Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sex work, crime and punishment: a ramble, with links

What is more base, empty of worth, and full of vileness than harlots and other such pests?... Let them be with matrons and you will produce contamination and disgrace.

Rid society of prostitutes and licentiousness will run riot throughout. Prostitutes in a city are like a sewer in a palace. If you get rid of the sewer, the whole place becomes filthy and foul.
--Thomas Aquinas

While on the subject of Iran and sex-for-hire: Jill has a link to a sobering-sounding documentary:

And Along Came a Spider

A shocking portrait of the world of a recently captured serial killer, who sees his killing of prostitutes as according with Islamic teaching.

Over the space of a year, 16 women were murdered in the Iranian city of Mashad. Because the victims were lured into the killer's traps, the press soon called these the "spider killings." All but one of the victims had previously been arrested for prostitution and drug-related crimes.

When a 39-year-old contractor is arrested and confesses to the crimes, he claims divine support for the atrocities he has committed. His mother, wife, son, and many neighbors agree.

And Along Came a Spider visits with the families of the victims, with the perpetrator and his family, and with prostitutes in this holy city. This is a chilling film about cycles of moral vengeance.

It's a bit illuminating to place this "divinely supported" dude alongside the fact that his government apparently feels similarly about hoors. It is hard to not think that, in the face of this directive:

A senior Iranian cleric in the city of Qom called for death sentences to be handed down to prostitutes, a semi-official daily reported on Monday.

“Those who try to spread prostitution, corruption, and sins in society must be dealt with”, Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, one of the highest-ranking clerics in the holy city, said...

“If everyone feels responsibility for the orders of Islam, no one will dare to spread prostitution”, he said. “Anyone who stays silent in the face of social disorder and centres of corruption and prostitution has actually betrayed Islam”.

...sentiments like this actually, well, make sense:

Bahari finds support for Hanaei's crimes on the streets of the city, where many residents question the man's unlawful methods, but applaud his choice of victim. Hanaei's wife and young son claim to be proud of his deeds.

Oh yeah, they executed the guy. Of course. Killing is the State's prerogative.

Although some of their other proposals for the problem of street prostitution have been...creative. viddy:

Prague, 7 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Prostitution is illegal in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the penalties are severe, ranging from flogging to execution.

But for reasons no one entirely understands, the number of prostitutes on the streets of Iranian cities and towns has grown substantially in recent years, particularly in Tehran and the holy city of Qom, which is a center for pilgrims and domestic tourists.

Prostitutes wear their veils loosely over their heads in a style that passes for risque in this strictly regulated society. With their faces heavily made up, they stand at traffic circles where men driving by can inspect them and make a deal. The women are often young, including many teenagers who have run away from abusive homes.

Based on official figures, there are some 300,000 women who work as prostitutes in Iran. And according to newspapers, the number is steadily rising, despite frequent police crackdowns.

Now, some senior religious figures are suggesting the only way to solve the problem is to bring it under state control. In recent weeks, several prominent conservative clerics have proposed that prostitutes be placed in government-run shelters for destitute women to be called "chastity houses," where male customers could briefly marry them under Islamic law.

Proponents of the idea argue that it would "eradicate social corruption" by legitimizing sexual relations between the men and women. Under the plan, the couples would register for a temporary marriage under Iran's Shiite religious law code. The code allows a man to marry a woman for a mutually agreed time as short as a few hours or as long as a lifetime by reciting a verse from the Koran.

The temporary marriage license would protect the couple from harassment by authorities and, according to some proposals, it would be accompanied by free contraceptives and health advice. Under religious law, a temporary marriage imposes no obligations on a man unless the union produces a child, who must be recognized as legitimate and can claim a share of any inheritance.

One cleric backing the plan, Ayatollah Mohammed Mousavi Bojnurdi, recently told a newspaper: "We face a real challenge with all these women on the street. Our society is in an emergency situation, so the formation of the chastity houses can be an immediate solution to the problem." He added that the plan "is both realistic and conforms to Sharia [Islamic] law."...

ironically enough

Iran's strict Islamic rules allow little socializing between the sexes, and young Iranians have been jailed and flogged for dancing together at birthday parties. "Parents who are suspicious of their children, don't give their children any choice or freedom, and always impose their thinking on them, force such children to flee homes," said Hamzeh Ganji. Ganji said young girls who leave home often must become prostitutes to survive.

