The work Black prostitute women face of dealing with racism

Speech by a Black woman in the International Prostitutes Collective at the Forum “Sex Work, Sexual Violence and Sexual Choices”, on the 20th anniversary of the English Collective of Prostitutes, London, 29 June 1995.

There’s discrimination against ail prostitute women, but Black prostitute women face an additional racism. Its often hidden, and increases your workload. Dealing with it is a big part of sex work. Much of “sex work” has little to do with sex: for example, all the planning and calculations involved in getting jobs, dealing with bias and stereotypes, protecting yourself, your family, etc. Whether or not we do paid sex work, Black women are generally seen as ‘hot sexual creatures”, available for all kinds of services, including sex. This is a legacy of slavery where we had to be “available”. Another part of this legacy is our communities being labelled as sources of crime and vice. But we do sex work not as a vice or because we love sex, but as a way of refusing poverty, including the low-waged, dirty jobs usually available to Black women. Over generations, families have been sustained, children educated, and professional careers made possible by this money.

We are fighting against discrimination as sex workers. We’re not ashamed of the work we do, its work like any other, and in many ways you hate it, but the job is mystified because it’s associated with sex and because our illegal status prevents us from coming out and speaking against the lies told about ourselves and our work, and because of the threat of being treated as a social outcast in our families and communities, and being targeted for harassment and violence, arrest, fines, imprisonment, etc.

Many Black girls and women get offers of sex work, although we may not take them up. Growing up I remember being kerb-crawled by white men, of being made offers of topless dancing and of being photographed for a nude magazine. When I was older, a white flatmate sold sex to raise her fare to be with her sister who was expecting a baby. She told everyone in the flat – some were against it. As a “nice coloured girl”, from a Christian family I thought she was brave to do it but that 1 never could. This moralism is just one way of keeping us in line, disciplining each other and separating us into “nice” and “bad” girls. Many women consider prostitution, especially at times of financial crisis in our families and communities — and the poorer we are the more often we consider it. The questions are: will I get paid and what power will I have if I don’t? Will my family/friends know about it, and if they do what will the consequences be? Will I get raped or worse?

Threats of rape or other violence are always in your mind and a lot of the work is planning security and protection. Ifs a common

experience for women, and many wouldn’t report a rape to the police, but you especially can’t call on them if you are a Black prostitute woman. We aim to change that as the anti-rape and the movement for prostitute women’s rights get stronger. The police could arrest you, take away your kids, use it as a pretext to harass your family and community, and to get you deported if you are an immigrant.

Because of racism in the sex industry, as in any other industry, Black women are least likely to work in agencies, parlours or higher-paying jobs. Those who do get in may look like models, or be younger, or have to spend more money on themselves to get clients, or pay a higher cut of their income to the madam – and are usually expected to work harder and take on more difficult clients. People running agencies and parlours may steer clients to white women, assuming men prefer them, which is not always so. And clients may decide not to go with Black women because they are afraid of what their friends or other girls will think. You may have to put up with racist remarks from other women and clients just to keep your job, pretending they don’t bother you.

Because we are generally at the bottom of society, Black women are more likely to work on the streets, the poorer end of the sex industry. The pay is less, but you need less money to start work, you are your own boss and clients are generally quicker and less into fantasy which is an enormous amount of work. But attacks and not getting paid are more frequent; there is more contact with the police, more harassment, and more possibility of arrest, fines, and of being publicly identified as a hooker, with all the stigma attached to that.

Even working the streets, the level of pay you receive may have to do with how dark-skinned or light-skinned you are, and what hair texture you have. Black women with hair closer to that of white women usually get better pay, although of course you have those clients looking for “real Black women”, “real darkies”, and they sometimes pay extra for sex with a Black woman who is dark, with an afro or very woolly hair.

I once applied to an agency; the interviewer implied he expected oral sex as part of the interview, confirming what other Black women had told me about agencies. Marilyn Monroe said she made it in Hollywood on her knees this is often the story for Black prostitute women in the sex industry.

Some of the work we do includes:

  • Finding out how to go on the game, without letting anyone know.
  • Working in a poor area where you are more likely to have to pay a phone deposit, than if you are in a posh area and have a “good” accent.
  • Advertising without being identified; dealing with the racism of shops who refuse to let Black women put up cards in their windows.
  • Getting wigs, make-up, etc., to match your colour; having to travel and pay more to get them because they are less commonly available. Black women often wear wigs for work, not because we love white people’s hair, but because we know short, knotty hair is considered inferior to long, smooth hair. Hair texture has long been a measure of status among Black women and it’s no different in sex work. There is also a hierarchy among Black prostitute women based on skin-colour, accent; education and background.
  • Trying to fit the stereotype – young, white, preferably long, blond hair – when you don’t fit any of these definitions.
  • Fitting an Afro or dreadlocks under a wig, needing extra time to get ready, and being too hot in the summer.
  • Keeping your dry skin smooth, and taking extra care with your appearance as some protection against racism.
  • If your boyfriend’s Black, worrying he’ll be done as a pimp; if your partner’s a woman, worrying she’ll get done for brothel-keeping. Whoever your partner is, worrying that they will look down on you, or that you may treat them like a client or a pimp.
  • Hiding what you do from family, friends, neighbours and community and dealing with the pressure to be respectable; knowing the work you do is considered disreputable, yet also knowing that families and communities depend on the money it brings in.

