I grew up on a street with prostitutes on the corner. The Cove Motel on Cicero Ave. teemed with ragged-looking women and unctuous and terrifying men. At the time, I had no idea who these people were or what they did. All I knew is that white people were rare in my neighborhood, so there was something strange about swarms of blond-haired, unkempt ladies getting inside the cars of strangers. I once saw a man expose himself to one of the prostitutes, which in retrospect, must be one of the most pathetic things I’ve ever witnessed. Needless to say, growing up in this neighborhood was less than ideal. I don’t know if this is what prompted my interest in the lives of sex workers. As I grew a bit older and finally understood what was actually happening in front of the Cove Motel, I found it difficult to understand what would compel these women to enter those cars.
When I was 19, I studied abroad in the Dominican Republic. I spent Valentine’s Day weekend at a beach town with my then boyfriend. The streets were filled with old and soft white men with young and attractive Dominican women. Some of the men had even bought their “sweethearts” flowers. Nearly all of the prostitutes were wearing red in honor of the holiday. In addition to the blatant exploitation of these women, something about their choice to wear the color red was heartbreaking to me. It was partly the illusion of romance that the color suggested. It was partly the image I had in my head of a sad, cheap dress draped over a chair in the hotel room of an ugly American man.
I lived in Madrid for a year when I was 22. Calle Montera, which was literally in the center of the city, was full of sex workers, many of which were clearly victims of human trafficking. It was probably the most diverse street in Madrid. The women came in all sorts of sizes, colors, and ages— pretty young women, transvestites, women in spandex who looked like they were probably grandmothers. I always tried to avoid this street, but when I couldn’t, I would observe the transactions— young men stopping by for an afternoon blowjob, old businessmen shamelessly approaching teenagers who looked like they had just emerged from puberty, etc.
When I visited the Netherlands, of course I was drawn to the Red Light district. The blatant and unapologetic availability of paid sex was so compelling. The display windows were shocking to me even though I had known all about them prior to my trip. Again, the assortment of women was endless— from women who looked like models to older and overweight women with missing teeth. Men would unashamedly enter the brothels with the same nonchalance as buying a pack of gum. I could not help but watch this all with my mouth practically agape.
When my boyfriend and I lived in Albuquerque, he briefly lived in a seedy neighborhood next to two motels that were frequented by prostitutes. They would stand outside in sweat pants looking so defeated by life. It seemed that men who looked like fathers and husbands would cruise by on their way home from work. Once, we even found a syringe in front of my boyfriend’s building. His apartment was also infested with roaches, so we like to joke that he briefly lived my childhood.
I think the reason I’ve been intrigued by sex work is because of my fixation on the human body. So much is communicated through it. We often cannot help what our bodies say to the world. They hold multitudes of meanings in every space they inhabit. I can’t even count how many times I reference the body in my poetry manuscript. It has been an obsession in my work ever since I began writing when I young girl. I never intended to look at sex workers as an Othering voyeur, but rather as a woman who is both genuinely curious, empathetic, and outraged at the conditions that force them into this kind of work.
In 2009 while I was still living in Albuquerque, the remains of 11 prostitutes and an unborn child were found in the West Mesa. Though the story made national news, it certainly did not get the incessant coverage that the murder of Natalee Holloway did, for example. But then again, these were not blue-eyed, blond-haired, and conventionally attractive young girls. The media is not interested in poor women, particularly those of color. How many women in Juarez, for instance, must be killed to gain the same attention? In more recent news, the disappearances of the victims of the Long Island serial killer were not even noticed until the bodies were found. According to the New York Times, “The bodies of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of murdered prostitutes — women, men and transgender people — have been found in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut since 1990.”
Obviously, I now understand why those women outside of the Cove Motel got into those cars. I am grateful that this devastating information was somehow kept from me as a child. (The Cove has been demolished for several years now.) While I was in Europe, I was lucky enough to see one of my favorite paintings— Olympia by Edouard Manet. There is something about her poised position and the defiant look of her face that has intrigued me for years. Although I understand that there are many sex workers that truly chose this as their profession and are sexually empowered feminists and all that, the reality is that most of them are like the women buried in Long Island or in the West Mesa of Albuquerque. They are poor women in the Third World wearing red on Valentine’s Day. They are trafficked teenagers from Eastern Europe. Their bodies are perceived as disposable. Now as a 27 year old woman reading about the Long Island killer, I think of all the prostitutes I’ve seen in my life and how precarious their lives and bodies must be. That is, if they are fortunate enough to still be living. And I find it so heartbreaking that their humanity is ever even questioned.
www.ohhellsnah.com is like hot dogs for your brain. It is where a small and sassy Mexican American woman explores the relationships between poetry, politics, and food. She has been published in Witness, Hayden’s Ferry, Whiskey Island, Crab Orchard Review, Hunger Mountain, Hanging Loose, Drunken Boat. and Ms. Magazine. A poem is forthcoming in Pleiades. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois at Chicago and was a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship. She also has an MFA in Creative Writing degree that she would often like to set on fire.