Thoughts: essays galore

Finding the Joke: Violence Against Sex Workers

by Raevin Wade

Content warning for mentions of rape and sexual assault.

When a young woman was raped at gunpoint in Chicago, authorities immediately charged her accused attacker with aggravated sexual assault and jailed him on $750,000 bail. It was the kind of quick and empathetic police response all rape victims deserve. But Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell didn’t see it that way. In fact, she said the case “is making a mockery of rape victims.”

The 24-year-old victim in the case was a sex worker. The man accused of raping her contacted her through — a classified ad site known as the “online red-light district” because of its "adult entertainment" section — and lured her to his home with no intention of paying her. Mitchell believes this makes the young woman something less than a "real" victim.

We heard similar responses back in October to the viral #ZolaStory. Aziah Wells, a sex worker, tweeted what she described as a real-life tale of rape, sex trafficking and kidnapping in a string of 148 tweets that were trending within hours. But instead of prompting widespread calls for justice, her story was celebrated across the Internet for being “funny” and “entertaining.” created a compilation of "hilarious,” “must-see" memes based on the story. Celebrities applauded the story’s drama and at least one person turned it into a Halloween costume.

Decided to be Zola's story for my job's Florida themed Halloween party. #Zola

— TAY (@nyctaylor) October 29, 2015

Most recently, Variety reports that James Franco is set to direct a movie based on the Twitter tale by Wells. The film is said to be based on "Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted," a story written for Rolling Stone by David Kushner.

I doubt this project will be anything other than a light-hearted dramedy centered around highly dangerous situations sex workers are forced into daily. Continuing to support this type of trivialization does nothing but contribute to the public's desensitization of violence against sex workers.

As a former full-service sex worker, I regularly saw and heard about the kind of violence 19-year-old Wells described. I’ve experienced it myself. Men gave me money in exchange for dates, romantic companionship, and, at my discretion, sex. I was picky about whom I would have sex with, and if I didn’t feel 100 percent comfortable, I wouldn’t do it. I made those rules clear to any potential clients. But in one case, a man felt I owed him sex after he spent money on me, and when I declined, I was violently forced.

Like most in my situation, I didn't go to the police. I feared I would be blamed and my experience would be minimized. The case in Chicago was an anomaly; when sex workers report crimes against them to the police, they’re typically treated differently than other victims. Authorities accuse us of lying or arrest us. They minimize our trauma, calling our rape a simple robbery or “theft of services.”

The public has a similar reaction, criminalizing us when we are the victims of sexual assault and even murder. In a news story about the rape of a Chicago sex worker, many commenters showed no empathy for her traumatic experience:

The dismissive response society has toward violence against sex workers is a major problem. A recent study found that we have a 45 to 75 percent chance of experiencing sexual violence at some point in our careers. That means a lot of rapes and other violent assaults against women aren't being prosecuted.

Sexual assault is never deserved; it’s never funny.

Sex workers aren’t the only ones affected by society’s dismissive attitude toward violence against them. Even trafficked women are vulnerable.

Sex trafficking is a modern form of human slavery that grosses $32 billion globally each year. However, the public often doesn’t see women who are either forced into the business or prevented from leaving it as victims. For instance, in the #ZolaStory, 20-year-old Jessica Swiatkowski (called “Jess” in Wells’s account) appears to be complicit in prostituting. But we soon find out that she’s not setting the prices for her services, her pimp is. He withholds money from her and demands she perform a sex act with a gun nearby, according to Wells. (Swiatkowki has contested many details of the account). A full-service sex worker who does not control the money she makes is not working for herself and has no ascendancy over her body.

Many don’t view sex trafficking as a problem in the U.S., but the women and children we call “prostitutes” often are victims and their pimps often are traffickers. They use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage, and other forms of coercion to force women, men and children to engage in commercial sex against their will.

Tina Frundt, who was trafficked as a 14 year old in Chicago, explained this in a statement to Congress in 2005: “When we see a woman on the street here in the United States, we think, ‘Why is she doing it? This must be her choice. She can walk away anytime she wants. She can leave.’ There is less sympathy for the domestic victims.”

The pimp in the #ZolaStory, whose real name is Akporode Uwedjojevwe (called “Z” in Wells’s account), has been charged with two counts of sex trafficking, along with sexual battery, assault, and two counts of attempted pandering with threat of physical force.

In her Sun-Times column criticizing the young sex worker who was raped in Chicago, Mitchell compared her to Melissa Schuster, a 26-year-old Illinois woman who was raped by a man who broke into her home after demanding cash. Mitchell suggests Schuster is a true rape victim and worthy of sympathy because she wasn’t a sex worker.

But Schuster has a different take on what makes someone a victim. In an interview with the Daily Mail about her assault, she said, “no human being should ever be treated like he treated me.” Schuster didn’t qualify her statement. She didn’t say “no human being except sex workers,” “except prostitutes,” or “except trafficking victims.” She didn’t create a hierarchy of victimhood and neither should we. Sexual assault is never deserved; it’s never funny. When sex workers are subjected to violence, they should be treated as the victims they are.

Raevin is a contributor for Trascender Magazine.