On Satuday, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell published an article that on first reading made me feel physically, viscerally sick. By the next morning my shock had drifted into anger and outrage. Only today, another 24 hours on, could I consider it with enough of a calm head to try to figure out what the hell the author is talking about and to unpick her logic. When I did, I found that if anything her argument gets worse.
If you are new to this story, Mitchell wrote about the arrest and charge of Roy Akins. He had contacted a sex worker through an internet advertisement and arranged for her to come to his apartment. However he never had money to pay her for the visit. Instead, when she arrived, he put a gun to her head and raped her. He is currently awaiting trials, but reports say he has admitted the crime to police.
I’d imagine most people’s reactions at this point would be a combination of revulsion at the attack and sympathy for the victim, perhaps peppered with some admiration for her courage in calling the police and reporting the offence. Not Mary Mitchell. The columnist (a member of the distinguished, multiple-Pulitzer-winning newspaper’s editorial board, no less) wrote that arresting and charging this man as a rapist sends ‘mixed messages.’
At this point you should, if you have the stomach, read the full piece. It is only about 800 words or so, but pretty much every one of them is poisonous, ignorant, offensive and cruel. Among the many lowpoints are the following phrases and sentences:
I imagine most prostitutes in this situation would have run straight to a pimp.
I don’t have one iota of sympathy for Akins’ plight. But I’m grateful he isn’t being accused of snatching an innocent woman off the street
the way this case is being handled makes it look like sex trafficking is a legitimate business.
I’m not one of those women who believe rape victims are at fault because they dressed too provocatively or misled some randy guy into thinking it was his lucky night. But when you agree to meet a strange man in a strange place for the purpose of having strange sex for money, you are putting yourself at risk for harm.
It’s tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim. And because this incident is being charged as a criminal sexual assault — when it’s actually more like theft of services — it minimizes the act of rape.
Mitchell concludes by comparing this rape with another recent attack, in which an Indiana woman, Melissa Schuster, was stabbed 17 times and suffered a fractured nose, broken bones and eye injuries when she was raped by a man who broke into her home after demanding cash. As a parting shot, Mitchell suggests:
For law enforcement to put what happened to a Backpage.com prostitute on a par with rape victims like Schuster is an insult.
Now, I trust most readers of this blog will be able to see why Mitchell’s piece is so hideous. From the victim-blaming to the fallacy of the perfect victim, the failure to see that Akins (allegedly) committed a violent, terrorising act of sadistic cruelty rather than reneging on a bill, to the implication that it is only ‘real’ rape if the victim is all but beaten to death. Honestly, someone could write a book about everything wrong with her article.
However underpinning all that, I think, is a set of beliefs about sex work and sex workers which makes all her other logical leaps possible. Opponents of the sex industry, whether social conservatives or feminists, typically show disdain for the notion that sex workers have agency, free will or choice. Note Mitchell’s assumption that a sex worker would have a pimp (and a violently retributive one at that, I presume she imagines him wearing a floppy velvet hat and a leopardskin coat) and the ease with which she slips in the phrase ‘sex trafficking’ as a synonym for sex work.
Once you discount the possibility that sex workers can properly consent to a sexual transaction, once you dehumanise her (or indeed him) to the extent that consent becomes incidental, then yes, maybe it does become pretty much irrelevant whether you are forced to have sex by poverty and desperation or by the barrel of a gun.
A little while ago the sex worker and blogger Jemima101 wrote a powerful piece about the conflation of sex work with rape, and specifically the adoption of the slogan ‘women are not for sale’ by Rape Crisis Scotland. As she noted, “by equating the sexual services a woman provides with her being they are demeaning and objectifying her in a way clients rarely do.” Perhaps the most insidious trope that is thrown into debates around the criminalisation / decriminalisation of sex work is the slogan “all prostitution is rape.” There are many problems with this, but perhaps the most pressing is that if this were true, it would mean there is no moral difference between paying someone for sex and raping her/him. If you think there is any truth to that, I’d suggest you listen to a sex worker who has experienced both and tragically, there are far too many of those.
If there is one thing upon which sex worker rights activists and abolitionists agree, it is that sex work can be horribly dangerous and that those in the trade can be highly vulnerable to all types of violence, but particularly sexual assaults. I would hope that both sides could also agree that shaming and mocking a sex worker who reports a rape is utterly despicable. if you can, please let your feelings known to the Chicago Sun-Times and their editor and let’s see if we can at least get that horrible article scrubbed from their site.
When writing about these issues, I’m always conscious of the extent to which gobby pundits like me talk about and over sex workers themselves and the extent to which those voices tend to be ignored. Let me first acknowledge that all my opinions on these issues are taken from and informed by reading and hearing the experiences of current and past sex workers and urge you to pay attention to what they say.
Some good places to start