Sex sells. But who pays?
Prostitutes tell their stories in a riveting local documentary.
“I don’t think that people are really interested in women in street prostitution as human beings,” Salome Chasnoff says. “They’re the bottom of the totem pole in terms of social hierarchy: They’re poor, they’re women of color, they’re women,” she says. “That’s why films aren’t made about them.” But Chasnoff did make a film about street prostitutes. She’s the executive director of Beyondmedia, an organization that works to empower and enable women and girls through expanded media access. She teamed with members of Chicago’s Prostitution Alternatives Round Table (a Chicago Coalition for the Homeless project) and created a media-activism workshop for former sex workers. “We explored the criminalization of the sex trade, really basic media literacy, production skills and how to tell their stories,” she says. The result is the moving, incredibly personal Turning a Corner. “This is an inside story,” says Chasnoff, who directed and edited the final product. “They tell it through their own voices, and they have control.”
It’s more than just an inside story, though. It’s the most thought-provoking documentary we’ve seen in ages. What it lacks in technical finesse it makes up for in potency. Lucretia Clay tells the camera the story of how she was 14 when her mother sold her to a pimp. Brenda Myers talks of being dragged by a car. Many of the women talk about being sexually abused as children; of being addicted to drugs; about being kidnapped, raped and beaten. “All of them have experienced horrific violence on the job and in their lives,” Chasnoff says. “But if they present themselves in an emergency room, or call the police, they’re handcuffed and booked because they’re criminals.… None of these crimes against their bodies, against their person, have ever been prosecuted.” Making the film was “as much about healing as it was about media making and advocacy. It was a very intense experience.”
Turning a Corner is an intense film to watch, too, and not just because its subjects describe terrible violence and exploitation: It’s because it’s local. As part of the workshop, the women revisited places where they had transformative experiences. One woman shows us the abandoned three-flat where she used to live, where she would get high and bring her johns. One shows us a park where she was raped. One shows us a lot where her friend’s maimed body was discovered. One shows us the stretch of Racine between 47th and 49th Streets where she used to work. Some cry, some remain calm; the unifying thread is one of pain, but each woman tells her own story in her own way.
Sex work is inextricably linked to poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, racism in the criminal-justice system and violence against women. “Street prostitution was the lens,” Chasnoff says, “the nexus through which these different issues emerged.” The lens focuses most sharply on incarceration. More than 5,000 people are arrested each year in Cook County on prostitution-related charges, and about 75 percent are prostitutes, 25 percent johns and less than 1 percent are pimps. This statistic is mentioned more than a few times. According to the film, around 40 percent of street prostitutes are women of color, 55 percent of people arrested for street prostitution are women of color, as are a staggering 85 percent of those sentenced to jail. In Illinois, prostitution can be prosecuted as a felony; pimping and solicitation are misdemeanors.
Chasnoff says she’s in favor of decriminalizing sex work, but the opinions expressed in the film vary from the idea that pimping and solicitation should be felonies to all prostitution should be legal. Wherever you fall within that spectrum, the film makes a solid case that laws are inconsistently applied and skew unfairly to prosecuting women, and that police routinely harass sex workers. Chasnoff says that over the course of making the film, she became “more sensitive to how race, class, age, ability and education construct sex workers’ identities.” Watching the film has a similar effect.
Turning a Corner airs Thursday 2 at 8pm on Chicago cable channel CAN TV 19. It’s also available on DVD at www.beyondmedia.org ($35).