Street walking

Last week, NPR debuted a new series: “Mapping Main Street.”  This feature is “a collaborative documentary media project that creates a new map of the country through stories, photos and videos recorded on actual Main Streets. The goal is to document all of the more than 10,000 streets named Main in the United States.“¹  Sounds great.

The first story is from Chattanooga, where Main Street is experiencing some revitalization … but where there is also a problem with prostitution.  During the story we are introduced to a husband and wife who live just off Main Street and who seem to spend quite a bit of time calling the police to report prostitutes they see outside on the street.  We even get to ride in the car with them and be audio witnesses to one woman’s arrest, complete with a trimphant: “Justice has been served!” from the wife, which sounds as if it is accompanied by a fist pump.  She goes on to say: “When you see them get busted, you know that you’re doing something good for the neighborhood and for Main Street.”

Yeah, this really upset me.  This couple talks about prostitution as if it’s all the fault of the women they see on their street, and I think that’s wrong.  I know: prostitution is a crime.  Yes.  Of course.  But sex workers aren’t the ones who make it a crime.  I don’t see this as some  chicken and egg situation.  It was surely not a woman who first had the idea of selling her sex.  But even if women had been the ones to dream up the concept of prostitution, we as a society are responsible for making it a crime.  And yes, the sex worker is committing a crime, but it’s a two-part crime and to focus only on the supply side when the real issue is demand is missing the point, in my opinion.

The wife in the cop-calling couple is angry with the sex workers, but she doesn’t seem to have called the police about the man in this story she shares:

I guess it was about two and a half years after we moved into the neighborhood that I was harassed in my front yard. I was watering the plants and there was a black Avalanche that was circling the block. Well, sure enough, he finally slows down and kind of motions down towards his lap and kind of nods his head at me like, okay, come on, are you interested?

And I’m in my front yard. I don’t know if this guy is going to get out of his, you know, truck or anything like that. And that’s what scared me.

That would have scared me, too.  And it would have made me call the police … on that man.  How dare he come up on me and assume I was there to service him.  I would have had his Avalanche-driving ass in jail so fast, he wouldn’t have had time to zip his fly.

Prostitution is a crime, but in my opinion, the sex worker isn’t the main criminal in the transaction.  When I hear stories like this ‘main street’ story and hear that triumphant, self-righteous voice when the sex worker is arrested … I just get angry.

Prostitution is a crime because, in our prudishness, we think it’s wrong to pay for sex.  Whether paying for sex is right or wrong, there is definitely something wrong with demonizing sex workers, making them less than human.  One of the things wrong is that the demonization leads to many men believing that paying for sex equals paying for the right to beat a woman to death.  Another is the idea that a sex worker can’t be raped, that violent, forced sex is somehow part of her job.  And, of course, one very basic thing wrong is the idea that it’s the sex workers who are at fault because there are men who want to pay them for sex.

Once upon a time in NYC, one of the local papers published the names of men who were caught up in brothel raids.  There was crazed outrage.  How dare anyone think to violate the privacy of those poor husbands and fathers.  Right.  Never mind that those poor husbands and fathers were caught committing a crime.  Never mind that, if we made prostitution legal there’d be no crime, no raid, no names in the paper …

Feh.  Not sure what point I’m making here.  Maybe just venting as I’ve been doing all month?  I’m certainly not saying that the Chattanooga couple should have a party every time they see a sex worker.  Of course it upsets them to see prostitution flourishing right outside their windows.  I’d be upset, too.

Maybe the point is that I do not accept, as they have, that the best action is to call the police.  It reminds me of Giuliani’s war on “quality of life” crimes here in my city. Oh, people are unhappy with the squeegee men? Ok, we’ll harass and arrest them and get them off the street. Lovely. That got the squeegee people off the street — or at least shuffled them to lower-profile neighborhoods — but what real problem did it solve?  I’m willing to bet any amount of money that those people weren’t in the street trying to earn change because it was fun for them.  They were trying to make some money.  They were in a place where working the squeegee seemed their only viable option.  Instead of reviling them, maybe our Mayor could have come up with some way to offer them an alternative, help them find a way off the street.

I have to imagine that the women on Main Street in Chattanooga aren’t there because their work is fun.  They need money and for whatever reasons, that job is the one they have resorted to.  So maybe, instead of calling the police several times a day, that couple could see those women for who they really are: neighbors in need of better resources and opportunities.  Maybe they could get involved with a community group that’s doing outreach or offering counseling services, GED and job training classes.  Maybe they could start that group if it doesn’t already exist.  Be part of a real solution rather than pump their fits and squeal that justice has been served because they kept some woman from earning enough to pay her bills or feed her kids or help support her aging parents or save enough for that nursing assistant training she wants to sign up for.

And yes: maybe shes’ out there to earn money for her drug or alcohol addiction.  You know what?  So what.  So what?  You can still be a neighbor.  You can still do something more productive than dialing 9-1-1.


¹  You can listen to the story and find a transcript at the NPR website.  It’s an interesting story, and I’m sure there will be interesting stories to follow.

9 thoughts on “Street walking

  1. Well said. It is, fundamentally, about power, isn’t it? And instead of empowering, we choose to demean. And that changes absolutely nothing. Have you sent your thoughts to NPR?


    1. It usually takes me a long time to get my thoughts lined up close to the way I want them, so by the time I pulled this post together, NPR had already closed their comments, but then I figured this was too long for a ‘comment,’ so I went ahead and emailed them. No response, but it did feel good to have said what I thought.

      Thanks for stopping by!


  2. molly

    Prostitution is not illegal in Italy. Exploiting prostitution has been illegal since 1958. A prostitute does not have to declare or pay tax on the earnings from prostitution. In other words, there is no pension plan.
    There are some places with ordinances against prostitution out in the streets, and some limitation on the number of women who can share an apartment, but I’m not sure how that works.
    I think it is reasonable not to want a lot of prostitution going on in your front yard or in the apartment next door, not because of the activity itself, but because of the traffic in undesirable men and thus possibile violence that it causes. I feel the same way about gambling. In Italy, to stop street prostitution, they arrested a few of the clients, which seemed to have a greater effect than arresting the women.
    Prostitutes invite other woman not to be so high and mighty. I get their point. I’m sure sex is not the only humiliation, and I’m not even sure sex is the ultimate humiliation.


    1. I don’t think I knew that prostitution was legal in Italy. I guess I never thought about it one way or the other. I agree that having prostitutes outside your house (in the apartment next door, anywhere nearby) would be upsetting and undesirable. I don’t begrudge the couple in the story their anger and desire to do something about the problem. I really just couldn’t feel for them the same way I did for the women on the street. I don’t remember if arresting the clients went along with publishing their names in the paper. I think it didn’t. Maybe that should have been the next step …


  3. molly

    p.s. Two further points: 1) any place where you find lots of prostitution or gambling, you are going to find organized crime and drugs, and that is really scary 2) some forms of sexual humiliation are more objectionable to me morally than some forms of prostitution.


  4. Pingback: Cold Spaghetti :: Better Late Than…? Just Posts: September 2009

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