The H-Word: “Cleaning Up” OWS and Our Country's Historic Fear of Contagion

Melissa Petro
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a vintage-looking poster with a woman looking over her shoulder that says She may be a bag of trouble Syphilis GonorrheaNot so good morning, America. I woke up yesterday to discover that on Monday night the police had cleared Zuccotti Park. As of this morning, Zuccotti Park remains largely unoccupied and quiet, thanks to a judge’s ruling that the city needn’t allow them back in. At a press conference yesterday, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended his decision to effectually shut down the protest, which had lasted 61 days and counting, saying that the “health and safety conditions became intolerable.” In a statement made yesterday morning, Bloomberg said: “I have become increasingly concerned … that the occupation was coming to pose a health and fire safety hazard to the protestors and to the surrounding community.” Hey, disease is no joke, Bloomberg seems to be saying. Politics aside, you’ve all heard of the black plague, right? Who wants that to happen again!!? Certainly not our mayor! Sounds pretty rational, until you consider how sanitation and the interest of public safety, including fear of the risk of communicable disease, is a rationalization our country has relied on historically to control its population, particularly minorities.

While contagious diseases may not discriminate, history bears witness that the fear of disease and calls for “sanitation” have, historically, so disproportionately affected minority groups that even epidemics can be regarded as social constructs. According to Andrew T. Price-Smith, author of Contagion and Chaos: Disease, Ecology and National Security in the Era of Globalization, “Fear of contagion can generate or exacerbate in-group/out-group identity formation, resulting in the scapegoating of ‘others’ and often in the intensification of xenophobia and racism.” He continues, “Destabilization resulting from fear and anxiety may even lead to oppression of the people by a governmental apparatus of coercion in order to maintain the ideology of order and the ‘interests’ of the state.” Price-Smith cites AIDs and the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003 as two examples where certain segments of our population were targeted and controlled in the interest of “public safety.” In such cases, where the threat was at least in part real, “the original damage of the pathogen was exacerbated through human perceptions (and misperceptions), people affected were stigmatized as the affected and by the overreaction by the state, all of which resulted in draconian measures that have exacerbated or produced [further] destabilizations.” 

In other words, if the public health was somehow being put at risk by the encampments at Zuccotti Park—as its opposition insists (without any corroborating evidence)—chances are that the actual health risk posed, as well as the injustices which call for the protestors to gather in the first place, will only be made worse by the actions taken against it by the government. In Matters of Life and Death: Political Hygiene and Historical Memory in the United States, 1865-1945, Joanne Brown traces how public health policies meant to separate carriers of tuberculosis from the general public eventually helped legitimate racist measures like the statutory segregation of drinking fountains. African American people were “dirty” and thus possibly contagious, portrayed in medical literature in the 1900s as “careless consumptives” and “promiscuous spitters.” Immigrants and “slum dwellers” (aka poor people) were also made into targets by our health department propaganda. The message behind all of it is that there are citizens, and then there are these other people, complicating our lives and possibly making us sick.  

Extrapolate all this to latter day fear of the “dirty hippie.” Like the “civil rights zealots” of the 1960s, the Occupy Wall Street protestors are dismissed as liberal youth with poor hygiene and, thus, little credibility. They are associated with drug use and criminality, their message blotted out by an inordinate amount of attention given to the surrounding community’s noise complaints and concerns over where the protestors go the bathroom. The protestors are painted as a nuisance, as defecating degenerates in need of a shower, rather than as citizens exercising their rights. Watch a day or two of Fox News and you just might be convinced, these unkempt people are not to be trusted or taken seriously! When these communities are taken seriously, they are looked upon as a threat. The threat they pose to the status quo is too real to be imagined—their opponents purport that the threat is bodily.   

Which brings us to the myth that sex workers spread sexually transmitted disease.

illustration of several women that reads 98% of procurable women have venereal disease. Why bet against these odds?

The Contagious Diseases Act, passed in Britain in 1864, codified into law the belief that prostitues (or any “loose women,” really) were guilty of spreading sexually transmitted diseases. The law allowed for the forcible registration and regular internal examination of women suspected of being prostitutes. Under these laws, any woman in designated military towns could be forcibly inspected for venereal disease. While this and subsequent, similar acts were repealed by 1886, the myth persists: “sluttiness” (however defined) is equatable to sex work, and sex work will earn you a venereal disease—which you are likely to spread to the rest of the community, if not for government intervention.

