The Most Complicated Profession
by Christina Ahn
This summer, I worked with a D.C.-based organization called Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS). Using a harm-reduction philosophy, HIPS programs address the effects of HIV/AIDS, STIs, discrimination, poverty, violence and drug use on the lives of female, male and transgendered sex workers. The following is an account of my personal experiences and thoughts as an outreach volunteer.
As darkness falls, I yawn indulgently and roll out of bed. It’s 9 p.m. and I have a long night ahead of me. Stepping out onto the street, I’m bathed by the muggy humidity of a typical D.C. summer evening as I struggle towards my destination and hoards of clubbers and partygoers stream past. The HIPS office, at first a sanctuary of silence on a Saturday night, is soon teeming with pleasant chatter and idle gossip as up to four volunteers convene for weekend outreach.
It always floors me just how much concentration it requires to count out the right number, but we inevitably pile heaping bags of colored, flavored, female and non-latex condoms into bins, accompanied by small packages of lube. Miraculously, our outreach team always has a Kool-Aid-making expert, so we also pack drinks, chocolates and candy to provide our clients with refreshments. We load the van, pump up the feel-good music and take off.
Our van rattles through industrial areas, residential neighborhoods, seedy motels and the bustling financial district, often within sight of the Capitol building. I meet amazing people every time. Sometimes they explicitly convey their joyful, funny or sorrowful stories or describe prosaic happenings. Sometimes experiences are better narrated by scars emblazoned on the body or a gap-toothed grin. We pass around overflowing handfuls of condoms, along with clothing items, goodies and safety materials. We refer them to legal services, listen without pretense or preconceived judgment and provide unconditional support.
As a government and women’s studies major, I’d had the opportunity to discuss prostitution in an academic setting, but my personal feeling vis-à-vis sex work was something that I’d never had to contend with. I was a sheltered student, and prostitution was as real to me as Julia Roberts’ spirited character in Pretty Woman or, more recently, Charlize Theron’s moving performance as Aileen Wuornos in Monster. I read an embarrassing amount of feminist literature on prostitution, to the point where I was convinced that everyone was wrong.
I know that the interactions between sex workers and clients embody politics that are raced, classed and gendered. Simply as an open question, I have asked myself what it is that people perceive to be “wrong” with prostitution. I have heard multiple arguments dealing with everything from the commodification of bodies to the creation of power inequalities to the potential threat to social order. But none of these really matter when we’re on outreach. What is imminent is that sex workers are at risk, and we can help them create a safer and healthier working environment.
Sitting on shadowy park benches or leaning casually against a streetlamp, male sex workers often defy the stereotypes – they just don’t “look” like prostitutes, whatever that means. For many, homelessness coupled with substance use and a host of other difficulties have precipitated the sex work, and they are thankful for any help we can offer. Many of the transgendered sex workers are vivacious and sassy. A colorful spectrum of gender presentations and sexual identities, these women burst with tongue-in-cheek commentary and exude a lust for life. By far the most entertaining part of outreach, they have graced me with musical performances and sensational fashion statements of all kinds. Many brag about their newly feminized body parts – breasts, butt and lips – while others are open about their reluctance to go under the knife. As with male sex workers, I am startled by the prevalence of transgendered sex workers and how little I had read about them.
And of course, there are the women.
Don’t be fooled by their sweet, coaxing tones with customers. Scantily clad and parading the streets in glass heels, these girls are tough and self-aware. Composed under the pressure of watchful eyes, whether the police, the public or potential clients, female sex workers rely on their pimps and each other for support in adverse situations. They form exceedingly intricate kinships with internal hierarchies that I liken to the concubinage relationships I read about in a history class on imperial China. Information-sharing is key, so we pass out “bad date” sheets with updated reports of recent attacks on sex workers, along with any details about license plates or the perpetrators themselves.
If there’s anything particularly significant that I’ve learned, it is that there is no viable way to stereotype or generalize the experiences of a sex worker. The inconsistent contexts in which they conduct their business, the unpredictable circumstances of their lives and the reasoning they use to justify their decisions are all individually variable. Although it’s dubbed “the oldest profession in the world,” the fact is that temple prostitution in ancient Greece looks nothing like the Internet escort services of today, and sex work in postcolonial Nairobi is worlds apart from streetwalking in modern D.C. The struggle to come to grips with my feelings on sex work is ongoing, and every night of outreach simultaneously illuminates and complicates the picture.
The outreach shift often transpires faster than the blink of an eye. The coffee has long worn off, and my legs could use a stretch from being in the van for seven hours. My head spins with unresolved issues, concern for specific individuals and fading thoughts from the night’s conversations. I bid farewell to my fellow volunteers and step outside. The sun is rising, bleeding warmth into the sky, and I welcome the dawn of a new day.
Christina Ahn is a senior at Harvard University concentrating in government and women, gender and sexuality studies. A 2004 summer intern at NWHN, she hopes to go to medical school and continue women’s health advocacy as a physician practicing community-based medicine.