Yasmin Nair

Which of the Busted Prostitutes Is A Man?: On NBC's "Dude Looks Like A Lady" Edition of Mug Shots

Filed By Yasmin Nair | March 15, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: gender, Gender Conformity, Jorge Steven Mercado, mugshots, sex work, Sex workers, transgender, transphobia

I came across this accidentally while following Alex Blaze's Twitter/Facebook status update about a man being tasered for the ghastly crime of hiding out in Macy's. Apparently, the police were so intimidated by him that they were compelled to use their tasers to "subdue" him.(1)

As I read this post, proof that we have gone completely overboard with our relentless brutalisation of people for even the most petty crimes, my eyes alighted upon this.

It's a series of mug shots of people arrested for prostitution. The caption to the sequence states:

Cook County Sheriffs busted up a prostitution ring this week. In all 13 women and 1 man were arrested in the sting. 9 had mug shots. See if you can pick out the cross-dresser before reading the captions.

I'm appalled on so many levels that I'm not sure where to begin. These mug shot sequences are popular on the web, and encourage our increasing tendency to take pleasure in the public downfalls of others. We are led to believe that publicly exposing the alleged crimes of people around us is somehow useful and a way to reduce "crime." I use the word "crime" in quotation marks because, as you might have gathered by now, I don't consider sex work a crime and I think it's high time we stop criminalising it in this shame-inducing way.

I want to be clear: I don't think that one kind of sex worker is better or more deserving than another. Sex workers do what they do for a number of reasons. Some engage in sex work (which can be broadly defined and includes dominatrix services which may or may not involve what we conventionally describe as "sex") out of necessity and others do it because they genuinely like their profession. Whatever the reasons, our collective concern should be to support sex workers, not shame and abuse them.

Those who do it only because they are compelled to should be able to leave and find other means of earning a living, and they should be able to do so in a dignified way without having to beg for help and/or re-enact the constant stereotypes of "hookers with hearts of gold" or pathetic and helpless creatures waiting for white knights to rescue them. Those who want to continue with their work need to be decriminalised and supported as workers, without the additional fetishisation as "call girls" or "escorts," terms that often imply that they are morally and culturally superior to street workers. Street workers who want to continue to work on the street have a right to do so without the physical harassment and constant threat of danger from both their clients and the cops, many of whom turn a blind eye to their calls for help or justice.

Putting sex workers' mug shots in public in this way puts them in danger and it does nothing to address the systemic ways in which the prison industrial complex and "normal" society stigmatises sex workers as a major collective cause of our societal problems and even the break-up of the "traditional family." More likely than not, the sex workers who end up on these public viewing sites are working the streets, which makes them even more vulnerable to harassment; putting their faces on the web increases the level of danger they face on a daily level. And shaming sex workers in this way is the web equivalent of stoning them in public.

But that, of course, is only the start of what's wrong with this particular sequence. By posing the question, "Which of the Busted Prostitutes is a Man?" in the title and challenging viewers to "[s]ee if you can pick out the cross-dresser before reading the captions," the sequence encourages and advances our phobia about bodies that violate our cultural prescriptions about gender identity and identification. The sequence explicitly positions the one presumed male body as the one that must be rooted out, exposed, shamed and... what else? While there is no explicit call for violence, that body is clearly pointed to as the one that does not belong. Given its place in a set of images of people already defined as unwanted, this double shaming of the "cross-dresser"* implies that this body in particular has exposed itself to a violence that can justifiably extend beyond the range of "law and order." In other words, the "cross-dresser" is fair game for any additional brutality that might be inflicted upon it.

The trope of the "cross-dresser" inviting shame, humiliation, and supposedly justified anger and brutality has a long and dark history. In The Crying Game, the sight of Dil's penis induces a vomiting fit and then an accidental act of physical violence. The panic defense - the idea that finding out that a "lady" is actually a "dude" is a justifiable cause for violence - is still used today. Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was found horrifically decapitated and dismembered in November 2009; he was dressed in women's clothing on the night of his murder.

The gay community's response to such acts is generally to avoid them because, after all, "cross-dressers" and sex workers are not to be counted in "our community." Mercado may or may not have been either trans and/or a sex worker; the reports are varied with some in the gay community trying to insist that he was a "homosexually pure gay male martyr". The gay community paid attention to the case of Mercado in part because the case was so gruesome but mostly because the murder provided a way for gay groups to advance their case for hate crimes legislation.