Poster with an image of a white woman with brown hair that reads She may look clean but pick up girls, good time girls, prostitutes, SPREAD SYPHILIS AND GONORRHEA. Below the words are three soldiers, and the text at the bottom says you can't beat the Axis if you get VD

To this day, sex workers are considered a “high risk” population for contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Other populations defined as “high risk” include pregnant women, adolescents, men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women, as well as persons in correctional facilities, who are more likely to have low socioeconomic status, live in urban areas, be non-white, and have had limited access to medical care prior to incarceration. Some of these populations are stigmatized, some are not. Though not frequently done, it’s important to note the difference between risky populations and risky behaviors. According to the CDC, high-risk behaviors for contracting STDs include having unprotected sex; having multiple sexual partners; using drugs and alcohol; and—yes—engaging in commercial, survival [prostitution to earn money for food, shelter, or drugs], or coerced sex.

There’s nothing about charging money for it that makes sex any riskier, pro-sex worker activists contend, and the ways for sex workers to reduce their risk for STDs are the same ways that anyone else having sex ought to protect themselves. In the same way that not spitting (regardless of the color of your skin) helps reduce the spread of TB, condoms are the universal way to prevent sexually transmitted disease, and frequent testing helps. Bottom line: sex workers need education and support without bias or stigma. And yet, instead of education, governmental energies are misplaced. Prostitution is criminalized, and—shockingly, tragically— condoms collected by an arresting officer are used as evidence of the crime. Initiatives like these demonstrate, at least to me, that our government is more interested in controlling a population it perceives as a menace than addressing the actual risks that population may or may not pose to others or themselves.

In violating OWS protester’s constitutional right to assemble, Bloomberg is arguing that he is simply doing us all a public service. If the fear of disease doesn’t justify the ends, how about the this: “The law that created Zuccotti Park required that it be open for the public to enjoy for passive recreation 24 hours a day,” the mayor said in the same statement. “Ever since the occupation began, that law has not been complied with” because the protesters had taken over the park, “making it unavailable to anyone else.” So now it’s the old “you’re not allowed your freedoms if they inhibit on my freedoms” argument. I’ve heard that one before. If you’re not afraid of current and former sex workers spreading around disease, what about the concern that sex workers are associated with drugs and other crimes? What of the concern that we’re all stupid and morally bankrupt on the inside, if not outwardly so? If you’re not afraid of us, how about the boogeymen that purportedly control us—the traffickers and pimps that just may break into your homes, steal your daughters and sell them into the night?

The concern that prostitutes and other sex workers spread disease is, in short, a fear of sex workers, and—just as the fear of HIV contagion was used to justify homophobia—the fear of sexual contagion is used to justify current and former sex workers’ second-class citizenship. It justifies bigotry and hate that manifests into violence, a climate that targets women who “ought to know better.” It keeps current and former sex workers silent, unable to speak up for ourselves and our rights. When we do, it is this fear that punishes us. I have no doubt it was this fear that motivated Bloomberg to call for my removal from my job as a teacher prior to inquiry into my conduct as a teacher— the overwhelmingly persuasive yet entirely irrational fear that a former hooker might get her hooker cooties on your kids. 

Put simply, the fear of the protestors and the emptying of Zuccotti Park is a fear of what truly is contagious, namely: social change. As evidenced by the Occupy movements that have sprung up across the nation and the world, and as evidenced by all the current and former sex workers that have come forward to share their stories with me in solidarity, the status quo ought to be afraid, because we can’t be stopped.

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4 Comments Have Been Posted

Hiya! Just wondering where

Hiya! Just wondering where you got the info from that women that have sex with women are a high risk group for HIV. I'm not being critical it's just that I'm a lesbian and everything I read said we were a low risk group... maybe that was just for HIV idk I just want to be informed.

She didn't; she said

She didn't; she said "considered" and also put "high risk" in quotation marks, indicating that the perception is based on false and "fear of other" premises.

Actual risk, she goes on to write, comes from risky behaviors.

Actually, that is a good

Actually, that is a good point. Women who have sex with women are listed by the Center for Disease Control as a "special population" at risk for sexually transmitted disease, which is not the same as "high risk." Were the piece not already published I would definitely report that differently. The populations listed (pregnant women, adolescents, etc) are considered "special populations" for various reasons. Adolescents, for example, have the highest prevalence rates of many sexually acquired infections-- and are, therefor, also considered a "high risk population"-- whereas pregnant women occur on the list because STDs can have severely debilitating effects on pregnant women, their partners, and their fetuses. Women who have sex with women are considered a special population because, according to the CDC, they are too often "presumed to be at low or no risk for STDs based on sexual orientation" even though "women who have sex with women are a diverse group with variations in sexual identity, sexual behaviors, sexual practices, and risk behaviors." So, you're right: they are considered the opposite of a high risk population, but-- according to the CDC-- they shouldn't be.

Thanks for pointing that out.

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