More than half of Iran's 70 million people are below age 25. The unemployment rate is officially 15 percent, but private experts say it really is about 30 percent....

If anyone happens to speak Farsi, there's another video on poverty and prostitution in Iran available here.

There's also a journalistic piece from the Iranian. The tone is...well, see for yourself. I found it interesting, and not all that unfamiliar tbh.

Truth is, we're all fairly used to, metaphorically at least, the stone-the-sluts/oh, let's-rescue-the-poor-pitiful-broken-things attitude; not to mention the (often sensationalistic) stories of serial killers who target prostitutes.
Capital punishment just takes the message to its logical conclusion: prostitutes= corrupt, dispensable, ruined, something to be cleaned up if it can't be salvaged.

Why, yes, yes it IS ultimately rooted, in good part and in complex ways, in institutionalized misogyny. Duh.

Nonetheless, it's worth noting, once again, that the Madonna/whore split is not, in fact, formulated in such a way that "virgin/mother" and "whore" are of equal (lack of, even) worth.

From the CBC article also linked above:

One study has suggested prostitutes are 40 times more likely than other women to be murdered.

quoth the experts being interviewed,

Why are prostitutes such a target?

S.E. For a variety of reasons. The main one is that they are vulnerable and they are vulnerable because they are available. This provides relative anonymity for the killer because when you pick up a prostitute in an area where they ply their trade, everyone expects to see cars picking them up. No one pays much attention to the so-called Johns.

...The other aspect is: Who is going to report a missing prostitute? If it's another prostitute, she may not have credibility with the police.

...N.B. One of the first points that has to be made is that it is only certain kinds of prostitutes who have become a target. We have massage parlours and escort agencies in virtually every city and the women who work there engage in prostitution but they are protected by credit cards and the like.

Their customers know that if they commit violence, they could easily be tracked down. So the violence that does occur is against the most vulnerable women who are working as street-level prostitutes.

...Psychopaths are people who have no empathy for their victims. They treat their victims as objects, not as human beings.

And that plays directly into the choice of prostitutes as victims: They don't see the prostitute as being a person, as being somebody's daughter, somebody's wife, just as an object for the killer to use and throw away.

From the CBS story on Gary Leon Ridgway (aka the Green River Killer):

"In most cases, when I killed these women, I did not know their names," Ridgway said in a statement read in court. "Most of the time I killed them the first time I met them, and I do not have a good memory of their faces."

Ridgway's statement opened an extraordinary window on the twisted mind of a serial killer.

"I wanted to kill as many women as I thought were prostitutes as I possibly could," he wrote.

More on the general subject from All Women Count: An Open Letter to the Women

As the US and UK governments defy the majority of people in the world and get ready to kill and displace millions in Iraq, mainly women and children, where are feminists on 8 March, International Women’s Day? According to every poll, we women are even more opposed to war than men. We are the backbone of every anti-war movement. Yet we have heard little against the war from those who identify as feminists.

Instead, on IWD Justice for Women, Women's Aid, Eaves Housing for Women, POLLY and Lilith will be picketing Spearmint Rhino, a lap-dancing club. How obscene. When most women, children and men are desperately trying to prevent this war and save the lives of millions, some of those who claim to speak against violence against women prefer to attack a sex industry establishment. Machismo begins with the military, not with lap dancing.

.... Women in the anti-rape movement have long established that we are vulnerable to violence because we have less social power than men and the police and courts refuse to value our lives and protect us. True of every woman, including sex workers.

Sex workers in Soho and elsewhere are facing massive raids, arrests, detention, eviction, deportation, and are being forced out of flats onto the street where it is 10 times more dangerous to work. Three women who were driven from Soho premises by eviction have been tragically murdered in recent years, one of them in late 2002.

No reference is made to the women workers in these clubs -- once again some feminists think they know better what’s good for other women. How sexist and arrogant! Most women in the sex industry are supporting families. Many are single mothers, many are immigrants or asylum seekers denied benefits and other resources after fleeing Western-backed wars or dictatorships. To picket lap dancing clubs is to invite more raids and deportations everywhere, and therefore more rape and murders of women who end up on the streets.

