“Whores help the handicapped. Whores are healers. Whores are creative. Whores are free spirits. Whores are rebelling against the absurd, patriarchal, sex-negative laws against their profession and are fighting for the legal right to recieve financial compensation for their valuable work.
— 40 Reasons Why Whores Are My Heroes, Dr. Annie Sprinkle
hat does it mean for women of color and sex workers to celebrate the historic gains made by activists who actively sidelined their communities from the struggle? How do we recognize those residing outside of the protection of the law?
“Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to Be Silenced” is the 2021 Women’s History Month theme, celebrating the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in 1920. This amendment — while vital to recognizing women as valid human beings — did not extend to southern Black women who were faced with crushing race-based violence and discrimination that prevented them from voting until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In short? The abolition of slavery was a deeply divisive issue among suffragettes, many of which also held sex workers at a contemptuous distance.
Many suffragettes wanted the right to vote to overhaul child labor laws and outlaw sex work and (sometimes) abolish slavery. Activists like Jane Addams, the co-founder of the ACLU who wrote A New Conscience and Ancient Evil in 1912, argued that all prostitution was the result of the kidnapping and classified sex workers as “victims of sexual slavery.” This sentiment was echoed by the passage of the 1910 Mann Act which outlawed “prostitution, immorality, and human trafficking.”
The law’s ambiguous language regarding “immorality” led to the persecution of consensual sexual activity to the whim of courts.
Just as racist voter suppression is still rampant in 2021 — as exemplified by a recent bill proposed in Georgia — so too is the stigma and lack of nuance surrounding conversations on sex work. But activists like Norma Jean Almodovar have been radicalizing and complicating the discourse since 1982 and the current movement to recognize that #sexworkiswork stands on her shoulders.
Almodovar — the sixty-nine-year-old traffic officer turned call girl turned activist — has first-hand experience with the blatant and insidious ways in which ambiguous laws leave sex workers unprotected. After ten years as a cop and three years in prison, she dedicated her life to challenging the laws that punish and stigmatize sex workers.
At eighteen, Almodovar abandoned her plan to become a missionary, left the Born-Again Christian church, and joined the Los Angeles Police Department where she watched Beverly Hills call girls go in and out of expensive restaurants with wealthy men.
Growing up, Almodovar had a complicated relationship to the word whore, “A whore seemed like the worst possible thing a woman could be. My mom caught me with some lipstick one time and she said, ‘Wash the off! You look like a whore!” Yet, as a civilian traffic officer, Almodovar realized, “They’re pretty much independent! I’m like, ‘Them whores are so fucking lucky! I’m fucking all these police officers. Why can’t I get paid for it?’”
Almodovar quit the force after a decade in 1982. “I became a call girl and I embraced who I was.”
In between working on the police force and admiring the sex workers of LA, Almodovar confided in her now-husband of forty-five years about the corruption that she witnessed in the LAPD. This corruption, she explains, is cyclical, “Cops become lawyers become judges and there is no law to protect prostitutes, so they can enforce it arbitrarily. Cops go undercover on duty and have sex with prostitutes and then charge them.”
As Judge Gilbert C. Alston, a former Los Angeles police officer and Pasadena Superior Court Judge declared, “A woman who goes out on the street and makes a whore out of herself opens herself up to anybody...She steps outside the protection of the law. That's a basic and fundamental legal concept...Who in the hell is going to believe a whore on the witness stand anyway?”
In other words, if a woman chooses to become a sex worker, then she revokes her privilege to have basic human rights. This sentiment is echoed in the culture of the 1980s LAPD where the unofficial term for the murder of sex workers was “NHI” or “No Humans Involved” and by self-identified feminists like Shayna Moss, the president of the Florida Chapter of the National Organization for Women, who stated, "I don't think that a hooker has rights.”
Almodovar told me, “these attitudes are likely to hinder investigations into brutal sexual assaults and murders simply because the police seem unwilling to send resources for the benefit of those they consider worthless.”
Almodovar insists she was “pretty much apolitical” until she met her husband, who marched with Martin Luther King. “He would say, ‘I don’t want to hear about it unless you’re going to do something about it.’ I realized there might be consequences. Those consequences have to be had by people who make a difference or who challenge the system. I knew they were coming and decided that I’d go through with it.”
While working as a traffic officer and call girl, Almodovar began writing about the corruption she witnessed on the force, and at thirty-two, after her last on-duty accident, she quit. As Almodovar picked up her final check, she ran into a former co-worker, Penny. Almodovar couldn’t help but confide in her colleague. I told her, “It was the best job that I ever had. Penny replied, ‘I’ve always had fantasies of being a call girl.’ and I said, ‘I have a client who might like your type.’” The meeting turned out to be a sting operation orchestrated by the Los Angeles Police Department in order to confiscate her in-progress manuscript; Penny testified against Almodovar, asserting that she attempted to recruit her as a prostitute.
