13 March 2007

Blood In The Streets

I came out my front door onto the street to find a) the sun shining for the first time all day; and b) our building's handyman/cleaner/jack of all trades standing idly, apparently gaping off into space.

Normally when he sees me he launches into a harangue about either a) how hard he works for so little money; or b) George Bush and/or "the Jews" (he's a Lebanese Muslim, not that all Lebanese Muslims rant about that subject, but this one does), so having caught him unawares, I greeted him with, "Aha, goofing off again!" Not that I particularly care about his work habits, but in hopes of sidetracking him onto another subject.

But he quickly shushed me and pointed across the street. "Look, they stabbed that woman. See the blood all over the street?" An ambulance was just closing up its doors and driving away while several policemen stood around desultorily questioning a knot of onlookers.

I didn't have to ask who "they" were; we both knew he was talking about the random collection of junkies, drunkards, pimps, prostitutes and other assorted ne'er-do-wells who seem to have adopted our little street corner as their semi-permanent home. I didn't personally know the woman who'd been stabbed, but the cleaner did: "She's a hell of a thief, always robbing everything, I got her on film breaking into cars in the garage under the other building where I work."

I had a feeling I'd seen her, and probably her attacker as well, last night when I got home around 2 am from a blogging mission. There was a godawful uproar underneath my window, consisting of three or four hookers and a couple of what could have been pimps or just hangers-on. One of the men looked about 70, and not more than about five feet tall, but boy did he have a mouth on him. The guy didn't stop shouting - about God knows what; even with my window wide open I could barely understand a word he was saying - for the next hour. When the cops arrived at around 2:30 he just just switched his shouting to them while his hooker waited patiently off to the side for him to get back to her.

Both of the cops were smaller than me, and the one who was taking the brunt of the yelling looked like a little girl. In fact, I'm pretty sure she was a little girl. In any event, she barely said a word, just stood there patiently listening to this cranky old clown yelling his head off at her about what I presumed was some hideous injustice like not collecting his full 90% of the hooker's take for the evening.

I'm not sure I'd ever seen anything like it. In most other cities where I've lived, even traffic wardens or meter maids wouldn't put up with this kind of abuse, and in many American cities the meat wagons would have been pulling up to collect the corpses if anyone showed that little respect for the cops, but they do things differently in Sydney, which is why, I suppose, nobody is all that surprised when a woman gets stabbed in the middle of the afternoon on what is supposedly a very nice street in a very nice neighbourhood.

Although this part of town has been moving steadily upmarket for a few years now, it has a history of prostitution and petty (and not so petty) crime that seems to linger on even as property prices have rocketed into the stratosphere. Some of the would-be bohemian millionaires who've moved into the mid-19th century Victorian terraces that are among some of Sydney's oldest habitable buildings actually like the idea of prostitutes continuing to work the streets and back lanes. "It keeps the neighbourhood real, you know, stops it being too bourgeois." I'm reminded of an unholy brawl I witnessed a few years ago in New York City, between residents of one of the wealthier stretches of Greenwich Village and advocates for the prostitutes who were in the habit of plying their trade there.

"The prostitutes (excuse me, I think the correct term is 'sex workers') were here first. They shouldn't have to move just because a bunch of rich assholes moved in and bought all the houses," was the gist of the argument being posed by one side, whereas the local residents pleaded, "How would you like it if you couldn't get in or out of your own door because people are having sex in front of it?"

One of the prostitute advocates, whose group also provided the working girls (and trannies) with condoms, hot coffee, and a place to warm up and kick back between tricks, had brought me along to witness this hearing, and while she was used to my typically tactless way of putting things, her friends, fervent NYU activists all, were rather shocked to hear my cat analogy.

"Theres was this lady downstairs where I used to live in Berkeley, and she felt it was her duty to look after all the stray cats in the neighbourhood, so she'd put out buckets of food and leave her window open all the time, summer or winter, so the cats could get in. And sure enough, word got around the cat community that there was this place to hang out with unlimited free food, so pretty soon there were cats coming from blocks if not miles around. It was like, them more generous she was in trying to save the stray cats, the more stray cats there were. And then when she wasn't home and the food ran out, they'd all sit around under her window and yowl and wake up the whole neighbourhood. But if anyone complained to her, she'd get all indignant and say, 'Well, somebody has to look after the poor cats. I don't see how you can all sit in your nice warm houses and be so selfish.'"

Okay, a bit drawn out of an analogy at that, but my point was that in catering to the street prostitutes, my friend and her pals were encouraging them to continue to hang around the streets where the residents had made it clear they didn't want them, and maybe even making it likely that more prostitutes from other parts of town would gather there, even after the NYU activists had all graduated and moved on to their prostitute-free enclaves in suburbia or Williamsburg.

"These are women (or transexuals), not cats," someone hissed at me, to which I agreed while insisting that the principle was still more or less the same. Which is all neither here nor there, except that often on these past summer nights, my street has sounded an awful lot like the playground for a boatload of especially vocal alley cats, as the girls call back and forth to each other from under their various streetlights. Sometimes when business is slow - as you would expect it to be at 7 in the morning when the sun's already up but the bedraggled girls, makeup running, faces drooping, and clothes hanging despondently off their emaciated frames, still hang on in hopes of one last trick and/or fix - it's almost like a scene from Les Miserables out there, though hardly as tuneful.

Where am I going with this? Oh, I don't know; I guess the gist of what I'm wondering is whether prostitution, at least the unregulated, street hustling kind (brothels, i.e., licenced whorehouses, are legal here, but that doesn't seem to have cut into the street trade; if anything, there's more of it here than most places I've been) is as victimless a crime as some people make it out to be. I mean, the neighbourhood suffers, not just from the noise and the mess and the constant string of kerb-crawlers, but even more so from the pimps, muggers, and drug dealers the trade seems to attract. But most of all, the girls suffer, and if you've ever looked into one of those completely weary and beaten-down faces in the cruel light of dawn - or watched one of them get hauled away in an ambulance, possibly for the last time - it's hard to believe some of that feminist rhetoric about sex work being an "empowering" choice that women make for themselves.

Hell, I don't know the answer, and I certainly don't think there's much of a chance that any laws will ever succeed in eliminating prostitution. I don't even know if there's any point in trying to regulate it, but it does seem that the laisser-faire attitudes that have replaced the old repressive ones haven't done anyone any favours. Unless, of course, you see the "right" to be an abused, pimped-out street junkie and whore to be one of those inalienable freedoms that woman (and trannies) just can't live without.

1 comment:

DK said...

Actually, regulating prostitution has worked pretty well when it's implemented properly (Germany, to use one example). However, when police spend too much time hassling the brothels and not enough time cracking down on illegal pimping/human trafficking from Eastern Europe (as is the case in England and, as I understand it, the Aussies aren't much better), it doesn't do much good. However, regulation at least requires brothels to run like real businesses, and the sex workers are held to regular doctor's visits to make sure they aren't carrying any diseases, so the health risks are generally minimized.

The feminist idea of dignified, empowered prostitution is lost on me too, though. But don't worry, it's only a few real goofballs saying that; most feminists are just as humorless and bitter towards sexuality of any stripe as ever.