A press release from "Safety First!" (UK) sheds some light on the nuts and bolts of "clean up the streets" initiatives:

The Safety First coalition is appalled at proposals of zero tolerance against clients and removal of street prostitution announced yesterday by Ipswich Local Authorities, police, health and probation services. The proposals replicate almost exactly the policies in place before the murders. Once again no lessons have been learned.

The report proposes:

· Removing street prostitution from all areas in Ipswich. Women may be forced out of Ipswich – what has that got to do with safety? Targeting clients with zero tolerance and police crackdowns, including ASBOs, forces prostitution further underground. Women will have even less time to check out men fearful of arrest. Instead, they will be pushed into more isolated, less well lit areas where they are more vulnerable to attack. Whatever anyone thinks about men paying for sex, safety should be the priority. It is not even mentioned in these proposals.

· Measures to ensure “that women do not become involved in street prostitution in the first place”. They offer no budget or resources to address the poverty, debt, rape and domestic violence, lack of housing, cuts in benefits, and low wages in other occupations which force women into prostitution. 70% of prostitute women are mothers, mostly single mothers, who are working to support themselves and their families.

· The only concrete proposals are for more police patrols, CCTV and the use of anti-social behaviour legislation. Where are the proposals to deal with the appalling 1.6% conviction rate for reported rape in Suffolk?...

Meanwhile, in Brazil:

Gathering in a dilapidated cabaret in the Lapa zone of Rio de Janeiro, a group of transsexual prostitutes came together in October, 1999 to formally sue the Brazilian government for the right to repudiate their own citizenship.1 Since 1987, this group had been demanding that the state protect their rights as laborers in the legal field of sex work. They had pleaded for shielding from discrimination, harassment, police brutality, and hate crime. But in their opinion, the Brazilian state had spurned them2 and in stead rounded them up, identified, and registered them in police files3, and labeled these border-crossing sex workers as perversions of globalization, as sex traffickers, as threats to the nation, as a blight on Rio's touristic image.

But transsexual sex workers who walk the streets, a practice they refer to as ir na batalha [going to battle],4 had been facing even more violent threats than those posed by police and state. Since the 1980s, they had been terrorized by white neo-Nazi gangs who had begun to mobilize in Brazil's cities around masculinist hyper-nationalist ideologies, and performing acts of homophobic and racist ritual violence. Like hundreds of Jack the Rippers, these gang members had taken it upon themselves to promote social purity through the most gruesome murder and mutilation of prostitutes, especially transvestites and transsexuals, called travestis in Brazil.5 Rather than protect the sex workers from this terrorism, Rio's Polícia Militar battalions tended to blame the horror on the victims, increasing harassment and extortion of sex workers, and developing new anti-gang and public-space protection policies that detoured around the fact that prostitution is quite legal in Brazil. As Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro remarked:

What do travestis have in common with gypsies? They embody difference. The dream of various authoritarian groups in society is the construction of homogeneity. The city that was a place where everyone got along is now a mere passageway: all alien obstacles must be removed. The more moderate among them believe segregation will be the solution. Others believe only in physical extermination. The streets of the city should be clean like the corridors of prisons. The attacks that have continued for a few years seek to realize a final solution. How is it that these embodiments of difference can be targets for a hunt (as prostitutes) without any risk of punishment for the aggressors? Criminals that murder transvestites consider that they have the right to clean the streets with their own hands. In a way this is an apprenticeship that follows the same repressive practices of this country's police forces: illegal, shameful brutalization, extortion (regular monetary contribution so that this group can remain on the streets without menace), beatings, dog attacks. What pretends to offer itself as an honest imposition of public order, to restrain those that scandalize the image of good citizens, is nothing but pure terrorism and financial profiteering by the agents of discipline.

That last paragraph in particular...I'm going to be thinking about that for a while.

The dream of various authoritarian groups in society is the construction of homogeneity.



Joan Kelly said...

Although I don't agree with Andrea Dworkin for arguing at hearings about closing strip clubs, I do agree with what she had to say about the way street prostitutes are treated. As long as it is okay to create/force into existence a class of women who live as street prostitutes, and as long as it okay to treat those women as horribly as they get treated - dead or alive - then we know exactly what women's basic value is to this culture, to the world culture. Similar to something Nezua posted on his site in comments today, a quote from Eugene Debs - as long as there are women in that position, none of us are removed from it.

