How Sex Work Became Invisible in America

Law enforcement plays the determining role in where and when sex workers make a living in the United States.

Image
Reuters

I spent the spring between a handful of U.S. cities toting around a bag printed in gold with BIG BROTHEL IS WATCHING YOU. In TSA lines and hotels, I turned the words toward my chest. As wedded as I was to my gear, I couldn't risk a hassle. I didn't know how much those guards and attendants were accustomed to what they'd consider the sexual underclass – even though the people who inhabit it move about those same spaces, too. I didn't know how long I'd be afforded a moment to explain: I was on business, but not that kind, and if I was, what does it matter?

What will follow over the coming days are a series of stories from the American cities whose sex work economies, laws, and human rights advocates I detail in my new book, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. There is no sex work without the city, though you aren't likely to see much overt evidence of that today. Unless you're a potential customer or a member of law enforcement – men whose business it is to look – people who sell sex might be invisible to you. But even in a state of crackdown, sex workers have always been able to find one another.

Our current legal prohibitions on sex work, and prostitution in particular, are fairly recent additions to American law. It was only in 1917 that red light districts were outlawed nationally. Over the course of my book tour, I visited with some of the people who have been made outlaws – whether for selling sex or associating with sex workers – to better understand what the last century of prohibition has really brought us. (Non-spoiler: sex is still for sale in America.)

As I packed up and set out, I watched photos flood my Twitter feed of a press conference outside a Phoenix courthouse featuring Monica Jones, an Arizona State University student, transgender woman, and sex worker rights' advocate, who stood in front of two rows of supporters, all holding posters with her image. On March 14, she appeared in court to fight a charge of "manifesting prostitution," the result of a sting operation in May 2013 that Jones told me targeted her in part due to her advocacy for sex workers' rights. 

Sex workers so rarely fight the charges against them. This is the first time I've seen that fight take the national stage: the night before her trial, Jones appeared on All In with Chris Hayes, where they discussed how anti-prostitution laws essentially make it a crime to be – as she was – "walking while trans."

Contrast that with my relative swishes through airport security and past hotel front desks, even with the accumulated awareness that had I been doing so as a sex worker, I could have easily been stopped, questioned, and detained. Sex workers do this every day, in every major city. Many – perhaps the majority – pass unnoticed. 

I will never forget that the first women who ever revealed anything of their personal experience as sex workers to me were later arrested in hotels. They didn't "look like" sex workers; to the outsider's eye, that means they were white, and young, and appeared middle class. They were unlucky to be caught up in police stings. So as much as I carry those fears, I'm not a sex worker now and haven't been for some years, and even if I were, I know I'd be far less likely to get picked up than Monica Jones and women like her.

Within our current system, selling and buying sex and many associated activities (like renting a place of business) are considered criminal. To investigate the reality of sex work with any honesty means not just looking to sex workers, but also investigating the police, and who they arrest, and why. The logic of anti-prostitution policing assumes that law enforcement can stamp out sex work, if only they had the resources. But police don't have that power. They can only try to control where and when sex work will take place – by prioritizing vice beats – and who will be allowed to work. They don't and can't arrest everyone. In any other industry, you'd call that a regulatory role. Or you could call them "boss."

Whether or not we mean for police to have this job, they use the power with which we've endowed them to control the lives of sex workers. Police stop-and-search women they suspect of being sex workers, and if they find condoms, use them as "evidence" that they intended to sell sex (as has been documented by Human Rights Watch, in partnership with advocates across the country). From San Francisco to Chicago to Atlanta to New York, police conduct sweeps on the street, profiling people based on race and gender identity and using vague anti-prostitution laws against "loitering with intent" to justify their arrest. Federal law enforcement agencies monitor sex workers' online advertisements and websites, in conjunction with local law enforcement, posing as customers to conduct surveillance. They say they're investigating trafficking, but arrest many more adult sex workers than they file trafficking charges against those who may exploit them. The result is that many more women than men go to jail on sex crime charges, and carry criminal records for the rest of their lives.

In Monica Jones' case, the police didn't just seek to control what they presumed was her sex work, but much more than that: where she goes and what she does in public. Jones was picked up by police while walking to meet friends. Since, she's been stopped and questioned repeatedly on the street. These violations of her civil rights are why the American Civil Liberties Union have taken up her case, filing a constitutional challenge to the "manifestation of prostitution" law she was charged with.

All in the bag.

This kind of support is rare, but critical. Sex workers themselves don't often speak out against their criminalization, because they are criminalized. Taking a public stance mostly falls to the handful of organizations that provide services to sex workers, like HIPS in Washington, D.C. "We're not primarily an advocacy organization," HIPS executive director Cyndee Clay told me when I came through town. "We serve hundreds of people a week with their very, very basic needs. But what we're struggling with is, how do we counteract the law enforcement claim that if they didn't investigate internet workers and independent sex workers, that they wouldn't be able to find people who are trafficked? And my answer to that is, decriminalize and then people can come forward."

Sex work is becoming invisible in our cities, but sex workers are not invisible. Online and in court rooms, as workers and as advocates, they are perhaps more present in public debate than ever before. Together, my book and this series are a tribute to that visibility and to their resistance. 

Stay tuned for more as this series gets underway. 

 

About the Author

  • Melissa Gira Grant is a New York-based writer and journalist. Her work on sex, politics, and technology has appeared The NationWiredGlamourThe GuardianIn These Times, and The Washington Post, among other publications. She's the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso, 2014).