If you walked by her you’d think she was just a lady heading to pick up groceries. She’s a soccer mom in the U.S. wearing yoga pants, boots, and a puffy coat. In Copenhagen, the sex workers look like you and me, but me especially.
They are all black women, mostly from Gambia. I hear there are many women from Eastern Europe, too, but mostly I saw brown-skinned ladies wearing athletic clothes, which is pretty much my personal uniform these days.
In Denmark prostitution was decriminalized in 1999 with the idea that sex workers would be better protected under the law. The center for activity in Copenhagen is in the Vesterboro neighborhood, which is just behind the central train station. There are strip clubs mixed with hostels and hotels, but during the day it all seems pretty innocuous on the surface.
In the late hours after midnight, the scene changes. I saw up to twenty women on the same corner late one Saturday. When I walked through the streets, I wasn’t worried that someone would try to rob me; Copenhagen is really safe. My biggest fear was that I’d be propositioned like a common, everyday hooker.
It’s happened to me before, thank you Italy, and it only took a shake off my head to dissuade my prosective client, but there is something about looking guilty that makes me feel guilty. Fair or not, there is shame in being mistaken for a prostitute. My friend Rosie expressed a similar sentiment in one simple phrase: “Why do they have to look like us,”. Rosie is Dominican so she blended with the corner ladies just as well as I did. Her question had so much more behind it. Why are women of color always relegated to the most marginal stations in society? Why are we all so undervalued? Even if we see the difference between them and us, does anyone else?
This last one played in my mind a lot, but one night in particular it really hit home. My Danish friend picked me up late from my hotel. The first thing he said was, “While I was waiting for you I was offered drugs, pussy and whatever else I wanted. They’re trying to poison my people.”
I couldn’t help but notice the black faces of the pimps and pushers in the streets. When he said they, that’s who he was talking about, but in a world where generalities are the norm, those black faces were me, too.
When I think about it, it must be really hard for non-minorities to understand how responsible we feel for the actions of our brown brothers and sisters. The closest equivalent is how I feel when I watch an American compete in the Olympics. It’s not me, but close enough.
When my friend dropped me off that night, I gave him a long hug on the steps outside and felt so self-conscious. “I think they use that hotel you’re staying in,” he had said earlier. It was so difficult for me to believe. Everything was clean, organized and reputable, but when I entered the young man who buzzed me in refused to make eye contact. The next day when I came down with my girlfriends, who were clearly American tourists, a look of surprise crossed his face. It may have been all in my head, but I’m sure he thought I was a prostitute the night before and my Danish friend was an average John.
Some may say, who cares what people think, but I wonder if they would feel the same if they were my place. In Copenhagen I look like a prostitute, and it’s completely out of my control.