On a practical front, I dream of self defense classes for sex workers, and of a way sex workers on the street could use a system like I used to - check in with one other person before and after a job, and let the customer KNOW you're doing it. I know it's not actually practical right now for someone making money in quick spurts in customers' cars. I'm just saying I hope for a way to make it happen. People thought my job was dangerous back then, but it wasn't. Predators are looking for easy targets, not just any target. My reduced danger was predicated on the increased dangers of others, however - making myself not as attractive of a target as the next woman, so move along buddy. And move-along they do. Anyway. Thanks for writing about this. I will never believe that people hate prostitutes because of "sin" or some moral outrage. It is totally about hating women. They are the most socially acceptable women to openly hate.

belledame222 said...

It's about hating women; and also hating sex, paradoxically, or rather hating themselves for what they see makes them weak or dirty, and projecting it onto the women (and sometimes men) whose "fault" it is, I think.

Self defense classes for sex workers sounds like a great idea. Is no one doing anything like that?

belledame222 said...

...actually more self defense for women and queer folk, period.

Rootietoot said...

"The dream of various authoritarian groups in society is the construction of homogeneity."
ooo...yeah. That's it in a nutshell. Be they hardline Islamic fundamentalists or hardline Baptist fundamentalists or even hardline radical feminists.

assembling words to armory, she waits... said...

belle, i googled 'self defense for sex workers' and came up with a slew of links to articles, ads, etc. about people/organizations holding such classes. in college, our women's center actually sponsored several classes for females and lgbtq folk.
here are a few of the links:
http://sex-work.org/link_dept/index.php?mwa=id:50 (list of books, not classes, but still helpful)
**note: i didn't do a thorough check of these links, just sorta skimmed to make sure they actually did at least refer to the issue. i guess the point is that classes are out there, and that other people are definitely thinking about it.

Amber said...

Y'all might be interested in these.

Amber said...

Oops, actually, here's a better link.

Anonymous said...

While we’re quoting ancient texts, I saw an old (1930) Czech hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold tear-jerker last week, Tonka of the Gallows, that began with Matthew 21:31: “Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.” (I suspect it’s a highly conditional promise.)

We don’t really know what percentage of murdered street prostitutes are victimized by serial killers. There’s a whole range of confluent risk factors. All people involved in street culture (including johns) are at heightened risk of victimization, & street prostitutes are at heightened risk because of aspects of their lives that aren’t directly related to work. Some are heavy drug users or are involved with other kinds of petty (or not petty) criminal activity. Some are themselves more violent than the average person. (I once knew a very charming & intelligent woman who was rumored to have been involved in the murder of another, less companionable street prostitute, supposedly over a disputed crack rock.) But street prostitutes are at greater risk than other people who share all these other traits, & than prostitutes who don’t work the streets.

The situational risk involves more than just the anonymity of street transactions, or even the risk borne by people beyond the protection of the law. (Undocumented day laborers, to pick an imperfect analogy, are picked up on the street by anonymous employers, are known to be unable or reluctant to go to the police, & are victimized at elevated rates, but probably not as often as prostitutes.) Female prostitutes aren’t victimized just because they’re women – thus the 40x risk – but M/F obviously underlies everything. I don’t know of any objective data, but my hunch is that male street hustlers, even though their work environment resembles their female co-workers’, & they’re at risk from homophobic violence, aren’t killed as frequently. Transvestite & transsexual prostitutes are victimized more often than cisgendered male hustlers.

I actually think the Debs quote is a bit pious. Most women are removed from what the most vulnerable street prostitutes go through, at least in the sense that they’re perfectly free not to take notice of it, or to take notice of it only in the most self-flattering ways, without fear of adverse consequences for themselves. In this they’re like the rest of the human race.

Even lacking self-defense classes, people know the street’s dangerous & take what measures they can. Some carry weapons, albeit usually not very effective ones. People have long done what Joan describes: have friends note the license plates of cars they go with. (Even if you didn’t really have anyone watching, bluff the john.) Everybody tries to size up johns, & people try to be selective, esp. when bad things are happening. Etc. But there’s a limit to what you can do in the absence of wider change. There are several places other people can start.

