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Which of the Busted Prostitutes Is A Man?: On NBC’s “Dude Looks Like A Lady” [15 March, 2010]

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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 Blaze 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.

Originally published on The Bilerico Project, 15 March, 2010.  Read comments here.


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