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So, I’m working on this dissertation, right? Its history. As in, the past. The distant past. Current chapter…set in 1919. So why is it that current events make me feel like I am not, in fact, writing about history? Vice, prostitution, interracial sex, scandal…1919…2014. Same difference.

Lets start with the three black women at a hotel bar falsely accused of being sex workers. The articles are steeped in black respectability. So it becomes very important that they were two educators and a lawyer. I feel like I am reading some newsletter from the beginnings of the black club movement where reformers are shunning the suggestion that all black women are sexually available (as they should) but shaming sex workers at the same time. Actual sex workers. Who labored in the same way that these “respectable” women did. And for wages that were not much greater.

Then Django Unchained actress, Danielle Watts, gets detained by the police. Now these details are gonna be fuzzy. But I’m not a journalist so sue me. (Well don’t sue me. Just be empathetic.) First she was accused of prostitution? Then having sex in public? Resisting arrest? Sigh. Let the think pieces begin.

Here are the facts. Watts and her partner (a white man…that’s important) were in a car doing something. Somebody took photos. Somebody called the caps. Mr. White BF was very compliant. Watts refused to show id. Everyone says everyone else is lying.

Here is what I care about. Watts says she was racially profiled. And…well the LAPD had a great track record on that one. Even if the police were simply responding to a call about public sex (which they might have), it doesn’t change the fact that some lay citizen felt compelled to take pics and video. If you really thought that they were full on fucking in public (doubtful) then a simple phone call would have sufficed. This kind of sexual policing is extracurricular.

And to top it all off civil rights leaders in LA are calling for Watts to apologize to the LAPD for lying about being racially profiled. No really. (Epic side-eye)

But what is most important about this whole situation are the johns. Or might be johns. Watts’ boyfriend never gets arrested. He talks casually with the cop while his beloved is in hand cuffs about her oversensitivity about race. No punishment for those soliciting sex workers. Supposedly soliciting. Whatever. The point is, as my mother likes to say, who would you punish someone for working? Sexual labor is labor. Soliciting is leisure. So we punish the worker and not the one who economically makes this whole world of vice possible?

And this suggests to me that regardless of whether or not you think Watts is right or wrong (and I have heard so many sides to this argument) this is about the disciplining of black women’s bodies. And their respectability. And its an issue of class and labor. Black middle class versus black working class. Looking the other way as white johns (usually men of means) do what they do but taking Harriet the Spy level cell phone videos when we see a black woman being affectionate with her boyfriend in a car in broad daylight. And its not just happening in 1919. Which might me the most depressing to me.


About Shana Russell

Woman. Scholar. Liberationist.

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