transvestites.” All this, the writers claim, “occurred after Mr. Kelly took part in a series of meetings, beginning last year, with advocates from Europe and others aiming ‘for a fairer approach to prostitution.'” But:

Some advocates for prostitutes noted that 10 prostitutes were included in the mid-January arrests, which sends a mixed message. Others, including one former call girl, said it was wrong to focus on johns because it could make those clients more nervous and less likely to share the kind of personal information prostitutes rely on to ensure their safety.

Stop that man! Marketing the Swedish model

Predictably, in letters to the Times’ editor, advocates of the Swedish model call it a “human-rights, women’s-rights-based approach.”  Is it — even in Sweden? There, one analyst reports that, since the system began in 1999,

Police harassment of prostitutes has increased – they can be forced to appear in court to provide testimony against the client (they can refuse to witness, but they are still summoned and sometimes escorted to courtrooms), and whenever they are caught with a client, their belongings are searched and they may be frisked. Anything that police think they can use as evidence against clients (such as condoms) are confiscated. In those cases where a man was caught with a condom on his penis in the back of his car, police have used that fact to argue that he was breaking the law. This practice clearly has consequences for condom use among sexworkers. It provides both them and their clients with strong incentives to avoid using them. The law has been a catastrophe for non-Swedish sexworkers – if the prostitute found with a client is not a citizen or legal resident of Sweden, she is immediately deported; in fact government prosecutors complain that in a number of cases they were unable to gain convictions against clients because the prostitutes they were found with had been deported before they could even give a statement. This fact affects the willingness of non-residents to report on violence.

But the model’s goal is not actually to defend the rights of sex workers — in or out of the trade. It’s to pursue a project both chimerical and, in its infatuation with the radical absolute, Stalinist: the eradication of sex work altogether.   We “must work to end it — in our lifetime and forever,” Nora Ramos, of the Coalition against Trafficking in Women (and “drag queens”? and “transvestites?”), instructs the Times. 

Prostitution won’t end. But the fantastic dream of its elimination will continue to inspire brutality in the inquisitional name of an erasing justice.  Since the crime leaves neither victims nor evidence behind, the quest to find and eradicate it breeds deep intrusions into personal and physical privacy, and torturous semantic reinterpretations of proof.  In Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2007, I listened to a police inspector try to justify the arrest and beating of several metis (a local Nepali term for effeminate men) the night before. The cops had inspected their penises by the light of mobile phones in search of numinous sex traces. That didn’t work– but “Of course they were engaged in immoral activity,” he shouted. “We found condoms on them!”

The same inquisitive spirit animates police from Bed-Stuy to Stockholm.  In a miraculously more sympathetic article this week, the Times writes:

When she worked the streets, Yvette Gonzales said, she frequently saw other prostitutes working without condoms. But they were not having unprotected sex at the request of their customers.

Often, Ms. Gonzales said, the police would confiscate condoms when making a prostitution arrest so they could be used as evidence. And as soon as the prostitutes were released from jail, she said, they would go right back to work without protection; or refrain from carrying condoms at all, for fear of being arrested. …

In a recent survey of 35 prostitutes conducted by the Sex Workers Project, 16 said they had not carried condoms at times because they were afraid it might lead to trouble with the police. Fifteen said their condoms had been destroyed or taken away by the police. Three of those 15 said they had engaged in sex afterwards without a condom.

Don't take the C train

For thirteen years, lawmakers have tried to push a bill through the New York legislature that would bar prosecutors from using possession of condoms as evidence of criminal conduct. For thirteen years, it’s died in committee. Now, it may have a chance of passage. The Times waffles characteristically on the rights and wrongs here: “Excluding certain types of evidence from criminal court is rare, but not unprecedented,” it intones. But that’s not the point: condoms aren’t evidence of criminal conduct. Even where prostitution is penalized, a woman, a man, a “drag queen” or a “transvestite” may have condoms in their pocket simply because they want to protect themselves, and be ready for opportunities. They should have them. As one judge in Manhattan Criminal Court said, “In the age of AIDS and H.I.V., if people are sexually active at a certain age and they are not walking around with condoms, they are fools.”

The New York Police Department did not respond to questions about the proposal, but prosecutors said they wanted the option of including condom evidence at trial.  “I oppose any law that would restrict our use of evidence,”  said Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney. “Prosecutors in my office assess evidence on a case-by-case basis, determining what is appropriate in each situation.”

It’s a wrenching misuse of language for the anti-trafficking crowd to claim that those officials are bent on a “human-rights, women’s-rights-based approach.”   Only the vagaries of ideology can allow such a distortion. The police and prosecutors are on the side of death.

11 thoughts on “ProstitutionSpeak, ideology, and death

  1. I see we are facebook friends so maybe see the stories I run on topics like this there? I had commented about the language when that NYTimes article ran and of course agree with you about most of what you say. An exception is the out-dated use of Kulick’s piece on Sweden, with its extreme language – ia little like the sort you don’t like in the NYT. There is no ‘catastrophe’ for women who sell sex in Sweden because of the law, nor is it possible to do real research that would let us know what the so-called impact of the law might be (the government failed, but no one else can succeed either). There is a sweden tag on my website with everything I’ve written and commented on these very issues since I began living there in 2008 ( ).

