March of the red umbrellas
On the scene as sex workers take to the Strip
Tue, Dec 22, 2009 (7:10 p.m.)
"I don’t mind strippers,” the woman says, shrugging with open palms as if to say I’ll give you that, “but I have a problem with prostitutes, ’cause of the diseases they spread.”
This doesn’t go over well.
“That’s a myth,” someone snaps. And before the woman can respond—standing in sweatpants on the Strip, surrounded by people holding protest signs—another person pounces:
“If your pussy is your money, you keep that shit clean.”
December 17 was the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. There are marches, protests and vigils internationally; events that braid righteousness with wretchedness. Sex is a risky commodity, and if the pluck of a self-determined prostitute suffers when fellow sex workers are hurt or killed, then it suffers all the time.
In Las Vegas, the ceremony begins at the Erotic Heritage Museum, with sex workers, their allies and advocates sitting in folding chairs, surrounded by life-size cardboard cutouts of celebrity porn stars; museum artifacts turned audience. There is a snack table (pretzels, strawberries), a poetry reading (long, angry) and a group discussion (topic: criminalization of sex work legitimizes abuse).
Then the police arrive. Metro knows, somehow, about the march. Allen Lichtenstein, attorney for the ACLU of Nevada, greets two officers at the door. They are calm. He is calm. Everybody is going to stick to public sidewalks, calmly. (A similar Strip event got rowdy once, with sex workers exercising their right to shout “1-2-3-4, I love being a whore!”)
The police leave. Then the group of 10 or so heads out, on foot, toward the Wynn. Outside, a Metro cruiser quickly coasts by. From a mounted bullhorn, an officer inside broadcasts, “Good luck tonight, guys, and stay safe.”
Spend enough time looking at Metro evidence photos of beaten prostitutes, and the pictures start to blur into a catalog of torture technique: baseball bat, wire hanger, closed fist, pistol whip, choking, drowning, burning, sodomy with foreign object. For pimped women, the danger can double: If clients don’t hurt you, your boss just might.
The problem is these crimes seldom come to surface. Sex workers don’t want to report abuse any more than drug dealers want to file police reports for stolen merchandise. Women working for pimps are particularly loathe to report abuse, Metro Vice Lieutenant Karen Hughes says: “They’re still in perilous situations, still not outside the grasp of their pimps.”
Sometimes police only find out when a victim ends up in the hospital, or dead. Other times, even when a report is made, it’s blurred—cataloged as domestic violence, rape, sexual assault. Nobody in Clark County keeps an accurate or ongoing tally of crimes against prostitutes, because the fact is that any accounting will just be a fraction of the whole.
On the Strip, the marchers are chanting. One shouts “Hey HO!” and rest echo: “Hate and violence has got to go!” They walk to the Venetian, then cross the street, past a construction site (hoots of wild support) and the Fashion Show Mall, where a transgendered sex worker explains that her most conservative clients—the businessmen, the Republicans, alpha males—are the ones who enjoy her male parts most. The money, she says, comes too easy to ignore.
Then the chanting resumes. “HEYYYYY HOOOOO!”
On its face, the march is a public-service statement from the angry underworld, an education by confrontation. And yet, it’s the participants that must benefit most; there’s some kind of catharsis when you march out of the margins and into the mainstream.
The group poses for a photo. They are holding signs with one hand (“sex worker rights R human rights,” “stop punishing sex workers to death”) and red umbrellas with the other. For years, the red umbrella has been a symbol of sex worker solidarity. For tonight, it’s a kind of beacon: a row of bouncing red that curls and whips like a Chinese parade dragon, almost too fast for tourists to really take in. By the time onlookers have read the signs, and heard the chant, the marchers have moved on.