T-shirts Support Victimization: New Orleans, Katrina, and the Portrayal of Women in Prostitution

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.


  1. for the love of dog. it’s astounding what passes for humour, good fun, free speech, even feminism. just looking at those shirts made me want to cry. people love their ignorant little blissful lies. WOMEN ARE HUMAN.

  2. I’m in the UK and I remember seeing a documentary about the clean-up operation in New Orleans where they said that the first ‘industry’ to move back straight after the disaster was the sex industry. Strip clubs and prostitutes were required to entertain and service the police, army and clean-up men.
    The commentator made it sound like “way hay hay…if the hookers are back then things are returning to normal”.
    It made me sick.

  3. holy crap. that’s very revealing about how entrenched male sexual privilege is. fer crying out loud, they’re there to help people, not orgasm inside of probably PTSD-suffering prostituted women and yell “show us your pussy” to some women who are dissociating from what’s happening.

  4. the fault does not lay with the women in prostitution. it’s the demand–the men who buy human beings. no prostitution could possibly occur if no men felt as if they had the right to buy/rent another person to masturbate into.
    it should be very telling about the nature of prostitution (e.g. what it takes to get women that degraded to enter it, how it harms those in it) that between 2 and 4 million people are trafficked each year according to the United Nations. if it’s such a desirable “job,” or “liberating experience” or whatever, why do women have to be forced into by the millions to meet the desired demand?

  5. But the vast majority of women who do this don’t choose to do it. Why on Earth would they? If they had any other viable options 90% would be out of the game like a shot.
    To quote from gendergeek (https://www.gendergeek.org/?p=161#more-161):
    “…the beneficiaries of prostitution are men while the losers (and they lose big) are women. Patriarchy offers women economic insecurity, and then offers them a “way out” in a form that benefits patriarchy”.
    You can’t place the blame on prostituted women for their prostitution any more than you can blame an abused woman for not leaving her violent partner.
    Blame the men. They’re the ones who control the trafficking, control the women, control the demand and reap all the benefits. Sweden have done it. They’ve put the onus on men and made the purchase of sex illegal. They’ve also made provision for the needs of women to be able to live without having to sell sex. The results are extremely positive and the message from Sweden is that women’s lives matter more than percieved male sexual entitlement.

  6. As long as men keep buying women will end up bieng prostituted, armed raden.
    Demand by men is what drives the trade in womens bodies. They’re the ones who need to change.

  7. Hi Melissa,
    Yes New Orleans has a very bad prostitution problem. I knew some women down there who are in the “biz”. They are all drug addicts, of course. I think there probably are more women in prostitution post-katrina due to the large influx of workers. That’s the same reason the crack problem has gotten worse. It is hard to imagine, when it was rampant pre-K.
    IMO the sex selling has to do with Southern culture, with the extreme misogyny, racism, catholic perceptions of sin and violence.
    It was actually kind of scary and I’m glad I got out of there with my baby. Anyway, I could write about three books but I should get back to work.
    You are fantastic, you have a great heart. Keep up the excellent work.

  8. I think this reflects that need for hierarchy that some people – especially the abused and uneducated – rely upon for self esteem.
    “Yeah, my boss treats me like crap so I treat my wife like crap so she treats the kids like crap so they treat the dog like crap. At least I’m better than the wife, kids and dog.”
    Think about the men doing the clean up down there. They aren’t stockholders in Halliburton, they are the working stiffs, sweating in toxic conditions for very little money. But at least they can feel like they are better than the whores.
    It’s a common result of any tragedy and unfortuntely our society does not know how to step in and intervene in a helpful and intelligent way.
    Let’s figure it out.

  9. For f***’s sake! It dosen’t seem to matter, what catastrophe or disaster launches its self upon us, men’s penis’s seem to be the first thing that rears its ugly little head squealing “i can smell poverty and desperation” lets exploit it. Fuctards!!

  10. Quote:
    Demand by men is what drives the trade in womens bodies. They’re the ones who need to change.
    End Quote
    I have to admit that this is true. However, it isn’t easy to simply change a few hundred thousand years of biological programming. I don’t have a shred of respect for men who pay for sex, but it stems from what I see as a lack of willpower and intelligence, rather than the fact that they haven’t somehow reprogrammed their instincts.
    The simple fact is, men like to look at women. Men like to touch women and have sex with women. This is not going to change unless the human species somehow becomes totally asexual.
    Now, I will say that I don’t understand why someone would pay a prostitute. I simply can’t see why anyone would pay for anything as base as sex.

  11. wow..iv just come across this page whilst researching on a dissertation project for university. My work is based on feminism and a quote given by C. Mckinnon, a famous feminist.she states “the law sees and treats woman the way men see and treat woman”. reading your opinions on here has given me good things to use. I do agree men have the bigger part to play when it comes to prostiution,as already said, a woman who has better options would not be in the business. Tackle the demand otherwise men will continue to treat woman like objects,but its nothing compared to the East. The woman in the East get gang raped by neighbours over rows. anyone have any opinions on whether the law does treat woman the way men do??

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