Last week I traveled to New Orleans to join Habitat for Humanity in their noble attempt to clean up the mess left by Katrina. After my registration and tour of the FEMA tent city where I would be staying, I lined up to join my fellow volunteers for our afternoon orientation session.
Our leader was a 19 year old man who had spent the last two months gutting houses and cleaning up destroyed neighborhoods. Though I was impressed by his dedication to social justice, I was appalled by the t-shirt he was wearing. The front said “Hookers Construction Company” and the back had a picture of a scantily dressed woman with the caption “Fixing New Orleans One Job at a Time.”
Though disgusted by the way our leader chose to dress himself, seeing this t-shirt did make me think about how images of women in prostitution were being used post-Katrina. So I approached our leader and asked him for a chat about his clothing choice. When asked why he was wearing the shirt he said that to him it symbolized that nothing had changed in New Orleans post-Katrina; the prejudice and inequality still remained as did its reputation of being a “sin city.” He found some kind of merit in “supporting” the image of the sex trade in New Orleans because it “helped” the rebuilding effort by encouraging tourism.
Later in my trip I ended up walking down Bourbon Street and became quickly overwhelmed by the images of “prostitutes” on t-shirts in almost every souvenir shop. Why the obsession? Why the association between Katrina and women in the sex trade?
The circumstances that compel women into prostitution, such as a lack of housing and jobs, are precisely what occurred after the hurricane’s destruction. I would not be surprised if the numbers of women prostituting increased post-Katrina. Although I have not yet seen a systematic study of this, it should be looked into.
People often turn to humor to mask tragedy. Humor that strikes at marginalized people is the easiest to sell. And so women in prostitution become the comic “distraction”; and visitors to New Orleans do not have to truly confront the horrors brought on by the hurricane. Underlying this humor is the promotion of misogynist stereotypes about women. In many ways women in prostitution are still blamed for certain social “evils.” The word “prostitute” is often synonymous with “home wrecker”, “seductress”, “criminal”, or even “filth.” These primitive stereotypes about women bring to mind the concept of destruction, precisely what Katrina brought to the gulf region (is it a coincidence that both Rita and Katrina bore the names of women?). Making fun of both women in prostitution and Katrina allows us to remove our responsibility for either.
Whatever the reasons, the abundance of shirts and their hateful messages serve as a reminder of the enormous amount of work that still needs to be done by the social justice community to combat harmful stereotypes of women in prostitution, and all women. Rebuilding New Orleans has to include securing supports and services for women so that they are not forced to turn to a life of degradation and violence. Maybe we should have our own t-shirts denouncing violence against women. New Orleans’ tourist industry needs to put forth a new message.