When we posted the Respectability Politics Round Table, Black beauty blogger and sex worker Peechington Marie immediately spoke up on Tumblr with a well-justified critique: Why, given that the term “respectability politics” itself originated within Black feminist scholarship, did the round table not include any Black sex workers as participants? We apologized for having this kind of Oh Shit Moment and asked Peechington Marie to write a short addendum to the round table elaborating on the history of the concept within the Black community and how respectability politics affect Black sex workers.
We call it “respectability politics,” but when the phrase was first coined in 1994, it was called “The Politics of Respectability” and was used by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham as a chapter title in her book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. But respectability politics, even before Ms. Higginbotham called them by name, affected every African American person in one way or another, and still affect us today. Try asking a Black friend of yours: “Do you know anyone who goes out in public with curlers in their hair?” and you’ll likely get an earful, maybe about why they absolutely don’t know anyone who would do that (except for their great aunt who always acted like she never had home training anyway).
Being respectable in the early Black community meant behaving in a way that would not embarrass yourself or other Black people. For example, The Baptist Women’s Convention used to visit poor Black folks, giving them pamphlets with titles like “How To Dress” and “Take A Bath First.” This was done to educate working class people on what were both the accepted and acceptable social norms established by wealthier Black communities. No one wanted their cousin LeRoy or his wife to show up to a church function improperly dressed or without their manners, and so the politics of respectability were born.
The stated legislative objectives of the prostitution laws that the Canadian Supreme Court recently struck down in Bedford v. Canada were the prevention of public nuisances and the exploitation of prostitutes. However, upon closer examination of the history of these laws, their real objectives become transparent. Canada’s anti-prostitution laws were really there to protect society’s whiteness/maleness. As such, these laws were disproportionately applied to racialized and indigenized bodies. Thus, to understand what the Bedford decision means for Indigenous sex workers is to understand the essence of colonialism and the history of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws.
On December 20, 2013, Canada’s Supreme Court found the following laws relating to prostitution unconstitutional:
the bawdy house offense, (which prohibits keeping and being an inmate of or found in a bawdy house);
the living on the avails offense (which prohibits living in whole or in part on the earnings of prostitutes); and
the communicating offense (which prohibits communicating in a public place for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or obtaining the sexual services of a prostitute). 1
Black Marxist scholar Frantz Fanon best defines colonialism in his seminal work Wretched of the Earth. Fanon writes that “[t]he colonized world is a world divided in two” and that colonialism “is the entire conquest of land and people.” In other words, colonialism is the complete domination and exploitation of Indigenous lands, bodies and identities (and not the fun kind of domination). When colonialism is incorporated into this discussion, the racial undertones within the laws, their application, and objectives are revealed.
Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum: Two names you should know but probably don’t. Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum were 19 and 18 years old, respectively, two young women who were brutally murdered on September 18th. Their bodies were found in Duval County, Florida, reportedly thrown off an overpass, by passerby in the wee hours of the morning. Little has been said about the murder of both of these young women, and what has been said either glosses over or luridly magnifies one very important factor in this case: Tjhisha and Angelia worked as exotic dancers.
Over at PostRacialComments on Tumblr, the blog not only redacted the information about Mangum and Ball working as dancers, but proceeded to break down for readers questioning its motives why they would not include, comment, or discuss the girls’ work or the criminalization of the girls by the few media outlets to highlight the story of their murder.
In “Black Girls Murdered (But Do YOU Care)” from Ebony Magazine, Senior Digital Editor Jamilah Lemieux says, “Someone(s) apparently murdered two women and left their bodies on the side of the road for the world to see. We shouldn’t need for them to have been “good girls”—or White girls, or, perhaps good White girls—for this to be cause for national concern. There is a killer, or killers, on the loose.”
In “Rest in Peace: Angelia Mangum and Tjhisha Ball” from GradientLair, owner, activist, and blogger Trudy writes, “As I’ve stated before, Black criminals are treated like monsters. Black victims are treated like criminals. This further complicates, in addition to the dehumanization and criminalization of Black bodies, because they are Black women. Black women regularly go missing and at times are killed; our stories are underreported or shaped as “criminal” even when we are victims.”