    Best wishes, Laura

    • I agree with Laura that there is no general ‘catastrophe’ for women who sell sex in Sweden. Actually the law impacts sex work itself very little, at least if you have a european passport. The big shift that is quite noticeable is how sex workers are treated by health care, service providers and authorities (with the exception of the city of Malmo to a certain extent). So clients and money are still there for sex workers, but before the law we nearly ever heard about peolpe having their doors kicked in by the police, migrants being stopped at the border for carrying “to many” condoms or sex workers being denied state health insurances while paying taxes. So the bad stuff is mostly a result of “the message” the law itself is supposed to send (all women in sex work are victims of mens violence) rather than the criminalization of clients.

  2. Thanks much, and thanks for directing me to your tag. It was late at night and I was looking for materials on and from Sweden, and Kulick’s piece was what I came up with on short notice; but I may revise this in the near future….

  3. What a beautifully crafted piece. I laughed and I cried. You are right nothing has changed in the hands of the media and amongst some cops and societies but much has changed in our hands over the past 3 decades with articulate voices like yourself and others at work chipping away at bad laws and bad working conditions and challenging stereotypes, stigma and discrimination. Thank you

  4. This article by Dodillet and Östergren explains more about the Swedish situation in regards to sex work:

    As you can see, it also highlights how the Swedish Government own “evaluation” of the law tries to explain how the stigmatisation of sex workers is a good thing. The “evaluation”, however, wasn’t a true evaluation of the law. It was written from an ideological perspective, and, as Laura explains in her articles, uses figures that are incorrect – much like the opponents of prostitution law reform here in New Zealand. Many of the opponents of the decriminalisation of sex work that happened here in 2003 still try to deny evidence based research and try to claim that the numbers of street based sex workers in Auckland increased by 400%. But when is 230 four times 360? Similarly, the claims by CATW and others of 40,000 people being trafficked to South Africa for sex work during the FIFA World Cup have been proven to be false.

    Following decriminalisation here in New Zealand, the police have changed their position from prosecutor to protector. Street based sex workers no longer hesitate to call the police if they are being harassed, and can carry condoms without fear of them being used against them. Sex workers in managed brothels can complain to the police about bad clients, or can take operators to employment or disputes tribunals for bad management practices. Sex workers working from their home no longer have to hide condoms for fear of the police serving search warrants on them. Changes to the police attitude have been wider than this, however, with transgender sex workers providing awareness training to the Police Diversity Liaison Officers. Furthermore, around two years ago, a police officer in Christchurch tried to blackmail a street based sex worker into providing free sex. She complained to liaison officers, and the offending police officer was arrested and convicted of abuse of police powers.

  5. Condoms as evidence for soliciting? Really? I have no idea how readily available condoms are in Nepal but, still, that’s like saying that a comb carried by a bold man is proof that he sometimes wears a wig. Or, that fishing line on a man by a fishbowl is proof of malevolent intent against the goldfish. Or, that a box of baclava carried by a diabetic constitutes proof of intended suicide. Which doesn’t solve the problem that everything, always, already, is like something else…

  6. Um, actually, the earth revolves around the sun–while rotating on its axis. Speaking of rotation, Scott, I still don’t understand why Nicholas Kristof is the boor or baddie you so often dismiss him to be. Am I missing something?


  7. Hi Denny. I don”t hate Kristof or think he’s a baddie across the board. But I do deeply distrust his positions on sex work. First off, he assumes no woman can enter it voluntarily, and that it basically is exploitation no matter the circumstances. Second, he ignores sex worker activists and organizations in the countries where he writes about and joins in raids — he prefers to work through groups outside the community who cooperate with the police in ominous ways in “rescuing” sex workers. And thirdly, the whole “rescue model” reinforces the idea of a (white) (male) saviour coming in on behalf of victims; it tends to stifle the victims’ voices and to assume they don’t have any agency of their own. And that, I admit, does make me mistrust him in other ways: does the same attitude somehow underlie part of his other writings?

    • I don’t live in the US or read Kristof regularly, but he is understood clearly by a lot of folks as a true apologist for Empire and Capital. He once described the US military as liberal and benevolent, a role model for how institutions should be run. I began to write about him because he is an egregious example from the Rescue Industry, last fall live-tweeting an invasive brothel raid. One person isn’t responsible for all the Rescue Industry’s outrages, but hyper-privileged male insiders who proclaim their saintliness and infantilise women have to be called out. I wrote about him in Counterpunch:

  8. Thanks, Scott and Laura. I learned from your comments. The only sentiment I’d still question is the rush to disqualify a genuine desire on the part of many white men (like me) to make the world a better place for women. That is not an inherently patriarchal or paternalistic idea. Kristof might approach it so out of ignorance or privilege, and yet still sincerely work toward a better life for the women of the world. For my part, I am trying to remember the lesson that progress doesn’t always come wrapped or worded exactly like I want it. I have to grin or cringe at many of the things my friends (both gay and straight) say about me having two kids as a gay man. But I know they’re on my side.

    • Denny, there’s no rush. I have been in the field researching and writing about these issues for nearly twenty years. My book Sex at the Margins identied an entire Rescue Industry whose principal achievement is to further their own careers and prestige through ‘benevolence’. The main thing to understand is how Rescuers impose ideology and infantilise the people they claim to want to save. It is simply not true that any desire to help is better than nothing, especially when there is so much evidence from the field to the contrary. You can read about botched rescues now all the time in the mainstream media. There are grassroots initiatives. There are endless testimonies of women forced to be rescued in ways they didn’t want. Vast amounts of money are spent with little evidence that anyone was actually ‘saved’.To accept a paternalist’s claim that he is Doing Good is to turn a blind eye to colonialism. I write about these issues all the time, here is the tag for Rescue Industry from my website:

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