Connections between street harassment and sex work

“How much?”

“I’ll give you $200”

These are comments that women from my 2008 street harassment survey have heard from men while walking down the street, waiting for the bus, or riding the subway. Because they were just trying to go about their day in peace, they were upset by the intrusion and also insulted by the presumption that complete access to their body could be bought on the spot.

My former college roommate, who is from Salt Lake City, sent me an interesting article from the Salt Lake Tribune that made me think about these stories and the connections between street harassment and street walking. The article looks at how women who are not sex workers, but who live in an area where there are many are constantly solicited when they’re walking places. Because of a crackdown on the sex industry, sex workers wear clothes that help them blend in with everyone else, making it hard for customers to distinguish them from other women. Thus any woman is fair game.

As the article suggests, there are several similarities and connections between street harassment and the sex industry, particularly female prostitution, and because it’s quite complex, I’ll only touch on two of them.

The first connection is that there’s a presumption that men should have access to women’s bodies. Just like some customers may feel that because they’ve paid money, they have the right to a sex workers’ body (rape and other violence is not that uncommon in the sex industry), there are men in public places who feel the same way about any woman they see. It’s their right as a man to stare, say, and do what they want: women are there to be consumed. And so they openly talk about women’s body parts, demand sexual favors, describe sex acts they want to engage in, leer, follow, and grab. Women’s desire to be left alone or to have autonomy over how their body is used or viewed is inconsequential.

Sadly, men’s access to women’s bodies is ancient history.  From Marilyn French’s book From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women in the World, I learned that the first record of prostitution dates back to when Sumarian priests forced slave women to be sexually used by men who paid the priests. (Today many prostitutes continue to be used as an object in a financial transaction between two men: a customer and the pimp.) For other women, fathers or other male members of authority historically—and in some cultures still do—sold off their daughters to men through a dowry system.  A daughter’s opinion usually was not sought and was not considered. Marriage was a financial transaction and her body was a commodity for men.

While of course women have always been resilient and have found ways to rebel and to empower themselves in these contexts, the framework and systems are still bleak and they continue to impact today’s societal view of women’s bodies.

The second connection is a blatant  culture of disrespect for women.  Street harassment is a manifestation of this disrespect because it shows that the harassing men don’t care about a woman’s right to public space, to her own thoughts, and to her desire to feel safe. They don’t care if she’s having a bad day, puzzling through a problem, or late for work. They interrupt, scare, annoy, and anger women anyway.  But that disrespect is even more intense when it comes to female sex workers.

There’s a societal attitude that it’s okay to treat sex workers badly, assault them, and even murder them (like serial killers who only murder sex workers). Some people see the life of a sex worker as worth less than the life of a “respectable” woman (which is an outrage). To treat someone “like a slut” means to treat them without respect. In the GGE documentary “Hey…Shorty,” for example, when the documentarian asks an older man why he harasses women, he says something along the lines of how if he sees girls dressed “like sluts,” he’s going to treat them like sluts. As his comment reflects, an attitude of disrespect for sex workers means it’s okay to harass women who “look” or “act” like one. This attitude also contributes to the persistent victim-blaming of harassment and sexual assault victims based on their appearance.

And as a related side note, what always gets me about the disrespectful treatment of sex workers is the fact that so many are not there by choice  (but power to those who are and who enjoy their work). Meaning, growing up that was not the job they wanted to have. Two years ago at my training to become an online hotline volunteer for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network I learned that an overwhelming percentage of sex workers are survivors of incest, sexual abuse, child abuse, and are runaways who need to find a way to survive and, in a society where sex is a commodity, they know one way they can make some money.  Even those who enter it to feed a drug addiction may be addicted to drugs as a way of self medicating from trauma. And of course the work of organizations like the Polaris Project reminds us how many women, even in the US, are not in the industry by any semblance of choice. But yet, the cultural consensus is that they are people we can disrespect, make fun of, and vilify? How messed up is that?! (And I know the illegalization of their work does not help matters.)

There is much more to this issue that I’m just not going to attempt in a blog post, though, as always, I welcome  comments from those who want to tackle other aspects or delve deeper into these.

So I’ll conclude by saying we need to do everything we can to help build a society where there is respect for ALL women and where women have control over their sexuality. We can refuse to put down sex workers and not call women we don’t like “sluts” or “whores.” We can stop victim blaming women for the violence they experience. And we can trust women to have ownership over their bodies and work to ensure they have control over who has access to their bodies and when.

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