Angelia Mangum, 19, and Tjhisha Ball, 18. Photo via YouCaring.
The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference. Early last Thursday morning, the murdered bodies of two young black teen girls who were sex workers had been dumped on the side of the road in Jacksonville, FL.
The following day, Jamilah Lemieux wrote a sharp and impassioned piece on Ebony challenging the community to care about their murders: Angelia Mangum, 19, and Tjhisha Ball, 18, were friends and exotic dancers. The response has been slow and the public outcry has been minimal.
To make matters worse, these are the third and fourth unsolved murders of black women in Jacksonville this month. Four black women murdered in a mid-size city in a single month? This could be a serial killer. And there’s still no outcry.
What causes something to trend? What causes something to go viral on the internet? It’s that immediate, unconscious signal bell that gets our attention and we click on the link. The Implicit Association Test measures the strength of automatic associations in our brains. Many people have taken the test online and have found that they more quickly associate positive words with names of white people rather than black people. As we scan through cluttered timelines on Twitter and Facebook, our true interests are revealed. Many of us think we care about murdered black sex workers. We think we should care about murdered black sex workers. But when the story about murdered black sex workers pops up on our timeline, many of us don’t click to investigate. Our indifference is revealed by these acts of omission.
Recently on For Harriet, Michelle Denise Jackson wrote about the recent lack of public outcry about another case, the sexual assaults of eight black women by a police officer. To be a black woman in the United States, she wrote, means to be considered lesser: “Our lives and humanity do not matter in the grand scheme of things. Within our country’s historical context, we are always objects and accessories, but we are never subjects. We are never allowed to be fully human, fully deserving of the right to live without being beat, or shot, or raped.” Many of these women who were assaulted also had a history of sex work.
According to blogger and former sex worker Peechington Marie, part of what fuels the indifference toward these young women is not only racism and sexism but whorephobia. Sex work activist Aspasia Bonasera defines whorephobia as: “‘Fear of whores, including social and political rejection [of sex workers]… whorephobia is a collection of various bigotries, prejudices, and misunderstandings.” Peechington Marie has argued that the stigma against sex workers leads predators to target black women in the sex trades because they know they will face diminished consequences. The opposite of love is indifference.
And yet indifference does not fully describe our reaction to brutal violence against women of color. In fact, there are other contexts where there is great interest in these stories. If this were a televised cop story with a white male protagonist, America would be watching. We would be fascinated with the details of these murders. How many serial killer stories have we seen with women of color sex workers as victims? How many suspenseful books or movies or TV shows? But these are never from the perspective of the woman of color who is targeted. In one of my favorite canceled shows, The LA Complex, aspiring actor Abby Vargas thinks she has gotten her big break: She is cast as “Dead Hooker” in the fictional show-within-a-show Cause of Death.
Abby Vargas was an aspiring actress on the show LA Complex.
As the taping of the episode progresses, the director decides to zip up the body bag. The show focuses on Abby’s frustration and disappointment. What was supposed to be her big Hollywood break fails to even show her face on primetime TV. Further, without the showing of her face, the compensation for her day’s work on the set is massively diminished. But the show also implies what we know is true for women actors of color: we play dead sex workers, our faces not important, our bodies as lifeless lumps beneath fabric, our humanity is erased.
In my own life, I have come up against this indifference in my work as a fiction writer. I write fiction about black and Latina sex workers. Since 2009, I’ve been working on a novel that centers on a sex worker as the main character. In that time, I have heard one comment consistently from industry gatekeepers: “I liked the writing and I liked the story, but I didn’t really find the character likable and I couldn’t connect with her emotionally.” A string of literary agents rejected the book with some variation of that comment. They liked the premise—the idea of a former sex worker who robbed corrupt CEOs to fund her health clinic for women—but they didn’t actually like her.
In Roxane Gay’s book Bad Feminist, she has an essay called “Not Here To Make Friends.” In it, she discusses the expectation that women must be likable. “This is particularly true for women [characters] in fiction. In literature, as in life, the rules are all too often different for girls.” A male character can be an “antihero,” a special term excuses his unlikable behavior. When women are unlikable, Gay points out, it becomes a point of obsession for critics who ask why they aren’t “making themselves acceptable to polite society.” Sex workers are completely outside polite society and apparently this makes it difficult for people to empathize with their stories—whether their stories are being told in fiction or in real life.
Finally this year, I found an agent who loves the book and is now representing me as we take the next steps toward publication. However, I am coming to believe that the book has been impacted by what I will call a crisis of empathy with sex workers, particularly women of color. Women outside the sex industries, women who have never been poor, who have never faced a survival decision about selling sex, are taught to look down on women who have made that choice. Some readers have had a lot of trouble seeing a sex worker character as a hero.
Violence against women in general and women of color in particular is a mainstream fascination in our society. And the violence against sex workers has an additional lurid appeal to audiences. But when real women are brutalized and killed, it’s too inconvenient to pay attention.
In the unsolved stories of the real women’s deaths, we don’t have the intrepid white male cop protagonist to root for or the chilling perspective of the twisted psychopath to fascinate and horrify us. To tell these stories in real life, we have to keep the women of color center stage. And we can tell the story only through what is left behind: the stories of their young brown and female lives, their families, and their brutalized bodies. And apparently, our nation would rather zip up the body bag.
UPDATE 9/29: The definition of whorephobia was originally mistakenly attributed to Maggie McNeil, whose blog “The Honest Courtesan” is hosting archives of Aspasia Bonasera’s now-defunct blog “La Libertine’s Salon.” The error has been corrected.