And that, ultimately, seems to be the only way that the gay community responds to such acts of brutality, by calling for even more legislation and the furthering of the prison industrial complex. Let's not talk about the systemic reasons for violence against those who defy gender norms; let's not consider the system of poverty that compels some people to engage in potentially dangerous sex work; let's not consider the culture of violence that induces someone to go to such great lengths to kill and then mutilate someone. Let's pretend that demanding enhanced penalties and/or the death penalty will make for a safer and saner society.

None of these issues are likely to be raised with mug shot sequences such as this. I can't claim to know anything about the one "male" discovered to have been supposedly posing as a woman, but I'm troubled by the fact that there's no consideration of the possibility that the person may actually identify as transgender. Trans sex workers often engage in sex work to pay for hormone and surgical treatment given their lack of access to an already decimated health care system. Referring to the person as the "male" who must be discerned as such erases the possibility that they may, in fact, not identify as such. For that matter, the sequence ignores the possibility that this person may in fact identify as a woman. **

Just as troubling: The sequence is deeply misogynistic, placing women in the cross-hairs of a salaciously medicalised gaze that scrutinizes and judges them for any deviation from the prescribed appearance of "womanhood." We are explicitly being asked to look at their faces very, very closely and make sure they have fulfilled all our cultural expectations. It's not enough that these women be women, whatever that means. They also have to keep passing as women. This is 2010. Why am I still writing about the medicalised gaze upon women?

As I said at the start, I don't even know where to begin. But I do know this: Sequences like this are deeply troubling for the epistemological violence they perpetrate on bodies that supposedly deviate from our fictional norm. And they are responsible for creating the conditions of the very real violence faced by the most marginalised and vulnerable among us, the ones most preyed upon by a prison industrial complex whose ever-widening range is made simultaneously real and virtual by such mug shot sequences.

(1) For a great post on the lunacy of tasering, see Alex's piece about the death of gay porn actor Andrew Grande.

Notes made on March 16, 2010

* I use "cross-dresser" in quotes to indicate the stigmatising rhetoric of the sequence, and of culture in general. But it's important to acknowledge that people do dress in the clothes of the "opposite gender" for any number of reasons, and they ought not to be humiliated for doing so.

**My thanks to commenter Gina for pointing this out.

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Wow, a look at the website shows that they are going for a comical entertainment treatment of the news. I guess that is why I listen to the news from Scotland. They just deliver the news with no jokes.
Disgusted, I hope that others give feedback to NBC about this affiliate.

You're welcome, Molarki.

Rob, I agree. I'm still gobsmacked by it all.

Thank you for posting this. I hope it will make some difference, but aside from making a few people angry about misgendering, I'm not optimistic that it does, anymore.

In Canada (and some other places, as I understand it, although I wouldn't assume this to be universal), prostitution itself is legal -- what's illegal are communicating, having a home turf (under bawdy house legislation) and living on the income... all of the things that contribute to doing so safely and enabling self-determination. It is because women (and men, though women are far more often the targets) are afraid to go to authorities when indignities occur for fear of facing charges, disrespect, indifference and abuse, even losing children, homes or whatever the local laws call for, that the cycles of exploitation (when they exist) self-perpetuate.

Of course, this is typically met with a collective shrug. "If they're going to live a high risk lifestyle, they should be prepared to face the consequences" tends to be the attitude.

I wish I could be more positive in outlook on this, but when legislators write specific clauses to ensure that aid to combat HIV is denied to any group that assists sex workers ( http://blip.tv/file/181155 ), exploit ancient laws to put women on sex offenders registries to brand them for life ( http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/flaherty150110.html ), limit investigation of murders to the collection of DNA so that future victims can be identified ( http://www.xtra.ca/public/National/Sex_workers_question_police_DNA_collection-8345.aspx ), spin the migration to another country to attain a better life into "human trafficking" whether or not human trafficking actually takes place ( http://www.nodo50.org/Laura_Agustin/ ) and more and nobody wants to hear about it or give a $#!t, it gets difficult to stay optimistic.

As you said, not everyone who engages in sex work is a victim, but the authorities certainly aren't going to stop trying to make that a universal condition anytime soon. And when involved with a community in which sex work was recently made the most accessible health care plan (not to mention the most lucrative career option for those who find themselves jobless), it's infuriating when so many -- even our own -- can't be bothered to get angry about it.

Sorry. /rant

Yasmin, I love that your "few comments" on this issue run to such breadth. Spot on, of course.

My first reaction, after "they did what!?", is to ask why on earth this is any of the readers' business?

I hadn't seen these mugshot line-ups before, and ugh. The whole premise is disgusting: just one more instance of our culture's de-humanization of people convicted (or even suspected?) of a 'crime.' Pair that with trans-misogyny and prurient interest/slut-shaming, and you have the perfect storm. I'm horrified that 40% of viewers have rated it "funny." I fail to see the humor.

You've done a great job in highlighting how this intersects with the larger politics of the gay movement (including the othering of transgender and transsexual people and the ugly ties to the prison-industrial complex) as well as to gender policing in society as a whole.

Like you, I don't know where to start with this either, except to call it out as all sorts of wrong, and to recognize it as the gross embodiment of forces that are at work in (slightly) more subtle ways everywhere.

Thanks for writing.

Margaretpoa Margaretpoa | March 16, 2010 12:11 AM

I don't watch shows like Reno 911 for this reason. I just don't find over the top official oppression, brutality and incompetence funny. It's too much like the real thing. It's like George W Bush. How can an actor make him look more clueless than the real thing and how, in light of all of the damage he did, would that be funny?

"I'm troubled by the fact that there's no consideration of the possibility that the person may actually identify as transgender."

What's more, she might not even identify as transgender and might identify as a woman. Yup, a woman like all those other sex workers.

"Trans sex workers often engage in sex work to pay for hormone and surgical treatment given their lack of access to an already decimated health care system."

Well said. Trans sex workers not only have the highest rate of murder of ANY group, but they also have some of the highest rates of seropositivity. Granted, there are trans sex workers in virtually every country in the world (even ones with national health care) but it's also fair to say no health care system really treats trans people as a valuable member of society nor trans health issues as of equal importance to cissexual health issues. All health care systems, to some degree marginalize trans people.

Moreover, it never ceases to amaze me how trans women sex workers, no matter how ubiquitous they are around the world, are so often left out of larger discussions of sexwork and violence against women.

Btw, Gina, I made an addition to the piece to reflect your comment. See above for first starred note. Thanks again.

Just wanted to call your attention to a detailed new report on the number of trans people (mostly women) murdered worldwide. Not all, but certainly a sizable number of them were sexworkers.


Again, I would like to see transwomen mentioned in studies of violence against sex workers (and general violence against all women). To omit these deaths (especially considering the small community they represent) is itself a crime.


That's actually a beautiful "rant," so I hope for more :-)

I'm with you, of course, and thank you for those many great links. I heart Laura Agustin, and am always glad to see her referenced!


Thanks for stopping by and always leaving such thoughtful comments. Yes, I saw that "poll" and was horrified - I mean, what *are* people thinking? And how far away do they imagine themselves from these realities? But I guess that's the point, no - to make fun of those from whom one seeks the greatest distance?


Yes, and I'm still trying to forget GWB, but the damage he left makes that impossible...


You make a good point; she may indeed well identify as a woman and not as transgender. And yes, on health care and trans people. Those issues are compounded, of course, in prison - I'm reminded constantly of the case of Victoria Arellano who died shackled to her bed in ICE facilities, after being denied the appropriate care for AIDS.

And when trans women sex workers are discussed in
"larger discussions of sexwork and violence against women," it's often with a condescending and pathologising bent, I think.

Yasmin, I'm still waiting to see a larger discussion of sexwork, or violence against women that even includes trans women. I've seen separate pathologizing discussions of it (Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes by Don Kulick... a really poorly written book with some very uninformed assumptions) but never a general study of sexwork or violence against women which even includes trans women. If someone could point me in that direction I'd love to see it.

Margaretpoa Margaretpoa | March 16, 2010 12:37 PM

And you're not going to see any scientific studies of transgendered sex workers, transgendered women or men in any line of work, homemaking or otherwise. People have to fund these things and there won't be any corporate funding because we represent too small a slice of society to be profitable and you won't see anything from the United States government at least as long as the bible thumping hypocrites keep the more progressive people scared of offending their own shadows. That just leaves philanthropy and I don't know of anybody who would be willing to lay out several million dollars to recruit a meaningful amount of participants for a scientifically accurately period of time. Human subject research is expensive and almost always needs to be attached to the auspices of the federal government or an educational or medical institution due to legal requirements, including but not limited to the presence of an IRB.

There have actually been some studies in the US related to AIDS prevention and rates of sero-positivity of trans women sex workers by the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies (in San Francisco) and the Center for Disease Control. But they treat trans sex-workers as an entirely separate entity from cissexual sexworkers.

Of all the things that "let's not consider," let's not consider the routine conclusion that anyone not absolutely anatomically correct is a man in a dress--or better, a gay man in a dress.

While there are appalling statistics on the killing of transsexual and transgender people collected by both the Trans Day of Remembrance site and the Trans Murder Monitoring Project, certainly the latter organization speaks of the difficulty in ascertaining the actual number of deaths of transsexual and transgender people because local media does not appropriately identify them. For that matter, media in continental USA, or even Canada, is often unable to appropriately identify transsexual or transgender people.

For that matter, the raging inconsistencies even of media that have some sense of things is often unclear. From media coverage one would think there are no transsexual people anymore; a political achievement that some should be proud of--though the silencing of any marginalized population is the definition of oppression. . . though not for transsexual people, for some reason.

I suppose these intentional inaccuracies serve someone's interest, though I doubt it is that of those incorrectly identified.

Maybe it is more satisfying to debate the pros and cons of sex work--it is probably a sexier pastime than coming to terms with the fact that many violent deaths of transsexual and transgender women simply swell the numbers of gay men who are killed.

This is not to say that gay men, and lesbians, do not meet violent ends in many parts of the world. But even in Canada when a transsexual woman, for example, is determined to be killed as a hate crime, or in circumstances that for, say a gay man, would be considered a hate crime--wait for it, isn't a hate crime for the killer of that transsexual woman.

Possibly, if that woman's diagnosis is still current, it would be listed under disability; it might be listed under sex; and if she is lesbian, then it would be listed under sexual orientation.

Regardless of the numbers involved, it is quite wrong to add the deaths of one population to those of quite another. It would give the impression that some people--for example, gay men--are continually subject to appalling violence, and others--in this example, transsexual women--really don't have it so bad after all.

So why all the fuss about transsexual and transgender people, in comparison with gay men. Yes, this argument is actually made--at several recent (Gay) Prides in Ottawa.

BTW, Member of Parliament Bill Siksay's private member's bill to fix this appalling hole in Canada's hate crime law is coming up for a Parliamentary vote in May, and hopefully on to committee hearings and from there to passage.

Thanks for posting on this, Yasmin! This was, like many other items, on my "should post" list that I didn't think I would get to.

Like you said, it's wrong on so many levels, against sex workers, trans people, and women. The part that annoyed me most is the snideness of it, the immaturity and how that closes off any discussion of what they're doing because everyone just says it's a joke.

It has the ick of group-think and mob mentality all over it.

Well, face it: we live in a society where everyone wants someone else under them on the social order. We all want to feel oh so superior to someone: we dont really care whom, just as long as we *can*.

Oh sure, we all love sex, but when someone's getting paid for it? Oo-wee, do we feel morally superior, or what? Throw a cross-dresser into that little moral mixmaster, and put it on purée, please.

Margaretpoa Margaretpoa | March 16, 2010 10:38 AM

Of course! I've always said that one of the primary motivations that some gay people to badmouth and ridicule trans people is that need to feel superior to someone else. But in the end, it doesn't matter if someone is gay or straight or bi. Even the transgendered aren't immune. Throughout my experience, there are many, many transmen and women who are post op who suddenly find themselves oh so superior to those who can't afford surgery or who elect not to have it. My attorney used to ask her clients to make an informal promise to remain active in the community for three years after surgery. Too many of them just fade away into "normal" hetero life but many more become noisy and outspoken against the very people they used to be. I'm sure there's a psychological explanation for that behavior but as far as I'm concerned, they're just being a bunch of self centered, hateful douchenozzles.

SarasNavel | March 17, 2010 4:32 AM

Possibly OT: Margaretpoa, you've brought to light an interesting phenomenon in LGBT culture and personal histories.

Not to get all "Cats in the Cradle" about it, but it seems you are describing an oddly indirect feedback loop. A number of gay men with whom I've had conversations mentioned that as children they preferred many of the social customs of girls their age. Given only a binary structure into which to fit, though, they were forced or shamed into entertaining the idea that they were mistaken regarding their gender identity *despite* knowing otherwise. In this respect they had an aspect of childhood very similar in some ways to some transsexuals, specifically the ones that ended up repressing or worse by the time they hit puberty, while for the gay men puberty was an event and time that greatly clarified their identity.

This is closely paralleled by the pre-op/post-op, transgender/HBS dynamic as well as 2nd generation Americans, the ones that for a time drop all acknowledgement of their culture of origin. In all of these cases the people that have "moved on" are in some way embarrassed or threatened by those who they perceive have not done so. Maybe it's a fear of falling backward, maybe just bad memories, but they all feel very strongly against being associated with what they once were. It could be an influence to some of the LGBT intra-group political problems we're seeing...