How Communities Pathologized Sex Workers

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At an open mic last year in Roanoke, local storytellers recounted anecdotes all loosely connected by a general theme: “neighbors.” Fittingly, Roanoke is a city that highly prides itself on its neighborhoods and the distinct communities that are founded within them. The event itself was held in one of Roanoke’s oldest neighborhoods, Historic Old Southwest, known widely for its dramatic architecture: bleached pastel mansions with pointed roofs and sweeping Southern porches. Old Southwest is also (less widely) known as Roanoke’s historic gayborhood. Here, in the 1970s and 1980s, most of the dilapidated railroad mansions had long been converted into cheap and seedy apartment complexes for working class, transient tenants—some of whom were gay activists. Since then, Old Southwest and many other Roanoke neighborhoods have gone through significant transformations. In Old Southwest, middle class families have started to mix in with working class residents, and the neighborhood is becoming more racially diverse—having long been majority white. These changes can certainly cause friction but, that night, I was hoping to hear stories about neighbors bridging gaps of difference and forging common ground, despite ever-shifting demographics.

Most of the stories were indeed funny and sentimental; testaments to an accepting and light-hearted community. But one story stood out: A local housing developer and member of the broader LGBTQ community recounting his first few weeks in Roanoke some twenty years ago, back before the city was a hotspot for craft breweries and medical schools. He dramatized his initial encounters with Roanoke’s West End neighborhood, speaking sordidly of the kind of poverty and petty crime that plagued his block before he started to “clean it up.” He was particularly vexed by the sex workers who did business down the street. After calling the police on them countless times to no avail, he put a large sign in his yard declaring “NO MORE HOOKERS.” As he was telling this part of the story, he encouraged the audience to join him in chanting “NO.MORE.HOOKERS.” And soon that room, that community of people celebrating community, was shouting in unison: NO MORE HOOKERS, NO MORE HOOKERS!

As it goes, the efforts of him and other gentrifiers “paid” off. His old street, he pointed out triumphantly, is now seemingly “free” of sex workers and populated by families—families who rent to own houses and shop at small businesses and call the police when they see criminal activity. It was an all-American success story built on the backs of some all-American myths about sex work: that the presence of sex workers makes a neighborhood bad; that a good neighborhood is devoid of sex work; and that sex workers should thus be treated like a blight on community progress, a disease to be wiped out or washed away. And even though many of the people who joined in the chant of “NO MORE HOOKERS” seemed somewhat reluctant to do so, I think the general premise still struck a nerve. A lot of people have whacky neighbors, but nobody in a “respectable” community wants their neighbor to be a sex worker. For many people in the middle class, the presence of sex workers seems antithetical to living in a “good” community.

The conflict between sex workers and community development is not new. In Roanoke, it is as old as the city itself. At the turn of the 20th century, community members campaigned to shut down Roanoke’s thriving brothel and saloon scene, concerned about the deleterious influence of alcohol and mixed-gender establishments. Ultimately, Roanoke’s “vice district” was effectively quarantined to the historically black side of town: Gainsboro. In the 1950s and 60s, Gainsboro was subsequently redeveloped and hundreds of black homes and businesses were destroyed, displacing thousands. In the 1970s, Roanoke law enforcement cracked down on sex work in the city’s center, concerned particularly about the transvestite prostitutes that worked in the downtown market. City officials figured that trans prostitutes were scaring away (primarily white) middle class patrons, and wanted to remove them in order to make the market a more appealing place for other kinds of capitalist enterprise: restaurants and boutiques, namely. To make room for the kind of business that middle class people openly engage in, many sex workers were arrested and given hefty fines. The city succeeded in pushing sex workers out of the city center, but considering how many affluent locals still sought out their services, sex workers continued to do business in other parts of the city not yet slotted for redevelopment. Thus, sex workers were pushed from one “bad” neighborhood to another. And every time a “bad” neighborhood was deemed worthy of being made “good” by middle class investment, they were pushed out again, and again, and again.

The assumption underlying this continuous displacement is clear: a community cannot be safe, clean, and open to middle class enterprise so long as sex workers work there. When we see sex workers, we take their very presence on the street to mean we have stumbled into a bad part of town—especially when those sex workers are non-white and/or trans. We assume that nice restaurants, cafes, shops, and families cannot and do not coexist with sex workers, even if, in reality, they often do. So we call the police on sex workers, inadvertently or intentionally putting vulnerable members of our community in danger. When sex workers are subsequently removed, we frame the destruction of a person’s livelihood as a “clean up,” and celebrate the “health” of our middle-class or gentrifying neighborhoods, even as neighborhoods a block or two away are stifled by poverty and community indifference. The success of entrepreneurs and affluent families, then, necessitates creating distinctions between “good” and “bad” neighborhoods; quarantining the “bad” (rather than addressing systemic inequalities) so that the “good” can thrive free of guilt or consequence.

There is another underlying assumption behind this logic: that sex work is dirty and debasing. Yet, sex is a commodity everywhere—not just on the streets. Sex is used widely and acceptably as a marketing tool to sell everything from guns to music to diet pills. Middle class families regularly expose their children to sexualized marketing while simultaneously (and hypocritically) moralizing against sex workers as corrosive to family values. Further, sex workers are not purchasing their own services—middle class/affluent clients are the ones creating the demand. They want access to sex workers, but they want it to be discreet and far away from where they live and work. In turn, sex workers’ safety is often jeopardized, while clients are continually protected. These are just a couple of the contradictions inherent in policing sex workers. Middle class communities realistically desire these and other “illicit” services, but they do so while feeling entitled to live in clean, wholesome, safe neighborhoods—because they can afford it. Those who can’t, it follows, are not their problem.  

I am not exempt from this way of thinking. I love my neighborhood and its unique, colorful identity. I love how safe and accessible it feels. But my neighborhood also prevents me from seeing my city as a whole entity. It segregates me and, sometimes, stifles my capacity for empathy. I know crime and poverty and discrimination run rife in Roanoke, but, because those things are seemingly not in my backyard or on my street, they are easy to ignore—a blinding privilege. To many in my community, sex workers are seen as a blight that keeps us from feeling “safe” and “good” about where we live. Our comfort is prioritized over their safety. But sex workers deserve better than continuous displacement, and the violence done to them by police officers and “well-meaning” community members. They offer a service that middle class people feel entitled to, but they are wholly unwelcome in our communities. They are, in fact, our neighbors—even if we do not realize it. Many of them are also entrepreneurs, with families and bills to pay and a burning desire to survive in an economy and society that treats survival as a luxury. They deserve, like all of us, a living wage and a safe place to sleep and protections from violence and abuse. If we truly want to make our communities stronger, it’s time to recognize that progress means all of us—no matter where we live, no matter how we make a living.

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RM Barton is a writer and activist living in Roanoke, Virginia. Originally from Maryland, she moved to Southwest Virginia for school some five years ago, and has since become invested in queering southern space. She is the co-lead of The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ History Project and the publisher of The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ History Project Zine, which aims to illuminate queer history through queer art and storytelling. She blogs at rmbartonblog.wordpress.com