This 1865 print by CJ Culliford illustrates an eternal frustration for police and rescuers: how to identify the real prostitute/sex worker? The man here, called Philanthropic Divine, offers the woman a tract to discourage her from selling sex because she is standing in the street and because of how she looks. We can’t read the signs now, but a bit of petticoat showing, the style of a sleeve or hat would have been enough to mislead a clueless clergyman. But, she says, she is not a prostitute – social evil – but waiting for a bus.
In the early 20th century a policeman complained about his task to stop prostitutes:
The way women dress today they all look like prostitutes. Charity Girls and City Pleasures: Historical Notes on Working-Class Sexuality, 1880-1920, Kathy Peiss.
For over a month stories have been coming out of New York City about an anti-trafficking programme for taxi drivers. Not only are cabbies to be penalised if they drive victims of trafficking but they are supposed to counsel women they think might be victims, after taking classes to learn how.
What hasn’t yet been determined, however, is what happens when a cab driver gives a non ‘working girl’ some pamphlets on how to avoid hooking. Awkward! Huffington Post, 16 May 2012
Women working as bartenders and shot girls protested at City Hall:
‘They don’t even know who is a prostitute or not’ said Diana Estrada, 27, a Sofrito bartender wearing a cleavage-baring spaghetti-strap dress. ‘You don’t have a shirt on that tells if you’re a prostitute or not. New York Posti, 17 June 2012
New York Mayor Bloomberg’s comment was peculiar and whorephobic:
If I were a young lady and I dressed in a ‘sporty way’—or however you want to phrase it…I would not want somebody thinking that I’m a prostitute. Gothamist, 16 June 2012
Then there was DSK, who used the impossibility of knowing whether nude women were sex workers or not as a defence. About the parties attended his lawyer said
He could easily not have known, because, as you can imagine, at these kinds of parties you’re not always dressed, and I challenge you to distinguish a naked prostitute from any other naked woman. New York Times, 22 February 2012
Anti-trafficking projects spend a lot of time trying to teach police, border agents and the general public how to recognise a victim of trafficking. You would hardly believe the number of brochures that have been produced with tips such as this list from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that does not describe clothing but is just as bad:
~ Speak neither English nor French, or may not speak on their own behalf;
~ Originate from foreign countries;
~ Unaware of local surroundings even though they have been in the area for an extended period of time;
~ Show evidence of control, intimidation or abnormal psychological fear;
~ Not be able to move or leave job;
~ Have bruises or show other signs of abuse;
~ Show signs of malnourishment;
~ Be frequently accompanied by their trafficker;
~ Be frequently moved by their trafficker.
The first three describe the majority of ordinary tourists – forget about migrants! The reference to foreign countries sounds xenophobic. Then consider how close one would have to be to someone to be able to detect ‘evidence of control‘ and how easy it would be to imagine ‘fear‘. You’d also have to be very familiar with a situation to know whether people cannot leave a job. And about the idea that someone might be ‘frequently accompanied by their trafficker‘, how much of someone’s company is too much? And how do you know the companion is a ‘trafficker‘ – are you going to first assume what kind of people someone is supposed to be socialising with? This is terribly circular, self-fulfilling reasoning, dealing in stereotypes about how ‘normal people’ are meant to be spending their time.
The obvious point is no one can tell who is a sex worker by looking at them the way no one can tell who is an office manager or social worker – clothed or nude. Although bouncers at a well-known Shanghai hang-out are prepared to advise you if you do not yourself know whether or not you are a prostitute!
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist