The Sexist

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?

  • kza

    I think the author was just painting a picture of scared child in grown up clothes. Even if she was focused on the girls outfit I don't think we should be calling her out on it, I mean her attitude did change a lot and her writings can help a lot of people realize that trafficing is a problem.

  • Jason

    Honestly, "How are we ever going to address the problems of the American sex trade if we all treat sex workers like objects?" isn't the question your piece raised within me. It was "How are we ever going to get reporters to keep writing about this serious problem if we're just going to mock their writing styles when they do?"

    The woman flipped her view of the situation and wrote a piece exposing girls being bought and sold as sex slaves. Is this really the time to be taking them to task because you didn't like the description?

  • aley

    Something else that needs to change before problems related to sex work can be worked out: conflating sex work and trafficking. Especially by that douche of a psychologist- some sex workers probably really do just want him to leave them the fuck alone.

  • aley

    @KZA- indeed, why would we ever criticize journalists for lazily reinforcing stereotypes, and for not talking to the people they're meant to be reporting about? Geeze Amanda, why are you such a bitch? Can't you see Dvorak just wants to HELP PEOPLE?

  • kza

    I wonder how she found out the girls name and what she was doing without talking to her. IT MUST BE ESP!!!

  • Jess

    Jason, I think it's unfair to reduce this to a critique of writing style. Images tend to be important to our understanding of an issue, and the way a writer sets the scene, the visuals she chooses to describe, and how she describes them contribute to the effect her work has on the reader. Dvorak has switched from one cliche set of semiotics to another, from "trashy whore" to "abused innocent," without ever stopping to represent her subjects as people. The subjective experience of sex workers gets elided when they're used as symbols, which is what Dvorak seems to be doing here.

    I also happen to think she's a pretty hamfisted writer, and maybe she intended to treat her subjects as individuals rather than illustrations and it just didn't come off. But Amanda's point about the description, I think, is not just that the writing style is florid but that no matter your perspective on the sex trade, it is unfair and dehumanizing to the people you're ostensibly writing about if you focus on their semiotics and not their selves.

  • Saurs

    But Amanda, don't you see? If I don't know whether an under-age trafficked prostitute has "raccoon eyes" or is sporting the right kind lipstick, how can I masturbate to her and her plight? Men are very visual, Amanda! I need a picture painted for me if I'm gonna get a boner over this kind of stuff. I mean, this is why I'm reading about it in a newspaper, right? The duty of the journalist is to titillate the reader, arouse his interests (if you know what I'm saying). If you try to make me cry over Elizabeth London's sad existence, or question the wisdom of police who have just fucking figured out that trafficked children just might be classified as sex slaves, as subjects of abhorrent violence, if you try to humanize these young women and make me empathize with them and get very, very angry about how incompetent everyone seems to be who are ostensibly trying to "help" them (apparently, by COUNTING THEM), I might lose this chubby. And, Amanda? I need to have something to pump my rod over every five seconds, otherwise I die. 'Tis the American way.

  • kza

    I wish EO was here to call you a Feminist nazi who wants a male holocaust.

  • Amanda

    This piece is very timely for me. I was at a tech conference this weekend and there was a workshop where the presenter said tech consulting required one to "sell oneself." This and of itself was bad enough. But then a picture came up in his slide show that we were meant to assume were two (scantily clad) female sex workers leaning into a car's windows to proposition the john inside. My jaw hit the floor and my stomach twisted into a knot. I was one of less than 10 female presenting people in a room of well over 100. The room immediately filled with loud laughter at the "joke" that lasted after the slide was changed. I no longer felt safe in that room.

    This is sadly one in a long line of examples of how sex workers are dehumanized and othered and how the challenges that face those coerced into sex work are belittled. No, you are not selling yourself when you do consulting. You are selling your services. There are sex workers that do not sell themselves but sell their services too. But there are also sex workers that are forced to literally sell themselves, bodily. They are modern slaves, told what/where/how to eat, dress, walk, sleep, fuck. They are beaten, forced into sex and drugs and intimidated from all sides for ever seeking help. Sorry, but no, your life is not at all like that.

    "How are we ever going to address the problems of the American sex trade if we all treat sex workers like objects?"


  • prowlerzee

    More on that, Amanda. Call them out by name. Headline that story, too.