Sunday, July 20, 2008

Women on the street

Here in the small city where I live, there are various crime problems. Gangs, drugs and prostitution are the ones people talk about constantly. My work with the neighborhood association brings me into contact with law enforcement and groups that work with law enforcement to minimize the crime stats.

Every city, I think, has a block or two known for the sex trade. Atlanta had "Stewart Avenue," which was renamed "Metropolitan Parkway" in the hopes that somehow a name change would bring about an attitude change. Naturally, it didn't. People make the same jokes about the place for the same reason.

This town has Willow Street. Willow stretches along for 2 miles or so, starting near the access to the interstate and continuing up to about where I live. Willow is home to a lot of poor people. All ethnicities are represented.

Characteristics of a "poor" neighborhood include minimal or no home improvements; little or no greenery; noticeable litter; a preponderance of billboards, liquor stores and pawn shops; homes and businesses standing vacant for long periods, and a large amount of foot traffic.

A lot of poor people can't afford to be drivers. Because there's an excess of alcohol and drug addiction among the poor, there are more DUIs that keep people from getting behind the wheel. Their cars get impounded and they can't pay to get them back, or their cars get repossessed. Or stolen. Or they break down for the hundredth time and that's the end of the line. So you have people who walk where they need to go. Or they take a bus, which still involves walking from home to the bus stop.

That's Willow Street. A lot of people walking.

A lot of women walking.

As you drive along Willow, you're likely to see women between the ages of, say, 15 and 55. They may be walking alone, or standing and talking to a group of other people. Most often, they're not wearing much.

This is the South, and we have really cold weather, where you need to wear a jacket, for maybe 5 months. Of course, some people have different heat tolerances. I know plenty of people who can go outside where the temperature is 45 degrees Fahrenheit and not need a jacket of any kind. They consider 45 to be a pleasant, moderate temperature; they suffer in the heat. So it's not unreasonable, in the American South, to see a woman walking along in shorts and a sleeveless top, even when the weather is relatively cool.

Most women carry handbags. Some don't. They may use their pockets, or just carry a clutch.

In the course of walking along, a woman may see a friend driving; the driver stops to talk and a conversation ensues. Or a woman may stop walking periodically to look around and survey the surroundings.

All of these factors (walking alone, scanty dress, no handbag, stopping to talk or look around) can either be characteristics of a normal woman walking on the street, or a prostitute.

I've walked along the street many times in a futile attempt to get some exercise and lose weight; I dress comfortably, and try not to carry a bag when I'm just out walking and not shopping.

So where do you make the distinction? I think plenty of people don't. They see a woman walking along and assume she's a hooker.

I have a problem with this.

In high school, our Spanish teacher told us about countries in Latin America where a woman walking alone or going into an establishment without an escort is immediately branded a prostitute and thrown in jail.

I was outraged. How awful to stereotype women and restrict their movements for such a stupid-ass reason. Obviously, the same type of mentality exists in the Middle East, but even more so -- actual laws on the books prohibit women from going about their business in public. They are required to stay inside their homes unless they have a male escort.

Okay, so we know about Muslim countries and Latin American countries. But this is the United States of America. Land of the free, and also land of capitalism, where you're not considered "normal" unless you're "productive" and occupied in some way. Supposedly, it's also a land where women have equal rights. We vote, we're theoretically free to do whatever job we're qualified to do, regardless of gender.

So I have a problem with the "woman walking alone on the street must be a hooker" mentality.

Yes. Prostitution is an undesirable pursuit for a variety of reasons.

It visibly labels communities as "bad" places.

Most street prostitutes are injection drug users.

Street prostitution leaves behind distasteful and dangerous trash such as used condoms and used syringes discarded on the streets.

There is a high incidence of HIV among injection drug users, and a high incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among street prostitutes.

Prostitution is associated with gang activity.

But a poor woman who has to walk where she's going, or even just a woman who wants to walk for exercise, risks being labeled a prostitute for this reason alone. When this attitude becomes prevalent, it leads to false arrests and harassment, and has a chilling effect on freedom of movement for women.

We need to use the Middle East and Latin America as cautionary examples and prevent this regressive mindset from becoming pervasive here.

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