imperfect victims

What every sex worker faces in the fight for justice, whether in the larger activist sense or in the smaller sense of considering whether to file a police report or restraining order.

These thoughts came about due to reading the about the legal defense tactics of Oklahoma cop Daniel Holtzclaw, “The Claw.” He specifically chosen stigmatized women with criminal charges of some kind or another to rape: sex workers, women with drug addictions, and all of them black. He knew they were easy targets and no one would believe them if they ever dared come forward, including a 17yr old. His actions came to light after he sexually assaulted a woman who was none of the above. (Echoes of Gary Ridgeway, anyone?)

Unsurprisingly, his defense is resting on tearing apart the women he assaulted, which is easy to do because they’re imperfect victims. They’re not angels, even the underage teen had an outstanding warrant for trespassing.

The empty-courtroom lack of support for the victims of Holtzclaw is what moved me to write this post. Some of his victims are fellow sex workers. I’m not aware of any sex work org that offered support to them in any form, correct me if I’m wrong. Various women’s groups seem to be shying away from supporting his victims as well, presumably because they are not “perfect” women, especially with drug use and sex work aspects.

These tactics have been used on every woman who has ever filed rape charges against anyone; against any sex worker who has attempted to file charges against anyone for anything. The most recent use of both sex work stigma and the imperfect victim in the courtroom is Jonathan Paul Koppenhaver’s (aka War Machine) defense that since his ex-girlfriend Christie Mack was a porn star, she pre-consented to everything he did to her.

Imperfect victims may not be easy to like. They may do shady or illegal things themselves. They make what others consider bad decisions. (Generally, it’s seen as bad decision on their part to get in the way of their assaulter’s fist or rapist’s penis.)

While most people use the term “unsympathetic” victim, I’m using the term “imperfect” because I think this has much more to do with the victims being easily judged by others for their flaws and shortcomings, as opposed to whether or not they’re relatable and/or pitiable. Their obvious social imperfections make it very easy to “other” them, leading to their condemnation — as opposed to focusing on the perpetrators who harmed them.

Yes, there’s a personal interest here. All Jill and I have been for the past 3.5yrs are imperfect victims (that is, assuming we’re seen as victims at all). I do not like identifying as a “victim” but from a legal standpoint, I am. Like these woman, a predator saw an opportunity and took it. Every lawyer Jill and I have consulted with has been concerned about our sex work coming up in court. Because of this “concern” by gutless lawyers, we’ve never seen the inside of a courtroom because they were too afraid to take on the case. Why was it somehow bad that I was a sex worker injured by my client, yet not seen as legally vulnerable for him to have been a client? Sex work stigma, imperfect victim, female.

Imperfect victims exist everywhere, not just among women and sex workers. Younis Chekkouri, a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, is an imperfect victim, despite apparently being haplessly innocent. Isn’t innocence part of the definition of victimhood? Why then, is innocence removed from imperfect victims? Because, somehow, their lives render them less-innocent than the perpetrators who harmed them.

This has been said before, but if a perpetrator is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, how does it manage to work that the victim of certain crimes is automatically guilty, never to be innocent at all?

Every single time another person (usually black, often unarmed) is killed by police, their lives are scrutinized to find just how much of an imperfect victim they are in order to justify their death. The amazing discovery is that, aside from Tamir Rice (a child), none of these victims were perfect. They were human, sometimes making poor decisions, sometimes prior law-breakers, even if the laws broken were minor. Their imperfect victim status is touted as all the reason in the world for their death. It’s certainly a line of logic that sex workers recognize. When it comes to heavily stigmatized people, basically, you’re an imperfect victim because you’re still breathing.

While the antihero is a celebrated figure, imperfect victims open themselves up to re-victimization simply by being imperfect. Why does it work that way? Is it the inherent vulnerability of being a victim in the first place? I think that has a lot to do with it, actually. Only the perfect are allowed to be vulnerable, if you are imperfect then you had it coming to you. An antihero is not a victim. Often, antiheroes seek revenge and this is the opposite of vulnerable. Antiheroes aren’t “othered,” they’re seen as something to emulate.

The best, most meta statement on the antihero/victim dichotomy is summed up neatly in The Crow. Eric Draven comes back from the dead to hunt down and kill the extremely criminal men who killed him and his fiance. As he begins his night of revenge, he ironically tells one of the men (before stabbing him to death), “Victims. Aren’t we all?”

Imperfect victims who have the guts to come forward, especially once their cases make it to court, should be offered moral support — at the very least. This battle gets fought over and over again: every time a child abuse victim speaks up, a rape victim files charges, a sex worker is harmed by a client or someone in their personal life, and so on. At what point does the reverse happen and the perpetrator become an imperfect criminal? Even mass shooters often manage to escape the amount of blame heaped on the average rape victim, as minimizing excuse after excuse is offered for the shooters’ actions.

What makes a perfect victim? Being none of the above. White and male makes a huge difference to accessing justice, or managing not to be the victim of a crime in the first place. Money creates an even bigger gap (some of the people unjustly killed by police in this year have been white men who were poor). These three things alone will prevent the desire to show imperfections. Nice, right? (And who needs moral support when the entire system is perfectly aligned with your needs?)

4 thoughts on “imperfect victims

  1. Lola D.

    I’m really glad you brought up the fact that the women that Hoytzclaw assaulted were fellow sex workers– I was struck by the way the media tippy-toed around that fact, then stretched out the narrative that the only reason this guy was caught was because he finally assaulted someone who actually DID feel entitled to go to the police and get heard. As if that’s not only the way things are, but the way things should be. Never heard a word about anyone in the police department, the D.A.’s office, or in any other position of authority making any statement about opening up a channel for sex workers and other marginal folks to make complaints against the police that would be taken seriously.

    1. Amanda Brooks Post author

      Lola — That was the very first thing that struck me when I read about him. He targeted sex workers, among others, just like every serial killer does for the exact same reasons. Criminalization only empowers criminals, it does NOT protect us.

      You, however, made the excellent point that NO ONE in this story decided to help sex workers in reporting abuse. Says a whole lot about how sex workers are thought of from a legal standpoint.

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