Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

"The prostitute problem": sex work and self-determination

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | September 20, 2007 4:11 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: gentrification, Indianapolis, Indianapolis prostitution sting, Lower Polk Neighbors, neighborhood associations, prostitution, Residents in Distress, Rivington, sex work

I started sobbing when I read "The prostitute’s day in court,” one of Bil's posts from the other day, and learned that residents from his neighborhood association attended a court hearing to ensure that a woman arrested multiple times for prostitution do jail time. These residents were successful, and the woman in question will now spend approximately 218 days in prison. Over seven months in prison. Can people think about that for a moment? What will that mean for this woman's life?

This issue is extremely personal to me. I supported myself for 12 years as a whore, and the practices, politics and cultures of sex work have been crucial to my understanding of and engagement with the world. Sex work has enabled me to structure my time and finances in order to move cross-country half a dozen times, live in half a dozen cities (and a dozen apartments), write two novels (both with sex work as a central theme), edit four anthologies (one about sex work), go on five book tours, help to start several activist groups, and become involved in innumerable direct action activist projects. Equally important, sex work has helped me, an incest survivor searching for home and hope, to negotiate the perilous intersections of sexuality, intimacy, lust, self-worth, longing and desperation with integrity and charm. Sex work has given me the space to envision radical queer alternatives to the violence of the status quo -- in relationships, activism, identity, desire and self-expression.

Has this been messy? Of course! Do I regret any of it? Well, sometimes... But the point is that everything I've learned over the last 15 years (or almost everything, anyway) comes from an active participation in radical outsider queer cultures that have always intersected, overlapped, and interwoven with sex work cultures -- from high-end dungeons to the quickie blow job in the car, Talk to a Model to "massage," streetwork to the kept boy/girl lifestyle.

And everywhere I've lived (but especially in New York and San Francisco), I've witnessed and struggled against the violence of pro-gentrification "neighborhood" associations that always see the annihilation of public sex and sex work cultures as paramount to the success of their urban removal projects. In New York, a group called "Residents in Distress" (RID) aggressively seeks to eliminate queer youth of color, hookers and other “undesirables” from sections of the West Village where these cultures have survived and thrived for decades. In my current neighborhood in San Francisco, a group of property owners and merchants calling themselves Lower Polk Neighbors (LPN), started by a pair of architects who opened their business/home on a notorious drug dealing/hustler block, across the street from a porn shop and virtually next-door to a homeless shelter, now decries the presence of -- gasp -- hustlers, hookers and drug dealers. What was one of their first things they did for the neighborhood? Shut down the needle exchange.

Neighborhood associations like RID and LPN don't actually care about the safety, health, or well-being of anyone except those owning or patronizing gentrification businesses or speculating in real estate. The violence in these neighborhoods is not coming from sex workers desperately trying to make a living in the public pageantry so familiar to the urban sensibility (and now so threatening to the suburban values of urban dwellers). The violence comes from groups like the Irvington, Indianapolis neighborhood association who find it more important to send a hooker to jail for seven months than to ascertain her needs.

Mattilda blogs at

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gosh, i'm glad that you're blogging here and that your experiences/thoughts aren't completely absent from this discussion.

i do remember, though, being a 14-year-old girl in a neighborhood perhaps slightly quieter than Bil's, and having johns try pick me up in their cars, and having no idea what cues i'd sent to have them assume i wanted to trade sex for money. it was a less than pleasant experience for me, and coupled as it was with lots of other attempts by men i didn't know to involve me in their sexuality, kind of made me not want to leave my house for awhile. i guess i don't regret those lessons in navigating the street, but i do think there's something more human about neighborhood group people and their motivations for not wanting a thriving public sex culture on their street, besides just their desire to protect property values.

i agree with you that rallying the neighborhood and the cops against hookers trying to get by is an act of violence against those sex workers. but how do you make space for Bil's daughter and his flower patch and for sex work?

On the Irvington neighborhood, now the gay neighborhood of Indianapolis, there's quite an interesting history in relation to gentrification there.

(Since I don't live in Indianapolis, please correct me if I'm wrong here. But this is my understanding from the people I've talked to about this. I live out in the country, but I do visit Indy every now and then. But living in the country means that I'm unfamiliar with the process of urban gentrification.)

