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The Imagined Sex Worker

The stigma against black sex workers can reinforce stigmas against all black women and all sex workers.
(Photo: cedwardbrice/Flickr)

(Photo: cedwardbrice/Flickr)

Black sex workers are often perceived as a scandal and a danger—a group to distance yourself from. That was emphasized last week when Daniele Watts, a black actor best known for her role in Django Unchained, was detained and hand-cuffed by Los Angeles Police Department after refusing to show identification. Watts said that police assumed she was a prostitute because she was kissing her white boyfriend, Brian Lucas, a celebrity chef. The LAPD said that they were not looking into prostitution, but rather were investigating complaints that Watts and Lucas had engaged in indecent exposure.

In audio of the police encounter, you can hear Watts ask, "Do you know how many times the cops have been called just because ... I'm black and he's white?" The policeman immediately becomes defensive, and starts angrily referencing the "race card." But whatever the exact facts of this particular incident, Watts wasn't being paranoid. Whether they're with white men, black men, or just alone by themselves, black women are often assumed to be prostitutes by police, by security guards, and by the general public.

"[W]hen people try to say, if it wasn't for black sex workers, then other men would respect us ... that really puts the onus of ending sexist racism on women of color rather than on sexist racists."

There's no shortage of examples. Following Watts' encounter with police, another story quickly surfaced about three black women who were recently harassed by security for soliciting at the Standard Hotel in New York City. On Twitter, Jamilah Lemieux, an editor at Ebony, wrote: "RT if you are a black women (trans or cis) and have been assumed to be a sex worker by a white man." One hundred and fifty women retweeted. At a 2011 Netroots conference, moderator Cheryl Contee asked a panel of black women how many of them had ever been mistaken for a prostitute. All of them had. And going back further, in his 1997 book Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism, Jody David Armour describes a troubling incident that occurred as a black couple was leaving a movie theater in Times Square at close to midnight. The man went to get their car and left his wife, who was five months pregnant, to wait for him. When he got back a few minutes later, she had disappeared. He later found out that she'd been arrested, jailed, and strip-searched on charges of soliciting.

The Watts, incident, then, occurred in a context where black women are always under the threat of being stigmatized as sex workers. When I spoke to Mariame Kaba, of the Chicago Taskforce on Violence against Girls and Young Women, she linked this trend historically to the experience of slavery, and explained that black women "have never had an opportunity to control our bodies; we've always been publicly available." She pointed especially to the recent experience of Monica Jones, a black trans woman activist who was arrested in Phoenix for "manifesting" prostitution—a charge which appears to mean that police saw her out walking and talking to people and decided that she was a prostitute.

Viewing black women, whether cis or trans, as sex workers, is racist. It's part of a Jezebel stereotype in which black women are perceived as hypersexual and sexually criminal. "Black women," Kaba points out, "have never had access to traditional notions of 'womanhood' and 'femininity.'" As a result, she says, "Some black women find themselves particularly affronted with being seen as sex workers which is seen traditionally as disreputable." Because of a history of stereotype and contempt, black women have special reason to resent being compared to sex workers. But at the same time, Kaba cautions that "we have to be careful that ... we are not demonizing sex work."

There's at least a danger, it seems, that the conversation around Watts' detention, and the discussion of the ways in which black women are policed as sex workers, can actually reinforce stigma against sex workers themselves, who become the disreputable thing from which respectable women want to distance themselves.

This is especially problematic because one of the groups most harmed by the conflation of black women and sex workers is black sex workers themselves. A recent study of police records of North Carolina cities found that there are substantial racial disparities in prostitution arrests, with black women arrested at two to three times their rate in the population as a whole. The study attributes this in large part to the fact that police focus most of their attention on sex workers who work outdoors, a group which is disproportionately likely to be black. However, given the widespread anecdotal evidence that black women are automatically seen as prostitutes, it seems probable that police are also simply more likely to arrest black sex workers, in much the same way that they are more likely to arrest black drug users.

