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The Power Behind Policing Fashion

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After long week at work, one of my favorite guilty pleasures is Fashion Police on E! with Joan Rivers. You either love Joan Rivers or hate her, and I'm definitely in the fan camp. She's a fearless woman who speaks her mind, isn't scared of offending people and is incredibly self-deprecating -- all qualities I appreciate. She's also frequently side-splittingly funny and while her whole persona, and the concept of Fashion Police is obviously based on criticizing celebrities, mostly women, to the point of mean-spiritedness, it is often very very funny. Like I said, it's a truly guilty pleasure with the emphasis on guilty. But... while I'm sure that most celebrities think Fashion Police crosses all kinds of lines every week, for me they've now crossed the line from funny to incredibly offensive and damaging.

Fashion Police has a recurring segment called "Starlet or Streetwalker," which is exactly what it sounds like. The panel, made up of George Kotsiopoulos, Kelly Osbourne and Giuliana Rancic, are shown pictures of women with their faces covered. Based on the outfit, the panel then has to vote if the woman in the photo is a starlet or a streetwalker. If the woman turns out to be a celebrity, her face is shown, if its a woman in the sex industry, her face remains blacked out. The panel, the studio audience and I'm sure the viewers watching at home laugh at these women and their 'tacky, trashy clothing.' The first time I saw the segment, it took me a minute to realize that the women whose faces were covered up were actually real women in the sex industry. I then watched with growing discomfort as I realized that these women, poor women, desperate women, drug-addicted women, women under the control of a pimp, women who are victims of violence and exploitation, were being used to highlight wealthy celebrities' poor fashion choices. Haha.

As their faces are covered, it's unlikely that E! asked these women for consent to use their pictures. It's also highly unlikely that anyone from E! did a background check to find out if all the pictures they're using for comedy fodder are even of age. It's unlikely, aside from any legal issues, that they care.

Years ago, one of the girls from GEMS was unwittingly filmed for a cable documentary about the sex industry. Although she was just in the background her face, and her naked breasts, were clearly visible. When the show aired, strange men began walking up to her in the street telling her they recognized her, asking her to show them her breasts, asking her for sex. She was 15 at the time of shooting, had been a trafficking victim since the age of 12 and was under the control of a violent pimp who would later try to pay someone to have her murdered and leave her body in the dumpster. While her story may seem shocking, its all too commonplace in the world of 'streetwalkers.'

Estimates of prior childhood sexual abuse for women in the sex industry range from 70% to 90%. When you include any form of childhood abuse or trauma, physical abuse, growing up in a home with domestic violence or substance abuse, the numbers are far in the upper range. Its clear that there's an extremely high correlation between prior childhood trauma and recruitment into the commercial sex industry. Research done with 'streetwalkers' suggest that the median age of entry into the commercial sex industry is between 12-14 years old. The vast majority of women and girls on the streets are under pimp control, which if they were from another country would be seen as being a victim of trafficking. In fact under federal law, if they are being pimped through force, fraud or coercion, the tools of the trade for pimps, or if they're under the age of 18, they are considered trafficking victims. Trafficking is now understood as modern-day slavery and women and girls under the control of a pimp are treated as property, branded with their pimp's tattoos, forced to hand over all their money with the threat and the reality of violence hanging over them daily. Overwhelming women in the sex industry are victims of frequent sexual and physical violence at the hands of johns too. Yet they're are treated as criminals and are arrested at a far greater than the men selling and buying them. Women in the sex industry have rates of PTSD that rival that of war veterans and face a long and difficult healing and recovery process if they are lucky enough to get out. Women in the sex industry are estimated to be at least 30 times, (one Canadian study estimates 120 times) more likely to be murdered than their non-prostituted counterparts. A quick survey of serial killers -- Joel Rifkin, 17 known victims; Robert William Pickton, 26 known victims; Gary Ridgway, The Green River Killer, 48 known victims; and the as-yet unknown killer of at least 4 women in Long Island -- shows just how disposable women in the sex industry are.

