"It's only rape when the check bounces." The quip was from a sex worker who knows a bit about sexual harassment. Thanks to Hollywood movies and other myth-making, the public gets many things wrong about sex work, including the name itself. Women in the field are not hookers, prostitutes, call girls or ladies of the nigh — they are sex workers, because the sex they have is work.
Lately, the news is full of sexual harassment charges and admissions. But here is a group of women who cannot scream sexual harassment because their profession itself is consent. Women I interviewed tell stories about johns stealing the money they just paid, forcibly stealing services they have not paid for and hiding their buddies in the next room for a free gang bang. (They also talk about police sexual shakedowns.)
The earning life of most sex workers is short and declines rapidly, especially for women on the street. After a woman is no longer new on the streets and as she ages from the rough lifestyle and drug use, she will earn less and get fewer dates. In sex worker self-help groups, the decline of work possibilities is described as a transition "from the bedpost to the lamp-post."
Johns are often to be feared. Many in the Chicago and northern Indiana area remember a sex worker reign of terror in the 1990s. The women victims, often lost to their families, were never reported missing and their bodies were found in abandoned buildings. At least four men were arrested in Chicago during that time. Only three years ago, seven more women’s bodies were found in Indiana, thought to be victims of a sex worker serial killer. Hammond police held a man in connection with the murders who was a convicted sex offender, possibly involved in six more murders under investigation.
Some women who survived the 1990s Chicago scourge appeared in a 2006 documentary called “Turning A Corner,” by the Prostitution Alternatives Roundtable and Salome Chasnoff. The film was part of a Chicago Coalition for the Homeless campaign and efforts to enact legislative change.
One woman in the film says nothing could stop her from sex work until a john dragged her two blocks with his car and she had her face “nearly scraped off” and almost lost an eye. Another woman stopped, she says, when her friend was found sexually mutilated and dead in an alley.
Murderers know that the easiest victims they can procure are sex workers because no one misses them. In Vancouver, British Columbia, pig farmer Robert Pickton was believed to have killed at least 49 sex workers.
A 2007 study by Freakonomics author and University of Chicago economics professor Steven D. Levitt with Alladi Venkatesh, found Chicago sex workers were victims of violence from pimps or clients once a month and forced into extorted sex with law enforcement officers or gang members in one out of 20 transactions.
Many women on the streets are feeding drug habits and cannot say no. And sadly, the dates themselves can be addictive. Getting in cars is both a compulsion and an addiction, say the women I have interviewed — they're on auto pilot, in a kind of trance in which they ignore the dangers because they know they will get drugs or cash in minutes.
Chicago sex worker Pamela Bolton put it like this to a Chicago newspaper in 1995: “Prostitution is one of the worst addictions you can have out here. This street life is more addictive than cocaine. More addictive than heroin.” Weeks later she was fatally shot.
Activists Fight Back
"How many of you admit to having bought the services of a sex worker," asked sex worker Pussy Willow at a presentation at a Chicago library a few years ago. Two timid hands went up. Willow was a member of a Chicago group called Sex Workers, Criminalization and Human Rights or SWOP, formed about 10 years ago.
"When you're a sex worker, everyone wants to be your friend, until it jeopardizes their family or standing in the community," said Willow.
As long as sex workers are morally quarantined by illegality and stigma, they risk being robbed, cheated, raped, knifed, shot, beaten, strangled, abducted, arrested, and killed, said Willow. Not only are sex workers devoid of human rights, community activists turn their back too, she said. "They train workers to train workers to train workers to then go out and try to find 'victims.' Meanwhile who is handing out a bag of condoms to the outdoor sex workers on Belmont Avenue? Who is protecting women who are getting beat up?"
The true needs of the sex worker community are blinded by studies full of social scientist babble, Willow said, citing a recent, highly publicized report that "didn't even interview sex workers, just occasional johns called 'hobbyists.' Hello?"