N'jaila Rhee, an adult Web model, phone sex operator, and co-host of TWIB After Dark, told me that she understands why Watts and other black women are so angry about and fearful of being stigmatized as sex workers. In fact, she's felt that fear and anger herself:

I used to dance at clubs, and I was in the Bronx, not the best area. And a lot of times when you're stripping or you're a go-go dancer, you have a suitcase in which you have all your outfits, and I'm walking away at night, I'm dragging this suitcase behind me, and it's very clear that I probably have come from one of these clubs, and cops would sometimes slow down and question me. And I was always very afraid; oh, is this the night that they're going to want to make a quota and I'm going to be arrested?

Of course, being surveilled and treated as a criminal is frightening and dangerous. But despite her sympathy for black women's concerns, Rhee says, further stigmatizing sex workers doesn't help anyone. "[W]hen people try to say, if it wasn't for black sex workers, then other men would respect us ... that really puts the onus of ending sexist racism on women of color rather than on sexist racists."

Just as black women can have a bias against sex workers, Rhee adds, white sex workers, like white society at large, can express racist attitudes against black women. There's an assumption that black sex workers (especially black trans sex workers) are lower level, that they work on the street, and that they can't charge as much money as other workers. Discrimination, she says, "is built into the [sex] industry just as it's built into all other work environments." Still, she says:

When I see white sex workers reluctant to work with Black women, who deem companies that hire Black women "low class" because "high class escort" is code for "Affluent and White passing" it tells me that communities that are built to support sex workers aren't really there for me.  Which is frustrating because sex workers aren't exactly welcomed in spaces that support Black women so we are stuck between two groups who should have empathy and understanding for us but would rather not deal with us.

Black sex workers, then, are at the intersection of multiple prejudices—a nexus of discrimination which portrays them as dirty, debased, and dangerous, and which figures them as supposedly dragging down both black women (who are not sex workers) and sex workers (who are not black).

The painful irony is that it's not black sex workers who are harming black women or sex workers, but rather the prejudice against black sex workers, as sex workers and as black women, that is used to attack all these marginalized groups. The stigma against sex workers is used as a way to police and denigrate all black women. At the same time, America's massive prison system, starting with the Nixon era and running through Willie Horton to the present, has been justified on the basis of racist stereotypes and fears. "Racism and anti-blackness condition the way that we are able to maintain, reinforce, and perpetuate the carceral state," Mariam Kaba told me, pointing to a recent Stanford study which found that white people support harsher criminal laws if they think that more black people will be arrested.

Kaba emphasizes that the prison system we've created disproportionately targets black people. As she says, "They're not locking up white sex workers like they're locking up black sex workers, no way." But at the same time, once you've set up the machinery of the police state, it can be used against other marginalized groups as well. Racism has helped build a consensus in America for rampant incarceration as the solution to vice crimes—a consensus that has obvious implications for policing sex workers. The "tough on crime" "broken windows" rhetoric often used as code for an attack on black men creates a barrier to decriminalization of drugs, and surely of sex work as well.

Black sex workers are not just at an intersection of oppression, then, but at a kind of lever point. The figure of the black sex worker is used to police all black women (especially if those women are sex workers). At the same time, anti-blackness is used to power an imprisonment system that polices all sex workers (especially if those sex workers are black). Discrimination against black sex workers is not incidental to stigma against other groups; it's central. One of the main ways in which our society organizes and promotes discrimination is through the image of the black woman who, in Rhee's words, is "going to drag society down with us with our wanton, whorish ways." Fear and hatred of black sex workers is used to justify and promote the policing of sex workers, of black women, of other women of color, and (through the stereotype of the lazy welfare queen) of poor women. As Rhee says, "If you're going to admonish one woman for being a ho, and say it's OK to attack her, to somebody you're also a ho." Stigmatizing black sex workers makes it not just acceptable, but possible, to stigmatize black women, and sex workers, and many others as well.