Black Women and Prostitution
published in Gauntlet, Issue #7
"As a woman of color, I can not talk about sex work with out talking about racism in the sex industry. I can not talk about sex work without talking about racism. I am a woman of color and do not have the privilege to ignore its impact on the job and in my life."
Racism in society in general, as well as racism within the sex business places black women in vulnerable situations. African American women, prostitutes, ex-prostitutes, strippers and advocates express a wide range of attitudes towards prostitution, yet most emphasize the conditions of racism and poverty that are responsible for additional problems of African American women in the sex business.
"If conditions are bad for white women, you can bet that they are twice as bad for women of color." says Tracy Abernathy of San Francisco's Street Survival Project.
These conditions include forced and economically coerced prostitution, discriminatory enforcement of laws, the denial of women's rights to control our bodies within prostitution, the abuse and harassment by cops and johns- and abuse, discrimination and often alienation within families and communities.
"There's a belief that prostitution is accepted in the black community. This is wrong. Prostitution is not accepted. It's been imposed on African Americans since the days of slavery when the master came out to the field and picked any black women he chose to have sex with. Today, middle class White men from the suburbs drive through the ghettos of America to pick out any Black woman or girl he wants, as if our cities were his own private plantation," writes Vednita Nelson, Advocacy Director of WHISPER (Women Hurt In Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt).
For many women, because of poverty and lack of alternatives, prostitution has been their only option, yet the system targets Black women for punishment. The laws against prostitution are enforced disproportionately against women of color. Although 20 to 30% of prostitutes are women of color, the vast majority of those sentenced to jail time are women of color.
Gloria Lockett describes how the charges were assigned in her 1983 case. "My lover of nineteen years, a very good friend of mine and I were arrested on 24 counts... All the white people in our group were granted immunity in an effort to make them testify."
The economic situation in this country is the main reason for most of the prostitution of women in general and for African American women. Where white women make 60 or 70 cents to the dollar of white men, women of color earn even less. Poor women who support their families on AFDC (though the majority of AFDC recipients are not women of color!) are forced to find alternative sources to supplement their income. The Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders reports a study in San Francisco showed that welfare cuts resulted in a higher number of AFDC mothers being arrested for prostitution.
"They say prostitution is immoral," says Magaret Prescod, of the US PROStitutes Collective and International Black Women for Wages For Housework Campaign. "...we think hunger is immoral."
"What are those who decry the immorality of women earning their living as prostitutes doing about women and children's right to compensation? What are they doing about poor black women being poorer today than a decade ago?"
Racism is at the center of the discriminatory conditions within the business. For example, white women may have the choice to work at a sauna, at a bar or hotel, or for an escort agency. Very few Black women will even be considered for these upscale prostitution venues, or they may not "travel in those circles." Street work may be their only option. On the street, police often reserve tourist and commercial districts for white women, harassing women of color to an even greater extent and advising them to ply their trade on the other side of the tracks.
Racism is part of many communities, but the effects are multiplied for those marginalized as women of color and as prostitutes. As prostitutes, women of color, particularly African American women, are isolated from the mainstream of society and taught to view themselves and their communities with shame.
"Black women are often assumed to be whores," says Gail Pheterson of The International Committee for Prostitutes' Rights. "The whore stigma, together with the racial stigma dehumanizes people of color."
Prejudice and poverty make women of color vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation. The sex business combines the worst of it. As Vednita Nelson reports, "Racism makes Black women and girls especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation and keeps them trapped in the sex industry."
Prostitutes, women of color, particularly African American women, ignored by the feminist mainstream, so that African American prostitutes have no visibility and no support from most women's organizations.
"Mostly white, middle class agencies and service providers are either afraid of us, or pity us and deny our real strengths," says Cynthia Moore, an ex-prostitute, currently enrolled in a graduate sociology program.
"Community leaders should listen to and support Black sisters who are working now, or who have worked. We should be encouraged to talk about our experiences, or to file complaints against the johns and the cops. We need childcare and all the other services that are in place for everyone else. Social workers can be pretty insensitive. They try and make us feel guilty for not living up to the white, middle class role model."
"There is so much talk about finding work, but the people who run these programs seem to be mostly concerned with keeping the funding for their jobs. Women of color who understand "the life" should be running and designing the programs that are aimed at our own communities. We should insist that money be made available for these programs. Women who want to 'help us' out of prostitution, should not forget all the sisters who won't be getting out, for whatever reason. We all need money to raise our children, for medical services and for places to live. These services should not just be available for those who can 'get out.' "
"Some Black women should understand that the rules they are "making it" by leave some sisters and brothers out in the cold. In general, we should all examine our prejudices, especially when we notice that those who are we are against just happen to be people of color, or poor people, or women, or our brothers in prisons, or anyone on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, class or race."
African American activists call on feminists and women's advocates to stand beside them and fight racist and sexist oppression.
"White women must make a concerted effort to end racism, beginning with an examination of their own racism. Being Black and female in a white supremacist, male supremacist culture creates a very tight space in which Black women struggle to survive. This is a place where racism and sexism intersect."
The multiple stigmas and realities of poverty, prostitution and racism weave a bleak story of women's lives. Many African American women answer back with their strength and pride.
"I get by because I don't care what people think, as long as my friends and my family accepts me, I'm satisfied. And they do." says Gloria Lockett, ex-prostitute, activist and director of California Prevention Education Project."
"I went into prostitution because of money. It had nothing to do with self-expression or abuse or anything else. It had nothing to do with being black, except that I am a proud black women, who did what I needed to do to take care of myself."