A Threat to Boston’s Strip Clubs

In the documentary film, Happy Endings?, we see a a sex worker greeting a client in a therapy room. Both seem unaware of the hidden camera as the client throws his arms around the masseuse — while they embrace, she strokes his back tenderly. When he eventually lies on the massage table, face down, she begins to rub his shoulders. The first time I saw this, I was so touched that I almost forgot she was wearing lingerie.

It’s hard to believe that this is the same industry that many wish to ban. This very week, the city is wondering whether construction of a tower block in Boston’s Combat Zone might threaten the area’s remaining strip clubs. However, if Centerfolds and the Glass Slipper don’t survive, many will celebrate because they view the sex industry as abusive and destructive. But people are abused in a whole host of professions. It is true that sex work is often illegal, which makes it harder for those who are mistreated to ask for society’s help. But because we’ve been taught that sex is degrading, our society can be quick to assume sex worker abuse — and that attitude, in itself, can actually cause abuse, especially when there is zero proof.

In Tara Hurley’s Happy Endings?, this becomes all too clear. When the documentary was filmed, indoor prostitution was legal in Rhode Island, yet the authorities tried to close the spas by claiming that the (predominantly) East Asian workers were being trafficked and controlled. Police raided these small businesses, who were keeping their workers employed and financially afloat, and, according to the women, pushed them to lie: Sex worker “Jen,” for instance, says she told the police, repeatedly, “The money I make is mine,” and “I can leave whenever I want,” but was not believed. Later, she complains of the physically brutal and racist raids. “[The police] treat you like nothing,” she says, “like Asian people are nothing to them.”

At other points in the film, anti-prostitution activists claim that women would never choose prostitution. “When you say that prostitution is the eldest profession,” says Donna M. Hughes, of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking, “what you are saying is that women are whores, they always have been and they always will be.” In turn, Rhode Island State Representative Joanne Giannini says that we should be teaching young people “how to get a good education, asking them to be teachers, lawyers, doctors, or even secretaries or administrative assistants …” (yes, she uses that word, even). “Anything but a prostitute,” she adds. It figures that such “activists” actually pushed for laws that would punish Rhode Island sex workers in order to stop the profession.

Much of this animosity is caused by the “prostitute stereotype”, which is shattered in the film. For example, other than feeding drug habits, many of the women lose their money at Foxwoods casino on weekend trips. Also, the businesses provide a protective community that is clearly far safer than trading on the street. The sex workers, some of whom don’t view their jobs as ideal, still speak passionately and wisely about their work. Many are supporting families, including kids at college.

And yet the stereotypes continue — even from those who support the Rhode Island sex workers. Ginny Hall, an accounts executive for the Providence Phoenix, who often visited the businesses on newspaper business, says they feel safe, and she has never heard the women complain. “I don’t think of it as prostitution,” she explains, “because the girls are pretty and clean. No one looks like they’ve gotten into that kind of business.” Her words reveal a classic “streetwalker” stereotype, as she unwittingly ignores the range and breadth of sex work. Perhaps if she met my friend, L, she might be surprised: L wears suits every day and if you saw her on the T, you’d think she worked in big business — and she could do so, if she chose. But she wants to comfort those who don’t have the luxury of sexual partners. She believes in what she does.

Prudishness and assumptions aren’t just misguided. They cause very real harm. If we took the shame out of sex, however, we might end such harmful prejudices and become a society at peace with itself. Meanwhile, I am sure there are talented erotic dancers in Boston’s Combat Zone who would suffer if they lost their jobs.