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Sex Workers and Civil Rights
By Kari Lydersen, AlterNet July 18, 2003

"Pretty Woman" it isn't. A sex worker's life is filled with violence from clients and police; with discrimination and scorn from the general public; with drug addiction, homelessness and lack of health services.

And by utilizing a "revolving door" approach where sex workers (the majority of them women) are incarcerated time and again but never offered the economic, psychological and social services they need, the criminal justice system only exacerbates the problem and violates the civil and human rights of sex workers in the process.

These are some of the conclusions of a just-released study by the Sex Workers Project, an initiative of the Urban Justice Center in New York City. The study followed female, male and transgender street sex workers in New York City, and analyzed specifically how they have been affected by the city's infamous Zero Tolerance approach to law enforcement.

Meanwhile similar results – rampant violence, harassment, substance abuse, health and housing problems – were documented in a Chicago study released in 2001 by the Center for Impact Research. That study found 1,800 to 4,000 girls and women are involved in on- or off- street prostitution activities in Chicago in any given year, along with about 11,500 people who trade sex for drugs. These numbers – comparable in other major cities – show that the mistreatment of sex workers is a significant national civil and human rights situation that affects thousands and thousands of women (and men) and by extension their children or other family members.

The CIR study showed that 21.4 percent of women working as escorts had been raped 10 times or more, with comparable rates for other types of sex work. Meanwhile the rapes, beatings and other abuses male and female sex workers suffer are rarely prosecuted.

“Crimes against prostitutes usually go unpunished,” says the New York study, authored by Juhu Thukral. “There is a tacit acceptance of this form of violence, usually committed against women. The overwhelming majority of sex workers did not go to police after they experienced violent incidents. Others who attempted to report violent crimes were told by police that their complaints would not be accepted, that this is what they should expect, that they deserve all that they get.”

The results of the Chicago and New York studies mirror situations reported in anecdotes and quantitative studies done in other urban areas around the country. The treatment of sex workers by police, the courts and their clients – as well as the general population – should be seen as a violation of the civil liberties and human rights of these women, and on a larger scale, a collective violation of our society as a whole.

"The police are getting away with murder," said Louise Lofton, a former sex worker in Chicago who said police would often arrest her just for being on a certain corner or stretch of street. "Maybe she was just trying to go to the store. Sometimes you're trying to leave to go somewhere but you know if you go down this street they'll get you."

On a collective level, the mistreatment of female sex workers by police, johns and society represents a vicious form of sexism and misogyny. Sex workers’ customers, the vast majority of whom are men, may be vilified by their spouses or communities when it is discovered that they regularly visit or have visited sex workers, but this behavior is treated as an individual act, not a condemnation of the man’s entire existence.

Women, on the other hand, are treated as if sex work is not just their “job” or even their “crime,” but their entire existence. Police officers and judges don’t treat sex workers as women who have violated a law, they treat them as “prostitutes,” actually often referring to them in much cruder terms. Likewise for johns who see them only as bodies or specific body parts at that; and for the homeowners or angry wives who want them out of their neighborhoods, seeing them as eyesores, temptresses or carriers of disease rather than human beings.

This societal treatment of sex workers on the moral level is mirrored on the judicial level, where sex workers bear the brunt of the criminal justice system while johns usually get off relatively lightly. In 2002, the Chicago police department made 4,486 arrests for prostitution-related offenses. That included 953 john-related arrests and 67 arrests for pimping/pandering, so with the exception of some men arrested for male prostitution, women were arrested at about four times the rate men were.

In Chicago and many other cities, johns are usually charged with violating city ordinances rather than actual crimes. They will have to pay about $700 in fines and to recover their impounded cars, but the incident won’t go on their criminal record and if they’re lucky their wives and neighbors will never even find out. Women, meanwhile, will spend at least a night or two in jail and may end up with months-long sentences and felony charges on a third or fourth arrest.

Advocates and lawyers for prostitutes note that just like the johns’ cases, prostitutes’ cases would often be dropped – if they fought the charges. Proving prostitution or related charges like soliciting and trespassing is difficult, and in most cases the evidence is fairly flimsy. But women charged with prostitution rarely fight the charges. They are expected to show up in cattle-call fashion before the judge, plead guilty and go off with a relatively light sentence of time served or a brief stint in jail.

But many of these “light” sentences add up to a long and stigmatizing rap sheet that will haunt the woman for the rest of her life, as well as a home life constantly interrupted by jail sentences and the ripple effect that will have on her children, finances and other employment or goals.

After being put through the wringer a few times and learning how to play the game of serving their time and getting out with as little confrontation as possible, most women don’t even consider that fighting their charges is an option. And for those who do want to, it is hard to find a willing and affordable lawyer. Public defenders almost automatically plead guilty for their clients, and few lawyers, even those who regularly do pro bono social justice work, are willing or able to take on prostitutes’ cases for little or no pay.

Beside the philosophical and political implications of the mass violations of sex workers’ civil and human rights, their mistreatment carries concrete costs for the rest of society. The most obvious example of this is the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. If women are prevented from having easy access to health clinics by lack of funding and police harassment, as the New York study documents, it is only natural that they will be more likely to suffer from HIV and other serious sexually transmitted diseases that will not only wreak havoc on their own lives but also spread to others in their communities.

And a system that allows johns to rape and otherwise abuse sex workers without legal or societal retribution perpetuates violence against women as a whole. It shouldn’t be surprising that a large number of women in sex work were sexually abused as children.

Becoming a prostitute at age 14 felt almost natural to Chicago resident Brenda Myers, who now is one of the leaders of a group called Exodus that helps women leave sex work.

Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Myers used to see prostitutes outside her window all the time. Often, they looked glamorous and mysterious. When she found out what they were doing, it didn’t sound any worse to her than experiences that were being forced upon her already.

“I asked my grandmother what those women were doing,” she said. “She said, ‘They take their panties off for money.’ Well I was already being forced to take my panties off, and I wasn’t getting any money.” A 1995 study by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) found that people who were sexually abused as children are a whopping 27.7 times as likely as others to be arrested for prostitution.

While many sex workers do see their work as empowering and feminist, the reality is that the vast majority of sex workers are doing it for the money, often to feed drug habits, often because they feel they have no other viable employment opportunities.

All of the respondents in the New York study listed finances as their reason for getting into sex work. The majority of respondents (22 of 30) also listed substance abuse as the reason for turning to sex work, and the Chicago study showed that almost all sex workers were substance abusers and almost all increased their use of alcohol and drugs while engaging in sex work, creating a vicious cycle where working to earn money to satisfy their habit only increased their habit.

Both the Chicago and New York studies offer recommendations for better ways for law enforcement and community institutions to deal with prostitution. The suggestions sound like common sense – offer sex workers meaningful supportive services, including job training, affordable housing, health care and counseling. Start treating sex workers like human beings with civil and human rights, rather than criminals. And don't forget to address the problem at the source: the portion of the customer base who are eager to pay to exploit and abuse sex workers.

"If it wasn't for men you wouldn't have prostitution," said Myers. "They think it's a joke, she's having a ball. No she isn't! They think they didn't do anything wrong – 'My wife is pregnant and I deserve to have my needs taken care of.' Well fuck your needs! And fuck the things you do to us, things that would have you arrested if you tried to do them to a date. Women need to be taught that their body isn’t an offering or a sacrifice."


"In about 85 percent of
cases, sexual assaults
occur between people
who know each other."

Source: Diana Russell,
The Prevalence and Incidence of
Forcible Rape and Attempted Rape of Females, Victimology: An International Journal 7, 1-4 (1983).