Monday was the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. I won’t rehash the history here, but this is a link to December 17.org which tells the story of the day and why it was established on 12/17. I was traveling home from out-of-town on that day and so missed out on SWOP-Chicago’s celebration. Though I arrived in Chicago with enough time to go, to be perfectly honest, winter travel wears me out, even though I love the season. So it was straight home, and checking email in my pajamas with hot cocoa in my hand. I didn’t write a blog post ahead of time because I tend to write posts about this day based on how I’m feeling that year on that day. Though I’m two days late, I still want to post some recognition of the day. This year will be a short tale about the first prostitute I ever met.
Her name was Liz* and she lived down the block from my parents’ house. We moved into the neighborhood when I was four years old and I think I met Liz when I was about six years old. She was a streetworker, in her twenties, who lived with her mother who had MS. Now, this was in the mid-1980s and MS was often one of those ailments whose treatments weren’t covered by many health insurance companies. I assume this is why Liz worked as a prostitute, to help cover the care costs for her mother.
Ours was a middle-class, predominantly African-American neighborhood. People there worked as teachers, IT specialists, civil servants (esp. firefighters and police), small business owners, etc. Liz was tall (at least to my young and short perspective), thin, and pretty. While I’m sure the adults had their very strong opinions about Liz and her job, us kids didn’t really hear any negative talk. Anyone who knows Southerners and Southern etiquette will understand. Though I lived in Chicago, most of the residents had a Southern upbringing (including my parents to an extent) and there is a certain expected politesse that you show at minimum unless some real shit has gone down. And even then… Us girls thought she dressed really cool and I do remember her style being somewhere between Madonna and Janet Jackson, my two idols at the time. Most importantly, Liz was never mean to us kids and didn’t think we were “in the way” as we ran around like chickens with our heads cut off. Which, believe me, we did. We usually saw Liz in the late afternoon as she was heading to work. That was usually the cue that it was almost dinner time or the dreaded homework time.
About two years later (so I was about eight years old), we heard that Liz had been raped. The adults kept a straight face around us but none of us kids understood what rape meant and our parents didn’t tell us either. I remember maman simply saying, “It’s something bad that happens” and that it wasn’t something that should happen to anyone. One of my neighbors, while she didn’t say it outright, made a face that I remember thinking wasn’t all that sympathetic to Liz’s predicament.
After that, we didn’t see Liz going out to work for a while…though it may have been all of two days. In kid time, of course, two days not coming out of your house may as well be an eternity. But eventually she went back to work. I mean, she had to support her mother after all. I don’t remember any visual signs of an assault (like from a struggle against the assault). Everything went back to normal. About a year later, Liz and her mother moved. If I remember correctly, her parents decided to remarry so that Liz’s father could provide the needed support for her mother’s treatment. He lived somewhere in west Texas.
I feel very fortunate to have known someone like Liz in my young life. Though some would certainly balk at the fact that one of those “horrid” street prostitutes being allowed to even casually interact with neighborhood children, it definitely prevented me from ever thinking that all prostitutes were horrible people. Even when I first heard prohibitionist and anti-whore feminist propaganda when I identified myself as a feminist, I knew Liz. I couldn’t believe that anyone who could be like Liz “had it coming” or was unable to make decisions about her own life. Quite possibly, Liz would have been something else if the circumstances had dictated it, but she did the best with what she had to work with. Or maybe she still would have been a prostitute on the streets or perhaps would have tried escorting via newspaper ads, but without asking her directly I won’t make any assumptions.
I sincerely hope Liz is still alive and living a full and wonderful life. Hooker with a heart of gold? Perhaps. But Liz is a decent human being and that is what is most important to remember.
*Name changed to protect identity, of course.