KH said...

anon was me.

Octogalore said...

Rootie's examples of groups for whom "[t]he dream of various authoritarian groups in society is the construction of homogeneity" is apropos are right on. Especially in light of the discussions about individualism being antifeminist elsewhere in bloglandia.

KH said...

aka sexual liberalism

belledame222 said...

I'm beginning to sort of loathe the term "antifeminist." Yeah, I know there are some assholes who actually call themselves that, who aren't worth the energy it takes to type the sentence out; but used internecine-ly, i dunno, it has a certain tang of

"counter-revolutionary imperialist pig-dog lackey"

...if you know what I'm saying.

Ravenmn said...

This is coming from a different approach. Last night I hosted a discussion with Dave Zirin, a leftist sportswriter, talking about his newest book. There were 45 attendees and every single person there not only had a question, they had an opinion about professional athletes.

It seemed very similar to discussions about prostitutes. Our culture convinces us that we can hold intelligent conversations about both prostitutes and professional athletes, even if we have never actually been one or met one.

Of course, most of our ideas are stereotypes that get completely blown away if we actually meet someone in the profession.

So what is it that makes me think I can talk about professional athletes or prostitutes in ways I would never talk about meatcutters or tool and die makers?

Unsane said...

I believe that Bataille thought very well of prostitutes--that they were some kind of abstainers from the "profane" world of normative, productive society, or something. This may well be an overromanticised view, but there you go.

Unsane said...

Also look up Bataille's term, "heterogeneity" versus "homogeneity".

Medbh said...

Excellent post, Belle Dame.
I find myself using antifeminist when it would be much more accurate to say misogynist or woman-hater.

Joan Kelly said...

belle and others re: self defense:

I know there are some self defense resources for women, and I'm assuming you don't need an I'm-not-a-sex-worker ID card to get in, but I also feel like, considering the rejection a lot/most sex workers deal with in public spaces, especially people who work on the street, I'd like to be able to set up a couple of things some day. One, self defense as mandatory physical education (instead of, say, the useful sport of dodgeball) as part of at least middle school curriculum, if not earlier grades. And for everyone, not just girls, but yeah, I'm personally especially thinking of girls. Two, widespread campaigns to let sex workers know about free self defense classes, to go along with the resource of those classes to begin with.

kh - I agree that most women - most people - are able to exist without having to think about the most vulnerable and reviled group of sex workers. What I meant, and what I took Debs to mean in what he said in his situation, is that it is a perversion of self and others to consider your own humanity as being somehow qualitatively different than anyone else's. And, I think it's a delusion for any woman to think that misogyny allows for less dehumanizing dehumanization in any meaningful sense, for any woman, street prostitute or not.

belledame222 said...

One, self defense as mandatory physical education (instead of, say, the useful sport of dodgeball) as part of at least middle school curriculum, if not earlier grades. And for everyone, not just girls, but yeah, I'm personally especially thinking of girls.

that would've been GREAT.

Louisefeminista said...

"Instead, on IWD Justice for Women, Women's Aid, Eaves Housing for Women, POLLY and Lilith will be picketing Spearmint Rhino, a lap-dancing club."

Yeah, living in the UK I know that the "Reclaim the Night" demos have been rejuvenated. I too am very pissed off that women picket Spearmint Rhino as what message is this sending to the women who work in Spearmint? Get a proper job, maybe? It is utterly patronising but also it exposes a kind of hierarchy that exists.

I asked a speaker from the International Union of Sex Workers about what impact these pickets have on the women and the answer was that it angered the women and gave feminism a bad way. No solidarity with the sisterhood on sex work.

That's why I do support unionisation, collective bargaining and decriminalisation. I am not sure if the union (GMB) in the UK who recruit sex workers organise self-defence classes, if they don't they should.

The more you criminalise, isolate, victimise, stigmatise and marginalise sex workers the more likely you will get misogynists who murder sex workers (Ipswich, UK and West Yorkshire, Peter Sutchliffe).

And that's what has happened in Ipswich where sex workers are being pushed out.

There are some Lefties in the UK who support a kind of "Swedish model" re: prostitution. Criminalise the client and decriminalise the sex worker. I find this approach simplistic and paradoxical.

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