The skills involved in sex work are familiar to most women; dolling yourself up when you don’t feel like it, remembering to take the dinner off the stove and put the dog out; reassuring your partner if they know what you do; arranging transport and security; getting your contraceptives together. Then arriving looking cool and calm, being charming, remembering the client’s name, your work name and who you’re supposed to be; hiding fear, sussing out whether this is the client who’s going to turn on you; watching the clock without the client noticing; thinking of all this while having sex; convincing the client you’re “in the moment” when you’re miles away calculating what you’ll do with the money. If you have kids, doing that extra caring work before you leave and when you get back, while hiding from them what you do, and if they find out, dealing with that, too.

There’s also the work of: altering your accent, trying to sound more English especially since the racism of the AIDS scare – some clients are put off if they think you’re from Africa or another Third World country. Sussing out the client on the phone – is he Black or white? African or Asian? Arab or European? How much will he pay? How far away is the job? Is it a hoax call?

All clients are racist in different ways: most of my clients are white because in Britain most men are white. Sometimes you can sell yourself as “exotic”. I’ve heard of an Afro woman who works in a sari and makes good money. Many white men say they have never been with a Black woman – so it’s a turn-on for some of them. Black men who can afford it are often reluctant to have a Black woman because they think you might know them from some other area of their life, or they think that going with you is a come-down. Sometimes Black clients are turned down by white prostitute women for the same reason. Afro and Asian men generally prefer to go with women from higher sectors – white and preferably blond. Some men ask: “Are you English?”, which is a code for “Are you white?” Generally Asian men are the most sussed about age, race and background, and can tell things from your voice that white men never pick up. Generally I don’t tell clients I’m Black, and sometimes when I arrive I get turned away. Then I have to fight for my cancellation fee, or persuade them to have just a massage which is lower pay. Clients expect to pay Black women less. Some freak when they see you’re Black, get angry, or sulk, or cancel the dinner or “special service” they had in mind. Some are delighted because they see Black people as servants, and expect more work and extra services for less. Some clients are scared of Black people which can be useful – when you tell them your driver is waiting, and that if there’s a problem he will sort it out, they envisage the stereotypical “Black pimp” and usually pay up quickly. I visited a Belgian banker who’d been machete’d in the Congo rebellion. I was his worst nightmare, yet he let me in his (totally white-furnished) house. Everything 1 touched he wiped. k was deeply satisfying getting details of the rebellion, freaking him out, and getting paid for it.

On other occasions, it’s a struggle to stop rough handling and clients who think they’ve bought you or that they can say or ask anything they like. There are really odious clients – rough, unwashed, with weird sexual tastes – who white women refuse to visit. These will often call Black women because you may be less in a position to refuse them.

On health: Some “professional” health workers are brutal to Black women, even when they don’t know you’re a hooker. Some look down on you or are outraged if you ask for extra or better quality contraceptives, particularly when the service is free. Special clinics tend to treat you better because prostitute women have fought for respectful treatment and a range of services which have benefited people generally. When i started working, i was worried about sexually transmitted infections, but the biggest and recurring battle I have experienced is against yeast infections, partly caused by toxic chemicals in contraceptives, combined with the pressure of being on call, not being able to eat or sleep normal hours. Sex work can be a further attack on Black women’s immune systems, which are already weakened by overwork, stress, poverty, waste dumping in our communities, etc.

Security: Travelling at night you worry the police could stop you or that you’ll be harassed by men. Hotels are the worst. Security guards may stop you going in so you need extra time to get exact directions from the client about how to get to his room. Then you run the gauntlet from foyer to lift. Sometimes security will stop you as you leave, knowing few Black women can afford such hotels. To them a Black face is either a hooker or a thief.

These experiences are not unique to Black women on the game – many women know about having to be sexy to keep a husband/boyfriend, and/or to get money for the children, to get or keep a job; or of leaving because your boss asks for sexual favours, or because of sexual harassment or an attack. One reason for the famous Grunwick strike led by Asian women in London during the late 70s, was that bosses were demanding sexual services from some women employees. Women who work as nurses and cleaners also do a lot of sex work, forced by circumstances or by poverty. For example, an older client told me his carer, a religious Black woman in her 50s, gives him hand relief in the bath. 1 hope she gets paid for it.

Whatever racism we face in Britain, Europe or the US, we know that Third World countries women in the sex industry are working even harder, for even less money, in worse conditions and with less power to refuse. It’s important to get all this work recognised as part of the double and triple day that women everywhere do. We begin by cutting through the myths, to say that sex work is work like all the rest, and to put this work on international agendas, to press for it to be recognised, valued, counted, as a way of holding those in authority responsible for all the violence we face, and for the poverty, overwork, lack of money and choices that make prostitution one of the few options for millions of Black women and women of colour everywhere.

The International Prostitutes Collective works with prostitute women and men in a number of ‘countries, South and North, and is part of the International Wages for Housework Campaign.

English Collective of Prostitutes
King’s Cross Women’s Centre PO Box 287 London NW6 5QU
Tel 0171-837 7509 minicom/voice Fax 0171-833 4817

US PROStitutes Collective
PO Box 14512 San Francisco California 94114
Tel/fax 1415-626 4114