While both pieces were necessary and both began to address the case of Tjhisha and Angelia’s murders, they are certainly the anomaly in terms of the majority of the coverage. Even in the case of “Black Girls Murdered,” a mostly positive portrayal, I thought to myself, “Why are we not acknowledging their work? Why are we pretending their work doesn’t matter? Why is their work becoming the elephant in the room?” I walked away from most articles I read feeling both shameful and shamed, as if they were written to say, “News reports say they were exotic dancers, quick, let’s fight to erase that so the girls can appear deserving of our sorrow and rage.”
At Salon, writer Ian Blair penned “Grisly Murder Ignored: How We Failed Angelia Mangum and Tjhisha Ball” and went so far as to completely erase input given on this case by sex workers. Not only did Blair not reach out to any sex workers, he neglected to quote any of a wide pool of us who have been posting regularly about these girls for nearly a week straight. Blair’s piece barely nods to and briefly namechecks “the sex work activist community,” with no mention of the YouCaring fundraiser Melissandre (@MeliMachiavelli) and I set up to fund the victims’ funerals. The piece reads as if Blair simply copied and pasted information he read online and didn’t bother to interview a single person for his article. There is no acknowledgement that much of his information came directly from current and former sex workers on Twitter. Salon’s writer fails to point out that neither Ball or Mangum’s families have enough money to bury the girls and the YouCaring fundraiser exists solely to help them with this endeavor. Blair prattles on, without much reference to Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum themselves (the subjects of said “failure” on “our” collective part), instead devoting most of his column space to regurgitating words of well known and more respected Black people; quoting Ta-nehisi Coates at length; discussing Ferguson; Mike Brown; #IfTheyGunnedMeDown; Daniel Holtzclaw; Marlene Pinnock, and seemingly anything other than what the Salon write-up ostensibly set out to address: two beautiful young women who were brutally murdered and who also happened to work as strippers. This offering from Blair also casually ignores the reports that each of Daniel Holtzclaw’s alleged victims, save the last woman he is accused of having victimized, were also either sex workers, drug users, or both.
In fact, in the cases of Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum, as in the case of Daniel Holtzclaw and his alleged victims, the idea of sex work as an important factor in the crime continues to be obscured by other supposedly more important issues, watered down to nothing in order to be considered palatable to sensitive audiences. The few conversations I’ve seen on Twitter, Tumblr, and the occasional news articles and blogs focus only on the collective (non)reactions of people when a Black woman is the victim of violent crime. I do not want to take anything away from that analysis. I know it’s absolutely true: Black women are the least and the last in line for anger, rage, justice, pity, sympathy, and empathy.
“murder of a white woman: there must be an investigation.
murder of a black woman: there must be an explanation.”
Black women are upset, we are incredibly sad, we are begging to be cared for, and we have a right to feel this way. We are completely correct in our steadfast refusal to simply disappear into the ether when we are violated, when our lives are snuffed out. We are justified in our anguish and in our anger. We are righteous in this, and I am not here to take away from it. I am here standing with my sisters and speaking out too. We are the most spotless of lambs, sinless in our desire to simply be seen as just as important as anyone else. But, what I am also here to say is this: in the midst of the tangible and thickening silence from what could arguably be called one of the most vocal corners of twitter, Black Feminist Twitter, and even Feminist Twitter as a whole; in the midst of the silence from virtually everyone and everywhere: where is the outrage for two teenage girls who were brutally murdered? Is the outrage lacking because of their race? Definitely. Is it non-existent because of their reported interactions with law enforcement? Absolutely. But it is also lacking because they were reported as working as exotic dancers. This cannot be denied. It is unfair and unethical to say anything different.
Content warning: this piece contains general discussion of rape.
On his 29th birthday, December 10th, former Oklahoma City Police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who targeted low income, criminalized Black women and girls for sexual assault while on duty, was found guilty of 18 of the 36 charges brought against him. He now faces up to 263 years in prison when he is formally sentenced next month. His crimes were calculated and monstrous. But as uplifting as it is to hear his vindicated victims sing “Happy Birthday,” I can’t help but feel like the knife stuck six inches into my back has only been pulled out three inches.
Holtzclaw’s crimes are far from a rarity. The Associated Press reported that from 2009 to 2014, almost 1000 officers have been decertified or terminated due to sexual misconduct. A 2010 study published by the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project reported that sexual misconduct was the second most common form of police misconduct. The report also found “assault and sexual assault rates significantly higher for police when compared to the general population.”