While there's a different discussion to be had perhaps about the fairness of mercilessly critiquing celebrities (who are also real people), for what they wear to an event, it's a very different discussion than whether it's fair, right or appropriate to target women who are victims of extreme forms of violence and who are considered on the very lowest rung of society. Mocking Celebrity X for wearing an ill-advised $15,000 couture gown to the Oscars is quite different than mocking a woman who is literally living on the streets. I doubt if E! would have fashion segments called "Homeless or Hollywood?", "Drug Addict or Debutante?", "Poor or Posh?". Yet because these women are not 'just' potentially homeless, drug addicted and definitely poor, but are 'streetwalkers,' prostitutes, whores, hookers, they're considered fair game.

It's hard to see a panel of highly-paid celebrities make jokes at the expense of some of the poorest, most vulnerable, marginalized and victimized women and girls in our society and not think of the cartoons and plays mocking blacks during and far post-slavery. Those images are now considered a shameful reminder of this country's history of oppression. Although those types of racist jokes and cartoons in popular media, albeit often more subtle, still surface today they're generally now met with a swift backlash. A cartoon in the New York Post in 2009 that appeared to many to depict President Obama as a chimpanzee being shot to death received international coverage, raised a huge outcry and forced the Post to apologize.

This week, the New York Post faced a much, much smaller round of criticism for its cover which read "Like a hooker's drawers, stox go UP, DOWN, UP" with an accompanying picture of a woman in a red dress, smoking a cigarette, posed seductively. Most of the criticism was levied at the admittedly odd choice of a very 1940's film noir-ish photo, the antiquated use of the word 'drawers' and the total irrelevance of the headline in relation to its subject matter. Few people criticized the Post's choice of target -- women in the sex industry. After all, who's going to get up in arms about the feelings or rights of 'hookers'?

The list of groups that it's acceptable to make fun of has dwindled in a world that some might say is too 'PC" and others would say is moving towards recognizing the human rights and dignity of all people, not just white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual people. But it appears that one of the remaining groups that its still considered totally socially acceptable to mock, scorn, degrade and dehumanize is women and girls in the sex industry.

The same day the Post cover came out, I ran my weekly recovery group at GEMS, the organization I founded in 1998 to serve and empower girls and young women ages 12 -24 who have been victims of commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking. That night the participants ranged in age from 15 to 22. All of them had been recruited into the life as children. All of them had been under the control of a pimp/trafficker. All of them come from homes where violence and abuse were commonplace. The conversation began with a discussion about the absence of a mother or father in their lives and moved into talking about the stigma and shame they constantly experience from their families about their exploitation in the sex industry. One 16-year-old sat with tears streaming down her face as she recounted her little sister mocking and taunting her when she finally returned home from the streets. The rest of the group nodded in agreement.

Another girl, 15 years old, recounted how her 11-year-old cousin would call her a 'ho' and make jokes at her expense and how hard it was to return to school with all the kids in her community knowing that she'd been in the life. One young woman, now 22 and in college, shared how painful it still is to hear people say nasty things and make jokes about women in the sex industry, not knowing her history of exploitation as a teenager. I talked about how even as an adult, an executive director of a non-profit and a nationally recognized advocate with 17 years out of the sex industry, how hurtful some comments can still be. We talked about how the stigma that you face from your family, your community, people you date, potential employers and society at large can make you feel hopeless, make you feel like this is all you'll ever be and that you'll never be able to escape your past. We talked too about how important language is and the girls validated what we've known for a long time that calling them survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking, as opposed to 'teen/child prostitutes', 'prostitutes', or especially hookers, whores or hos can begin to lift some of the shame that you feel and help you recognize that its something that happened to you, not who you are. I encouraged our young women that their courage as youth advocates and the courage of many of the young women who've come before them is slowly beginning to change people's perceptions and helping them to see them as real people, as daughters, sisters, mothers, human beings. And then two days later I watched Fashion Police and heard Joan Rivers joke about how 'its hard out here for a pimp,' heard Kelly Osbourne say that one of the women looked 'too clean to be a streetwalker' and I remembered just how far we have to go.

I've already complained to the New York Post about their cover story and their ongoing mockery of women and girls in the sex industry and I'm publicly asking the producers of Fashion Police, Joan Rivers and the panel to watch Very Young Girls, our documentary about the harsh realities of the lives of girls who've been trafficked for sex and whose courage, hope and humanity as they struggle to escape shines through in every scene. Perhaps after they watch it, the jokes about these women and girls will seem a little less funny.