Sex Work and the Problem of the Teetering High-Heels
In her Friday Washington Post column, Petula Dvorak came to the realization that the District's sex workers aren't exclusively criminals—sometimes, they can be victims, too. Dvorak profiles Tina Frundt, the woman behind the local Courtney's House shelter for victims of human trafficking. "Frundt was once a slave herself, forced into prostitution in the District when she was 14," Dvorak writes. "She had to bring in $500 a night. When she brought in just $50, [a pimp] beat her in front of the other girls and broke her arm with a baseball bat. She was locked in a closet, shunted from city to city and monitored constantly. Eventually, she escaped, recovered and is now a champion of the movement to equate American prostitution with contemporary slavery."
Alongside the profile of Frundt, the Post republished another story on local prostitution Dvorak wrote in 2002. That story painted a much different picture of the sex trade in the District of Columbia. The main problem with prostitution in D.C., circa 2002? It was too visible. The solution? Hide the prostitutes.
Dvorak's 2002 piece focused heavily on D.C. police efforts to reduce "visible prostitution." The solutions presented in the story were targeted at getting the women to move along, not to receive assistance if they need it. In the past, Dvorak writes, some neighbors have "operated sprinklers to try to drench them," as if sex workers were cats; once, police marched a group of sex workers one-and-a-half miles to the Virginia border, as if sex workers were goats. Police attempted to push the sex trade into new neighborhoods, preferably ones that are "lightly populated at night"—where presumably, fewer neighbors will complain. Cops faulted judges for administering light sentences to convicted sex workers, putting them back on the streets—and fully visible—within 24 hours.
Meanwhile, discussion of the behind-the-scenes stuff—the power relationships and trafficking networks behind much street prostitution—was afforded only a soundbite or two. At the time the story was published, police had been working on "a diversion program to help prostitutes leave the streets" for about a month. The officer leading the city's anti-prostitution efforts had already declared it as a failure, courtesy of his armchair psychology of the minds of sex workers: "Something tells me you can't do much to help the girls. They're like addicts. They've got to want to help themselves," he told Dvorak.
Throughout the piece, Dvorak's descriptions of sex workers were similarly focused on the visual element. The physical appearances of sex workers inspired paragraphs, while inner lives and subjective experiences of these women were largely ignored—Dvorak only quoted nine words from an actual sex worker. The story was written not from the perspective of sex workers, but from the neighbors who don't like being forced to look at them.
So: These women were "barely clad" and "scantily clad." They walked around with "everything showing" while "teetering on four-inch heels." They wore "thigh-high, black vinyl boots with four-inch, clear acrylic heels" and "nothing but a short, black jacket" and "stockings and a thong bikini." And they came in three flavors: "crack mamas," "female impersonators," and the "show girls who wear flashy outfits and are brought in by the vanload by their pimps." The message: The view is grotesque, and citizens don't want to see it on the streets of Washington.
Dvorak's recent column suggests that the District's approach to sex work has changed in the past eight years:
The detective I talked to almost a decade ago was certainly onto [the problem of human trafficking in the sex trade]. But few called it slavery back then. It was "a network" and "runaways" and "groups of people traveling from city to city."
But over the past several years, detectives in our region began seeing younger prostitutes, girls promised excitement and glamour, lured from small towns and trapped by violence and manipulation. In 2004, the District organized the D.C. Human Trafficking Task Force.
The cops are now part of that task force, and they identify about 100 juveniles each year forced to work in the District.
Dvorak's reportorial approach to the problem has changed as well. She's moved on from the vantage point of neighborhood gawkers and beat cops in order to present the perspective of trafficked minors. And her physical descriptions of sex workers have shifted accordingly:
Her name was "Elizabeth London," she said. And, shivering in a short, white skirt and tottering on huge, acrylic heels too big for her little feet, she was standing on a corner in Northwest Washington, about four blocks from the White House, "waiting for a friend."
She was a child, about 15, I guessed. Her makeup was clumsy and clumpy, her long, blond hair was limp. The detective with me agreed that she was a kid, but she had no I.D., so he couldn't prove it.
. . . That frightened girl—with raccoon-eye liner and too-bright lipstick —is the face of slavery in America today, Frundt contends.
First, the familiar stuff: In this account, District sex workers are still "tottering" or "teetering" on their four-inch plastic heels, they're still heavily painted, and they're still scantily-clad. The tone, though, is different this time. This sex worker is not an out-of-control "addict" but rather a "clumsy," "limp," "frightened girl." The reader is meant to be more depressed than scandalized.
But the intense focus on the physical appearance of sex workers remains. Regardless of the spin you put on the omnipresent teetering high-heels, endlessly recounting the elements of the stereotypical street-walker outfit doesn't provide any insight into the problem. The approximate height of a woman's shoe doesn't help me understand what her life is like, or what sort of social services she might benefit from.
Some people see women in the stereotypical sex worker uniform as criminal sex "addicts." Some see them as frightened victims. And the idea that some sex workers may not fall into either of these categories is dismissed out of hand. As long as we keep on scrutinizing the bodies of sex workers, we're still gawking instead of listening. How are we ever going to address the problems of the American sex trade if we all treat sex workers like objects?