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Book Reviews : Working for the Rights of Streetwalkers

February 10, 1986|NANCY SHIFFRIN | Shiffrin writes frequently about women's issues for The Times and other publications

Working Women: The Subterranean World of Street Prostitution by Arlene Carmen and Howard Moody (Bessie/Harper & Row: $16.50)

Howard Moody is senior minister of the Judson Memorial Church. Arlene Carmen is program associate on the Prostitute Project, a program designed to bring needed medical assistance to New York City's streetwalkers and to learn about their lives. The book purports to demolish myths about prostitutes: that they spread venereal disease, that pimps force women into "the life," that prostitutes are mentally ill.

The authors describe their mission as a ministry of presence. Their church, they say, is for those not in it, especially for society's scapegoats. Arlene Carmen hung out on the street with "the women," (as this book calls the prostitutes) asking them questions, talking about the church's medical program. Once she was arrested in a street sweep.

"Working Women" is an important civil rights document, a must-read for the vigilant libertarian who knows that any erosion of liberty is a personal threat. The police get to do whatever they want to any woman suspected of prostitution, the authors allege. They convincingly make the case that legally sanctioned failure to provide prostitutes with due process is part of the larger picture of discrimination against women.

In court, women accused of prostitution are presumed guilty. The arresting officer does not testify at the arraignment. Rather, another policeman testifies to the truth of the arresting officer's statement. The accused prostitute, therefore, does not face her accuser in the initial stages of the judicial process. Women accused of streetwalking are arrested in sweeps. Any woman caught standing around when the police are making a sweep is presumed to be a prostitute. The court disposes of these cases in groups.

The authors propose the decriminalization of consensual recreational sex, regardless of any monetary exchange. They compare the laws against prostitution with Prohibition and claim that most of the danger associated with prostitution comes from the attempt to enforce the unenforceable. They oppose legalization, which involves some government regulation, because it would discriminate against the women.

As part of their argument for the streetwalker's legal rights, however, the authors treat us to a romanticized notion of "this subterranean world's version of home life." They assure us that prostitutes love their babies and plan their pregnancies.

Prostitutes are likely to be incarcerated, murdered or otherwise rendered unable to care for their children. I'd like to know what great capacity for nurturing motivates such a person to bring new life into the world. Also, pimps turn out to be even more useless than I had previously supposed. They provide neither work, nor business management, nor bail, nor physical protection. They simply take the prostitute's money. The trick pays the whore for sex and she pays her pimp for an illusion of love.

I am uncomfortable with liberals who are unrealistic about the people they are trying to help. I am especially angered by Carmen's failure to confront the women's anti-Semitism, while she, a Jew, submitted to strip searches in their behalf. A gay worker on the project was willing to argue about prejudice toward homosexuals.

I also wonder if the authors thought anyone outside New York might be interested in what they have to say. Knowledge of that city's block-by-block geography is assumed and the reader is sometimes disoriented. And yet the strengths of "Working Women" as a compassionate document of a little known way of life, and a warning about freedom endangered, far outweigh its weaknesses.

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