Holtzclaw’s crimes were hardly covered by major outlets and that tepid coverage robbed me of any lasting feeling of accomplishment in his conviction. And according to prosecutors, Buzzfeed, the Daily Mirror, The New York Times, Jezebel, the Daily Beast, the Washington Post and many other publications, this rapist is behind bars because he “messed up“: he raped the “wrong” woman, Janie Ligons, a woman with no previous criminal record, no record of drug use or sex work—someone who felt free to report her rape. This woman was someone whose assault demanded an answer.
If Ligons is the “wrong” victim, then am I and hundreds of thousands of other Black sex workers the “RIGHT” victim? Historically speaking, in America, the answer is yes, and that terrifies me. It’s hard to puff out your chest and declare the Holtzclaw verdict proof of progress when he wouldn’t have been taken off the streets had Ligons not come forward. Ligons filed a civil suit against Oklahoma City prior to the criminal trial. She seeks damages based on the fact that Holtzclaw was already being investigated for sexual misconduct but was allowed to continue to patrol low income Black neighborhoods. At least one other woman, identified as TM, made a report to police previously that Holtzclaw assaulted her before Ligons was raped.
A provocative critique of anti-trafficking celebrity spokesman Ashton Kutcher and the rescue industry complex penned by sex trafficking survivor (and Tits and Sass contributor) Laura LeMoon is making the rounds. Predictably, white people are pissed. “Kutcher is just trying to help!” exclaim my white, cishet acquaintances on Facebook, clearly missing LeMoon’s point that “being a good ally on the issue of human trafficking means listening, not talking.” LeMoon also offers a relevant take on the racialized and racist narratives inherent in much so-called philanthropy:
“The savior complex that activists and ‘allies’ typically display is particularly important to be examined through the lens of the white savior complex. It is no coincidence that most of these so-called allies are, in my experience, upper-class white people who seem to continually distance the realities of sex slavery from themselves and reward their egos through the integration of racist stereotypes that they often promulgate as justification for their domination and supremacy in the movement.”
Many of these philanthropic organizations associated with white savior complexes claim a feminist mission, which is why sex workers, particularly sex workers of color, have been some of the most vocal opponents of white feminism. White feminism, especially feminism that actively excludes trans people (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, TERFs) and sex workers (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists, SWERFs) is steeped in white supremacy. TERF and SWERF perspectives are reliant upon the preservation of white womanhood, which is always maintained at the expense of people of color. This is why Brittney Cooper writes that “[w]hite women have been some of the worst perpetrators of racial aggression and racial indignity in this country, but their aggressions frequently escape notice, precisely because white womanhood and the need to protect it animates the core of so much white supremacist aggression toward Black people.”
The inherent racism of white womanhood escapes notice precisely because doing white femininity entails curbing accountability. Eschewing agency, especially sexual agency, is essential for the performance of white womanhood. It’s why so many white feminists harbor disdain for sex workers—sex workers put a price on performances of femininity which are typically demanded of femme-presenting people for free and without full consent. Think of it this way—there is a reason Christian Grey is not a Black man. Rape fantasies like 50 Shades of Grey appeal to white women because doing white femininity means abating all culpability. White womanhood fetishizes submission to white men because it allows white women to skirt responsibility for all things unbecoming a “good girl”— namely, again, sexual agency. The toxicity of white womanhood is evident in TERF and SWERF feminisms; I’m sure I’m not surprising any Tits and Sass readers with my analysis thus far. What receives far less attention, at least in circles of predominantly white cis sex workers, is how we—white cis women—propagate the institution of white womanhood at the expense of marginalized sex workers.
Let me be clear—I am a white, cis, former sex worker. I have a straight job these days. I experience a great deal of privilege on a day-to-day basis, even as a queer person who is also a single mother. And even though my girlfriend experiences hardships in the world on account of being trans, we are, after all, both white. All this is to say that intersectionality is not just about acknowledging the crossroads of oppression; it is about acknowledging intersecting privileges.
So, yep, I wear a Scarlet Letter. And yep, my lover is a woman. And yep, being a single parent is hard. But please, white cisters, stop ignoring how struggles like mine are compounded for non-white people. White cisters—particularly those of you in the sex workers’ rights movement—I’m coming for you.