I remember a while back when I would visit Indianapolis and the gayborhood there was the Mass Ave area. I was just down there a few weeks ago, and a couple of the gay bars had shut down, and The Abbey had moved! Indianapolis had renamed it "The Arts District" and changed some of the native architecture. And now there were a whole lot of theaters and straight people there. It was interesting because even I can remember when the neighborhood was queerer.

Now I talk to a lot of guys online (haha), and I notice that a lot of them live in the Irvington area now. So it's almost like the people displaced by the original gentrification of Mass Ave moved to that neighborhood....

Of course, this is just what a few people have related to me, and I'm could be completely wrong. But the thing is here, I don't think that the situation in Irvington is the same as the one on Polk Street in SF or the West Village in NYC. Because of the way Indy's built, I wouldn't be surprised if the Irvington area was just farms 50 years ago (does anyone know?).

It is disheartening, in any case, that no one would go through the trouble of actually talking to that woman. Or creating a safe space for that kind of solicitation.

Thank you Mattilda. I must agree that I am glad you blog here (though I like your own blog better.) Turning out the neighborhood to put a woman in jail is scary. Sort of reminds me of some where in some other time. It is distressing that "gays" in the Irvington neighborhood would be the ones who now are for "cleaning" up the area. How long have sex workers been working those streets compared to how long have these "gay" arrivals been in the neighborhood? Our cities can't be about only those who own or those with money and everyone else out. Tails between your legs guys when you are put out by new invaders. Happened before. Show a little heart "gays" of Irvington, as just a few years back you were and in many, many places you still are dirt in many people's eyes.

Emma, thanks so much for your thoughts! I think the answer for any teenagers trying to thwart unwanted sexual advances is knowledge and empowerment. Unfortunately, the majority of sexual violence against children and teenagers occurs behind the closed doors of their families of origin, but in the case where those families are actually nurturing I think the answer is always a humanizing one (i.e., these women are just like us and deserve respect, smiles, tea, etc.) rather than a dehumanizing one (these "crack whores" need to be thrown in jail). But I'd also love to hear your ideas.

And Alex, the pattern you're describing is exactly the same in San Francisco, New York, and every other city I've been to. Gay (and lesbian) neighborhoods that were established in the 1960s have become straighter and more gentrified, thus forcing many queers to move to more affordable neighborhoods, and therefore starting the same cycle over again. In New York, this would be most obviously true for the West Village, Chelsea, Park Slope, Hell's Kitchen. San Francisco is a bit more complicated because Polk Street has been more or less abandoned by the gay elite, but the gentrification pattern you're describing is certainly true for the Castro, South of Market, the Mission, Bernal Heights and Noe Valley. At this point I think the tragedy is that gay people with a little bit of power or privilege are all too willing to serve as front-line gentrifiers, policing the border is rather then trying to create vibrant, diverse or inclusive communities.

With all due respect, I am at a loss for words here, but I will give it a shot.

You ask the question of what would 218 days in prison would do to this woman? Why don't we ask her? You make the assumption that she would object to being incarcerated. Not trying to be cute, but I could think of some reasons I would prefer incarceration to continuing on the street. Being away from her pimp, a chance to dry out for whatever drug she might be on, being out of the inclement weather about to be upon us, three meals a day, perhaps a chance to get a GED. Perhaps she will take this as an opportunity for rehabilition. I am sure you think that is condescending that I do not consider this woman as productive a member of society as you do, but I don't see how this woman's behavior is making anyone's quality of life better, except for the pimp and drug dealer making a living off of her, as well as the johns who get a few moments of pleasure from her. And I would submit that unless you have personal knowledge of the "job sastifaction" of this woman, for you to assume she is as happy with her current vocation as you were is just the type of condescension you were objecting to.

You also intentionally ignore the elephant in the room in your post-these women are drug addicts. These women bring drug dealers into the neighborhood. Actually, you do mention drug dealers, but portray them as an oppressed group that are chased out when the evil gentrification force arrives. The horror! Drug dealers have killed more prostitutes than gentrification.

