By Jaye Austin Williams
It was a peculiar Christmas the year my Aunt Mickey told me of my unsavory beginnings. My birth father was a Black pimp in Pittsburgh; my birth mother, a Chinese hooker in his employ.
Seven years before learning of my … lineage, I lived in a residential hotel in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. I crossed paths with the “Broadway ladies,” whom I’d often witness being slapped around by their pimps on a very pre-Disneyified 42nd Street. I was struggling back then, hustling up acting work and temporary typing gigs to get by. But I understood the ladies’ struggles to be infinitely worse than mine and, guided by an affinity I was yet to learn about, I’d take them out for coffee, or slip them a couple of bucks on the “QT.”
Flash forward a quarter century. Disney’s glory days on Broadway are now tinged with the return of the inevitable “element” marking the beginnings of America’s 21st century fall from worldly omnipotence. It’s a Monday morning, and I’ve been summoned to jury duty. To my delight, so has a friend of mine. We trade jury duty stories. Mine are uneventful. My friend’s — I’ll call her “Carla” — are not.
Carla served on a criminal trial involving a prostitute who’d been slashed 40 times, survived and had the guts to press charges. When deliberations began, the jury was sequestered to a fleabag hotel in an outer borough. At about 4:30 one morning, Carla — one of three women on the jury — awoke to an ominous phone call: “How are you gonna vote?” She immediately called the authorities. The other two women had gotten similar calls. Astonishingly, no mistrial was declared. As it pressed on, much was revealed about the prostitute, while virtually nothing was disclosed about her alleged attacker. In the end, the jury deadlocked, pretty much down the gender line. But it was the victim who’d been tried by the system, and lost. Carla, understandably, never reconciled her feelings about the experience.
No longer mystified by my affinity with the ladies of the evening, having learned of the “blood knot” innately tying me to an acute awareness of them and their plight, I was incredulous at the story and the way in which women continue to be — to this day, some ten years after that prostitute was so egregiously wronged — systematically disdained for satisfying the sexual demands of men who are rarely held up to society’s scrutiny unless they are exposed by the media.
Human beings appear to have difficulty transcending our shame at both our primordial instincts and our conditioning. We are a culture stratified by race, class and gender for generations, yet we still disdain the open admission of that fact. Likewise, men have demanded the sexual services of women (and men, lest we forget) since time began. Yet, they reflexively abhor staring into the proverbial mirror their service providers represent. As I scan articles about crimes against prostitutes, I discover an inordinate number of them have been slashed, as well as raped and murdered. The memory of an exercise from my training in the Japanese martial art, Aikido, comes disconcertingly to mind. It involved making repeated sword cuts in the air with a bokken (wooden sword), symbolizing the paring away of one’s imperfections. . .
The arrival of a new millennium has not pared away some men’s denial of their clandestine sexual appetites, nor decreased the compulsion of others to violently deface, eliminate or otherwise vehemently deny agency to the women who professionally satisfy them. Is it any wonder, in these times of reckoning with the underbelly of human proclivity on all levels, that sex workers remain in the stranglehold of bottom-feeding pimps who should at least know by now they don’t really hold the power in the grand scheme of things? Or that the indignation of duplicitous bigwigs at having to admit they demand furtive gratification, prompts them to slash away — metaphorically or otherwise — at the all-too-vivid mirrors to their souls?
In the meantime, if the world’s “oldest profession” must march on (though it is my fervent and perpetual wish that alternatives present themselves), then it’s time it came into the light of day and be acknowledged for what it is — the sale of a commodity in perpetual demand — and that it be administered on the terms of those who provide it at no small cost, especially to themselves.
Jaye Austin Williams is a theatre professional, 4th degree black belt in Aikido, writer, teacher and Ph.D. student at the University of California Irvine and San Diego.