Each weekday throughout our #SexIndustryWeek we’ll be exclusively serialising extracts from ‘Playing The Whore’, by journalist and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant.
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Playing The Whore: The Police
Prostitution stings are a law enforcement tactic used to target men who buy sex and women who sell it—or men and women who the police have profiled in this way. These days, rather than limit their patrol to the street, vice cops search the Web for advertisements they believe offer sex for sale, contact the advertisers while posing as customers, arrange hotel meetings, and attempt to make an arrest from within the relative comfort of a room with free Wi-Fi and an ice machine down the hall.
Whether these videos are locked in an evidence room, broadcast on the eleven o’clock news, or blogged by a vigilante, they are themselves a punishment. We could arrest you at any time, they say. Even if no one is there to witness your arrest, everyone will know. When we record your arrest, when you’re viewed again and again, you will be getting arrested all the time.
In the United States, one of the last industrialized nations which continues to outlaw sex for sale, we must ask: Why do we insist that there is a public good in staging sex transactions to make arrests? Is the point to produce order, to protect, or to punish?
No evidence will be weighed before the arrest video is published. Even if she was not one before, in the eyes of the viewer and in the memory of search engines, this woman is now a prostitute. As so few people arrested for prostitution related offenses fight their charges, there is no future event to displace the arrest video, to restate that those caught on tape didn’t, as one of the women arrested in Fargo said, “do anything wrong.” The undercover police, perpetually arresting in these videos, enact a form of sustained violence on these women’s bodies. Even with a camera, it is not immediately visible.
To produce a prostitute where before there had been only a woman is the purpose of such policing. It is a socially acceptable way to discipline women, fuelled by a lust for law and order that is at the core of what I call the “prostitute imaginary”—the ways in which we conceptualize and make arguments about prostitution. The prostitute imaginary compels those who seek to control, abolish, or otherwise profit from prostitution, and is also the rhetorical product of their efforts. It is driven by both fantasies and fears about sex and the value of human life.
The sting itself, aside from the unjust laws it enforces, or the trial that may never result, is intended to incite fear. These stings form just one part of a matrix of widespread police misconduct toward sex workers and people profiled as sex workers. In New York City, for example, 70 percent of sex workers working outdoors surveyed by the Sex Workers Project reported near daily run-ins with police, and 30 percent reported being threatened with violence. According to ‘‘The Revolving Door: An Analysis of Street-Based Prostitution in New York City,’’ when street-based sex workers sought help from the police, they were often ignored.
Carol told researchers, “If I call them, they don’t come. If I have a situation in the street, forget it. ‘Nobody told you to be in the street.’ After a girl was gang-raped, they said, ‘Forget it, she works in the street.’ She said, ‘I hope that never happens to your daughters. I’m human.’”
Jamie had an incident where she was “hanging out on the stroll . . . these guys in a jeep driving by . . . one guy in a car threw a bottle at me . . . I went to the cops [who told me] we didn’t have a right being in that area because we know it’s a prostitution area, and whatever came our way, we deserved it.”
Police violence isn’t limited to sex workers who work outdoors. In a parallel survey conducted by the Sex Workers Project, 14 percent of those who primarily work indoors reported that police had been violent toward them; 16 percent reported that police officers had initiated a sexual interaction.
This was in New York City, where the police department is notorious for violating civil rights in the course of law enforcement, but look globally, where violations of sex workers’ rights by police are also common—and well documented. In West Bengal, the sex worker collective Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee surveyed over 21,000 women who do sex work.
They collected 48,000 reports of abuse or violence by police— in contrast with 4,000 reports of violence by customers, who are conventionally thought of as the biggest threat to sex workers, especially by campaigners opposed to prostitution.
Police violence against sex workers is a persistent global reality. As the economy collapsed in Greece, police staged raids on brothels, arrested and detained sex workers, forced them to undergo HIV testing, and released their photos and HIV status to the media. These actions were condemned by UNAIDS and Human Rights Watch.
In China, police have forced sex workers they have arrested to walk in “shame parades,” public processions in which they are shackled and then photographed. Police published these photos on the Web, including one in which a cop humiliated a nude sex worker by pulling her hair back and brutally exposing her face to the camera. When the photo went viral, the outcry reportedly prompted police to suspend these public shaming rituals, though they continue to make violent arrests and raids.
One could hope that the photos and videos like these could make the pervasiveness of this violence real to the public. But to truly confront this type of violence would require us to admit that we permit some violence against women to be committed in order to protect the social and sexual value of other women.
I’ve stopped asking, Why have we made prostitution illegal? Instead I want an explanation for, How much violence against “prostitutes” have we made acceptable? The police run-ins, the police denying help, the police abuse—all this shapes the context in which the sting, and the video of it, form a complete pursuit of what we are to understand as justice, which in this case is limited to some form of punishment, of acceptable violence.
Melissa Gira Grant is the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso, 2014)
Melissa will be speaking about her book in London, Brighton, Bristol, Edinburgh and London. Details can be found here: http://www.versobooks.com/
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