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Not Just A Personal Dispute

February 6, 2009

I read this from Cara at Feministe, and I had no idea what to say. I felt angry and I felt sad, and I didn’t feel like I had much to add.

Then folks in comments started sorting through the factual picture: the attackers were a man and a woman, they apparently frequented the club where the victim worked. And Holly, in comments, made a distinction between an attack based on a broad disapproval of how the woman made her living — sex workers as a class, like the homeless man who was burned by a stranger who hated the homeless as a class — and an attempted murder by people she knew. Like so much that Holly writes, what she said it layered and has a lot of thought packed into it:

… but on the other hand, it looks like the man & woman who set this dancer on fire were regulars at the club where she worked. That doesn’t really sound like they disapproved of her dancing.
The distinction is important because harassment and violence that disproportionately affects some groups of people (sex workers, poor folks, PoCs) doesn’t necessarily happen because one or two people don’t like those people, but very commonly because entire communities are marginalized and affected by all sorts of other contributing problems.
* * *
The unemployed barber who set the homeless guy on fire, on the other hand, may have done so because he hated homeless people. Bastard.

(Emphasis supplied.)

And now I feel like I have something to add.

Holly is both so smart and such a dense writer that I’m not sure I can entirely unpack the factors she’s thinking of, and I won’t pretend to know what she’s thinking. But if by the “entire communities are marginalized” part she is talking about the othering and targeting of sex workers, I agree completely. To the extent she’s drawing a dichotomy between the barber who hated homeless people as a class and this couple, I think I disagree.

I don’t entirely buy that there’s a separation between a personal dispute and an attack on this woman because she was a sex worker. And I’m not sure that they don’t hate sex workers just because they patronize a strip club.

Scooter Libby ratted out an undercover CIA operative for political reasons, and nobody lit him on fire. Dick Fuld did massive damage to our economy, and nobody lit him on fire. Bernie Madoff and Marc Dreier stole money from rich, powerful people that they’ll never get back, and nobody lit them on fire. The people whose personal disputes end in painful and disfiguring and sometimes fatal violence are overwhelmingly those who are vulnerable in some way — those who the attackers think will have less protection. Sex workers are targets. They are targeted by law enforcement while their clients most often get a pass (Vitters isn’t in jail or dead; Spitzer was never even charged with a crime. Palfrey was facing jail and is dead). And they are targeted by clients, whose participation in sex work as customers apparently does not preclude them othering their own service providers. Would this stalker have kidnapped a pro domme and killed her partner if he didn’t think it was okay to victimize a sex worker? I just don’t think so. I’m not saying that every attack on a sex worker is an attack because ze is a sex worker. But I am saying it’s intersectional and that the job description carries a lot of freight that cannot be discounted.

Here’s what I have to say: two strip club patrons lit a stripper on fire, in an attempt to kill her. That they went to the club; that they maybe knew her; to me these are just variations on a theme that people think it’s okay to do violence to sex workers. And as long as people think it’s okay, they’ll keep doing it. And that’s not remotely okay.

I talked with a friend the other day about how we spend our lives at the customer service desk: this world is defective. We need to exchange it for a better one.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Eli permalink
    February 6, 2009 3:46 pm

    I definitely agree with your reading on it. This woman may not have been targeted as a sex worker, but her position as one may have increased her attractiveness as a target. In other words, the couple might not have thought “I am going to punish her for being a sex worker” but “I will not be punished the same way because she is a sex worker”. Whether it was explicit or not, their victimization of this woman is affected by her station/class/strata as a sex worker. While people at the top layer of society are often victimized, it is rarely with the sort of wanton– well, the only word I can think of is privilege— that was displayed here.

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