Yesterday I had an out-of-town guest to entertain on a rainy afternoon, so we went to see Born Into Brothels. The Academy Award-winning documentary tells the story of life in a notorious red-light district of Calcutta through the eyes of prostitutes' children, who are taught how to use a camera by visiting photographer Zana Briski. It was an extraordinary portrait of the cruelty and hope of human existence, and the images taken by the children are stunning. Prints and a book are available for purchase.
So that sort of thing was already on my mind (not that it isn't often: welcome to capitalism) when Jeffrey Yamaguchi, whose work I greatly admire, sent me a note today letting me know that his wife, Juhu Thukral, who runs the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center here in New York, and her colleagues are releasing a report tomorrow about indoor sex workers. Here is the press release:
For Immediate Release:Obviously, there's rarely a simple solution for complicated issues such as this one, but I do tend to fall on the civil libertarian side of the debate. And of course, the paying patrons and black market managers who make prostitution a viable career path for women are hardly held accountable in any meaningful way.
Wednesday, March 30, 2005
Contact: Juhu Thukral
Indoor Sex Workers Are Isolated And Fear Violence
Urban Justice Center Interviews U.S.-Born and Immigrant Sex Workers About Police Contacts
(New York City, March 30, 2005) - The Sex Workers Project (SWP) of the Urban Justice Center (UJC) has released the first-ever in-depth report in the U.S. examining indoor sex work. Behind Closed Doors: An Analysis of Indoor Sex Work in New York City, released today, includes interviews with sex workers who work independently or for brothels, escort agencies, dungeons, and private clubs. The report highlights the extreme violence that sex workers experience from customers, and the dangerous effects of isolation and stigma.
According to the report, 46% of sex workers experienced violence in the course of their work, and 42% had been threatened or beaten for being a sex worker. Additionally, 14% reported violence at the hands of the police, and 16% encountered sexual situations with the police. Sara, a respondent in the report, describes a client "who came in and had a knife . . . I was cornered and I was about to be attacked and raped . . . I didn't go to the police because it would be coming out about what I've been doing." "Many people are unsympathetic to prostitutes," says Juhu Thukral, Director of the SWP, "however, this level of violence is unacceptable, even if they are engaging in unlawful activity."
Leticia, another respondent, adds, "Just find a way to help us with the police . . . we need somebody to protect us when we get beat up. Around here, they don't arrest you, they just mess with you like they own you."
Eight percent of the report's respondents were trafficked into the country for prostitution. The trafficked women told of being threatened, beaten, raped, and having their money withheld by the traffickers. The respondents were ethnically diverse and included women, transgender women, and men. Sex workers interviewed ranged in age from 19 to 54. Forty percent were born outside the U.S. and its territories.
Shockingly, 67% of respondents got involved with sex work because they were unable to find other work which provided a living wage. Previous jobs included waitressing, retail, and domestic work. Immigrants without work permits saw sex work as their best economically viable option. The unlawful nature of most sex work often results in extreme isolation, which serves as a barrier to accessing legal, financial, educational, and other necessary services. Prostitutes explained that they feared arrest and its consequences, and expressed a need for peer support and substantive services.
New York City's quality of life initiatives have always caught prostitutes in their net. However, Thukral stresses that "these police operations result in arrests that destabilize the lives of many sex workers who are members of the working poor, and jeopardize other legal employment." "This activity comes at an extremely high cost to the public, and is a waste of valuable public resources," added Melissa Ditmore, a co-author of the report. "Stringent policing creates an environment of fear and isolation that prevents sex workers from coming forward when they are victims of violence and other crimes."
Thukral aims to have the City do two things: ensure that all violence against sex workers is taken seriously by law enforcement authorities; and offer in-depth and appropriate services that lead to long-term solutions. "There is clearly a need for a fact-based public discussion around the problems of police and violence that include the voices of sex workers themselves in order to effectively and productively address the needs of sex workers and the community's concerns."
Noted, the reference to "the red thread" in the title is De Rode Draad, the union of choice for sex workers in the Netherlands (the image is from their site).