I just can't wrap my head around your logic. You can't move into a distressed neighborhood, unless you are fine with it remaining distressed. If your neighborhood is falling into decline, you just need to deal with it and invite those bringing the decline with them into your home for cookies and punch, and a nice syringe to "safely" use their drugs.

Remember Bil's original post? Too bad, Bil! Sorry your teenage daughter is getting propositioned while she sits on the porch, but what did you expect when you moved to Irvington! That you could raise your daughter without worrying about her being accosted? Well, you should have moved somewhere else, because the dirty old men were there first. And shame on you for trying to get rid of them!

I really do not mean to offend with my words. These are tough issues that should be debated. But you treat this issue in mere black and white terms, and portray this existance as noble, ignoring the seedy underbelly of this world.

Alex, as an aside, I would disagree that Irvington is the gay neighborhood in Indy. Bil will certainly disagree with me if I am incorrect, but I think that Indy is following the national trend and eschewing "gay ghettos" in favor of dispersing and assimilation. There are certainly areas that are more gay than others, but I think Irvington is just one of them. Chatham Arch (Mass Ave is still very, very gay), Near Northside, Woodruff Place, St Joe, Herron Morton, and now even Fountain Square are home to a good portion of gay folks. Just because there is not a rainbow flag in front of every house doesn't mean the neighborhood is still not predominantly gay. Indy never really had a clearly defined gay neighborhood, a la Boy's Town, so this process has been more subtle. As to whether this is a good trend, that is a debate for another time.

I agree that all people deserve respect Mattilda, and think it's sad that residents turned out en masse to put the woman in jail but I don't buy the idea that residents of a neighborhood should have to tolerate the status quo. Sure, streetwalking may be what the neighborhood is know for, but I highly doubt that the pre-gentrification neighborhood residents welcomed the arrival of sex workers and the attendant cruising Johns with open arms. Rather, being a working class neighborhood, their pleas to local law enforcement probably fell on deaf ears since patrolling non-wealthy neighborhoods isn't as lucrative as, I dunno... sobriety checkpoints, so those who could afford to moved out.

And then again, where do you draw the line? If prostitutes receive a pass because that's where they do business, what about an abandoned house that's used for dealing and/or consuming drugs or gang activities? Should that be allowed to survive and thrive because it's already being used that way?

Count me as someone who thinks that people who live in the neighborhood should have some control over it.

Chuck, I can't agree with you more that the "neighbors" in Irvington should've asked the woman in question what she wanted, rather than showing up to put her away. And Mike, of course people living in the neighborhood should have some control over it -- my point is that newly-gentrifying residence and business owners (or property-owners of any type) should not be the ONLY ones to exert such control, and I do think it's preposterous for people with economic choices to move to a neighborhood known for certain types of behavior -- public gay sex, prostitution, drug dealing, public drunkenness, etc. -- and then attempt to rout out all of these behaviors as if they are enemy forces who've invaded (space aliens, anyone?).

And Richard, yes you are absolutely correct in your assessments -- I will add that public space should be public -- for so many generations, the point of living in a city was to participate in this exact realm, now cities emulate the gated suburban mythology...

chuck says: "Sorry your teenage daughter is getting propositioned while she sits on the porch, but what did you expect when you moved to Irvington!"

if johns harassing residents is really the main problem residents have with having sex workers on their street, couldn't you think of this as a question of the relatively stable inhabitants of the area (residents and sex workers) enforcing standards of respectful behavior for johns, who are probably visitors to the area? if you had the hooker working in front of your house in for tea, perhaps you could discuss your mutual frustration with those customers who just don't know how to behave, and figure out a way to make the neighborhood safer for sex workers and teenage daughters alike.

Emma, this is a brilliant idea -- and exactly the kind of strategy that would be possible with actual community-building...

And how would one enforce standards for customers? or for the ladies, for that matter, given that our culture is governed by the lowest common denominator?

Mike, I think, as Emma suggests, a conversation between people in the neighborhood (sex workers and non-sex workers) -- over tea, with some delicious snacks perhaps -- could possibly begin to bring standards (for safety, especially) away from the lowest common denominator.

Sorry to jump into the discussion so late, but yesterday was unbelievably busy for me.

