Editor’s Note: This guest blog post is written by Jessie Nicole, the current director of Sex Workers Outreach Project – Los Angeles, a nonprofit dedicated to ending violence and stigma against everyone in the sex industry and a co-sponsor of International Anti-Street Harassment Week. She earned her BA in English Literature from Florida State University and her MA in Humanities, focusing on the literature of Social Justice, from the University of Chicago. She lives in Los Angeles with her partner and their turtle, Walter.
Though I’ve experienced street harassment periodically since the time I hit puberty, one of my most memorable incidents occurred in 2009, the summer after I finished my MA. I had a cold, and was waiting in line at the bank with unkempt hair and snot dripping from my nose. An older man behind me started making small talk about the muggy Chicago weather, and despite my obvious refusal to engage in conversation, then suggested that he could increase the zeroes on my deposit slip if we came to a sort of “arrangement”. His tone and expression left little doubt what kind of arrangement he was referring to.
What this man had no way of knowing was that I was working as a full time escort at the time of that encounter. I bitterly wondered if I had a neon “whore” sign above my forehead only visible to the rest of the world. Though I was working in the sex industry at the time, this was not a professional situation. In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder how he would have reacted had I brazenly informed him of my rates. But I was ill and therefore taking time off work. This was not a consensual negotiation, nor a conversation I had entered willingly. And that is what made it harassment. I did not consent to engage in any sort of sexual negotiation.
Consent does not fluctuate depending on what someone does for a living (or is wearing, or has said previously, or chooses sexually). Whether or not someone works in the sex industry has no bearing on their ability to consent to sexual attention. While this incident in the bank was relatively minor, it is representative of a larger assumption about the accessibility of bodies, particularly sex workers’ bodies. There is a difference between consensual sex work and sexual assault, and it should not be difficult to distinguish between them. Jill Brennerman’s account of her experience as a sex worker and rape victim explicitly shows the line between a consensual sexual transaction and rape (trigger warning : graphic description of sexual assault).
The myth that sex workers cannot be sexually harassed or assaulted is rooted in the misperception that sex workers are not fully rounded people, but rather defined solely by the industry they work in. And that perception has very real and dangerous consequences. Alana Evans, when speaking about her experience with the LAPD as a rape victim, tells how she was dismissed based on her occupation. A quick scan of the comments on the video shows that this seems to be a common perception. Because she is a sex worker, she is somehow “unrapeable.”
The dehumanization of sex workers only intensifies for people of color, those participating in outdoor sex work, and trans* or queer folk. This violence and harassment is not only socially sanctioned, but institutional. A 2006 survey conducted by a DC outreach organization that focuses on outdoor sex workers revealed that “90 percent of 149 respondents had experienced violence… and almost half said that they had been treated badly when they had sought help from somewhere (not just from police.)” While the jump from street harassment to violence against sex workers may seem extreme, the commonality of violence against sex workers should illustrate how for our community, street harassment is deeply threatening.
I should not have contemplated what I had done for a man I had never met to proposition me at the bank. It shouldn’t matter to this story that I was obviously sick and wearing sweat pants and an old t-shirt. No one should have to expect to experience sexual harassment in public as I and many others do. Sometimes it is less scary than others. Sometimes I am angrier than others. But being a sex worker has given me an entirely new perspective. I’m frequently told that I have no right to that fear or anger in response to harassment. I have nothing but rage and contempt for the underlying system that labels some bodies as having more value, and the bodies of sex workers as public domain.Share on Facebook