"Would I have said those words if I knew that would get me so many years in prison and destroy my life? No. But, what I [went] through, has made me who I became. And it has made me want to fight to change the goddamn laws. And it's given me the strength to go through a lot of things that I could never have imagined myself getting through. On the one hand, it was horrible, it was painful. I know what it's like for someone to have their freedom taken away. I know what it's like to be at the lowest point in your life. And I survived. I can survive, so can someone else? And if I can help them survive, that's what I'm gonna do."
After being released from prison, Almodovar published the manuscript she started as a police officer, Cop To Call Girl, and has spent the past decades exposing the ways that whorephobia manifests at multiple levels — like the culture of the Los Angeles police department — and in more benevolent and paternalistic ways, exemplified by the passing of FOSTA SESTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act).
Initially intended to curb online sex trafficking, the bill took “no steps to differentiate trafficking from commercial sex work,” writes Tessa Stuart in Rolling Stone. The law mostly succeeded in forcing sex workers offline and making their lives more dangerous. The conflation of commercial sex work and trafficking is dangerous and evokes the paternalistic strain of whorephobia that asserts that sex workers don’t know what’s best for them and more dangerously, makes them more unprotected by the law.
It reveals the lack of nuance when it comes to the conversations about being a sex worker.
The human trafficking of children is the bedrock of twenty-first-century laws, like FOSTA-SESTA, and the Mann Act of 1910, both of which emphasized the exploitation of children as the reason to outlaw prostitution. The degree to which child trafficking occurs is overstated in both eras.
Muckraking journalists furthered the moral panic with sensationalized stories of innocent girls kidnapped off the streets by foreigners and forced to work in brothels, describes Eric Weiner of NPR in an article about the Mann Act. The overemphasis on child trafficking at the expense of consenting commercial sex workers is also of interest to Almodovar.
In 2012, Almodovar came across a statistic on the Polaris Project that stated that there are “100,000 to 300,000 number of prostituted children in the US,” and that the "estimated number of men that a woman or child must have sex with daily, 7 days a week is 25-48.”
Since, 2012, Almodovar annually compiles comprehensive statistical information on the issue of sex work, sex trafficking, police abuse and corruption, statistics from the FBI Bureau of Justice, related articles from the perspective of sex workers, academics, prostitution abolitionists, law enforcement, feminists, and others.
“When you look at the numbers,” Almodovar explains, “it becomes clear that child trafficking is not a symptom result of sex work.” The existence of any victims of sex work doesn’t justify destroying the lives of consenting adults.” Almodovar notes, gesturing to the seismic shifts in sex worker activism.
“There's this whole generation of sex worker activists that are coming out now that it's just so wonderful to see that they are out there, and they're there. They're bold, and they're brave, and they're fighting back. And that's what we need because you know, us whores, we're getting old, or getting tired. I can't be around long.”
Almodovar just published her annual update which is available here. From the creation of elaborate slang on the early days of Internet message boards to avoid government interference or writing “s3x” instead of “sex” to avoid Instagram’s censorship rules, sex workers and activists have continued to navigate through the Puritanical puzzle that is the United States’ sanctioned, whorephobic laws.
There’s a legal term called damnum absque inquiria, which is Latin for “loss or damage without injury” and expresses a principle of tort law in which loss/harm is caused, yet there is no legal framework to prosecute. While sex work isn’t decriminalized yet, attitudes around sex work are drastically changing, and the gap between the harm caused and the framework to prosecute is widening.
Yves Nguyen — an organizer for Red Canary Song, an NYC-based group that supports Asian sex workers and allies — addressed the intersecting forces of sex worker stigma and racial fetishization that informed the murders in Atlanta, and the subsequent hesitation to assume that any of the women were sex workers.
"Say that one of those women was a sex worker, then is that person meant to be shamed in their death? Would they have deserved it? The answer is no...And if they want to not do the job anymore, they want the support and the resources in order to leave and not do that work anymore, right, and to not be policed, to not be surveilled. And that includes from the community."
Almodovar believes that decriminalization is important, but asserts that real change is going to come from grassroots activism and statistical integrity that will shift pathologizing narratives propel liberation for sex workers. “Margot St. James didn’t live to see decriminalization. But we’re going to pick it up and we’re going to carry it. We're going to get there.”