Let me clear up a couple misunderstandings first:

1) Irvington is by no means a "gay ghetto." The Mass Ave arts district is still #1 by far - and the neighborhoods Chuck mentions above are all around that area and have huge numbers of queers. Those are the areas that have been "gentrified" as Mattilda suggests. Those areas are downtown.

2) Irvington is it's own town and is surrounded by Indy. They have their own town council still. It's on the city's east side. Washington Street - which I'm a block away from - is known for it's seediness and crime. One "hotel" where the hookers work is known for it's police calls every night. Irvington is trying to get the hotel closed due to it's high crime rate - usually involving drugs. The further north you go from Washington Street, the nicer the houses are. The closer to Washington Street, the lousier the neighborhoods.

3) Technically I don't live in Irvington. I am about 3 blocks west of their boundaries. The further west you go towards downtown Indy, the worse the neighborhoods become. Not from gentrification by any means - just the last few streets that haven't fallen into disrepair. One block away from my house is a street that's mostly abandoned houses, poor blacks and Appalachian whites. Another block west starts a large population of Hispanics who are moving into the Washington Street area. (Washington in my area has a lot of slum-lord apartment buildings, work release centers, etc.)

4) The vast majority of the johns in this area are young hispanic men who don't speak a lot of English and thuggish black men. (White guys tend to pick up tricks on West Washington Street as versus East Washington. Yes, there's racism even in prostitution.) Most of the prostitutes in this area are obviously strung out on drugs. They have the shakes, fucked up eyes and can barely talk half the time. They leave needles and condoms and other assorted debris behind them as they cruise the areas. They use our alleys and the abandoned houses to turn tricks.

I've got more, but I need to hop in the shower now. I'll be back shortly. :)

Mattilda, thanks so much for this thoughtful and moving post. Sorry I missed the conversation yesterday; was away from my desk all day ...

I particularly appreciate your call to readers to imagine the 200-plus days this woman will spend in prison. To the commenter who suggested that those months might be a time for rest, detox, and rehabilitation, I can only say that the U.S. prison system (and the prison model in general) is not a rehabilitative one -- this woman will likely experience more, or at least continued, violence (of various forms) while inside.

I also really appreciate your clear illustration of the ways movin'-on-up assimilation and gentrification impact marginalized communities and public culture, queer and otherwise. It's the same pattern, over and over, in too many places. And while it feels in some ways specific, or endemic, to this cultural/historical moment, it also feels rooted in a sadly long history of colonialism -- those roots are deep, insidious, and tragic indeed.

Sorry for not responding faster, but today was pretty hectic.

Mattilda, I see you merely glanced over my arguments, and that is fine. Obviously, you believe that all of the problems in Bil's neighborhood can be solved with a cookie and a hug. That might work if the problems you describe are as abstract at the space aliens you compare these real world problems to, but sadly that is not the case. If all the prostitutes in the area were as articulate as you, perhaps this would work.

I also can't help but choke over the idea that drug dealers and other criminals would respond to this cooperative love and understanding you espouse. Do you actually have a situation where this method has been tried? Having had first hand experiences with drug dealers, I can vouch for the fact that they don't seem to like to listen to logic and reason, and really don't care for the improvement of neighborhood.

Emma, I would also encourage you to bring in the hookers into your home for tea to discuss the issues as you describe. I would then like to run the betting pool for how long it would take for your place to be broken into and your possessions taken and sold for drugs. That might sound mean, and some will surely say I am stereotyping, but put my theory to the test and tell us who is right.

Chuck, I don't believe that all the problems in Bil's neighborhood (or any neighborhood) can be solved with a cookie and a hug, however much I would love it to be so! Obviously, systemic racism, misogyny, ageism, ableism, classism, police brutality, urban removal, lack of access to services or healthcare, anti-immigrant hysteria, drug profiteering (prescription and otherwise), poverty and neglect need to be addressed for any lasting change. What I mean to suggest is that none of this will ever begin when gentrifying "neighbors" are busy making sure that the most vulnerable people are sent to prison instead of finding ways to help.

well you should be killed. why not? your views are crap. the violence doesn't stem from drugs and prostitution? well you're educated in lying but not in telling the truth. this should be grounds for you to be killed. sorry but you pride yourself on you special degraded pride. well, you didn't imporve the world. you destroyed it.