Women By The Wayside

I just read a fantastic essay called ” Green Screen: The Lack Of Female Road Narratives And Why It Matters” by Vanessa Veselka. One one hand, I had to smile and nod at the writer who questioned the lack of female road narratives because in so many ways she’s also describing the invisibility of whores with agency. What else is the street based sex worker but the quintessential “woman by the wayside?” Veselka introduces her piece with the shockingly large number of “Jane Does” recovered at truck rest stops and questions why the women who work at the businesses with the dumpsters where they are found never seem to recall any of these incidendents. I read between those lines with the solemn knowledge that sex commerce, either as a profession or an immediate survival tactic, is probably in the background of these stories.

Covering a fourteen-county area, I asked every senior truck-stop employee I could find about a hitchhiker found in a dumpster, but no one had ever heard of her. I broadened the scope of my questions: Had they heard of any homicides in any area truck stops over the past thirty years? They didn’t remember a thing. But what I was learning from the FBI painted a landscape of extreme violence, one that matched the world of my memory. By 2004, so many women had been found dead along the interstates that the FBI started the Highway Serial Killers Initiative to keep track of them. There were girls found in dumpsters, behind truck stop diners, off the side of the road on truck turnarounds—the national database listed over five-hundred Jane Does in or near rest areas and truck stops alone. Some of these were the very truck stops I was now passing through, and yet I couldn’t uncover even rumors of past murders. The strangeness of this crystallized when I visited a Pennsylvania truck stop where I knew for a fact that two women had been killed, one found only yards from where the woman I was speaking to worked. Still, she “had never heard of anything like that.”

Meanwhile in the city of Oakland where I live, news of a serial killer targeting street based workers was leaked to the Sex Worker’s Outreach Project. City Officials did not provide necessary life saving information to the group leaving them instead to analyze raw data and read between the lines to figure out what was going on with out any outside support.

Veselka follows up with two very insightful paragraphs that gravely resound with me.

Now, it would be tempting to say that her reticence was rooted in a sense of company loyalty, or in a straight-out fear of getting fired. Another argument might be that people see what they want to see and look the other way when it serves them. Or, we could say that women in these truck stops—waitresses, sales clerks, bookkeepers—are functioning within a system of subliminal oppression, and didn’t “see” these murdered girls because they routinely shunned women on the margins in order to protect their own tenuous status in a violent, male-dominated world. It is not a particularly groundbreaking statement to say that brutal self-policing can be a resistance strategy.

Who forgets the body of a murdered teenaged girl found at their place of employment while they worked there? There is no doubt that the social invisibility of these women contributed to their predation. But what exactly was that invisibility made from? These women weren’t remembered, it seemed, because they hadn’t been seen in the first place. And they hadn’t been seen partly because there was no cultural narrative for them beyond rape and death. As such, women on the road were already raped, already dead.  Whereas a man on the road might be seen as potentially dangerous, potentially adventurous, or potentially hapless, in all cases the discourse is one of potential. When a man steps onto the road, his journey begins. When a woman steps onto that same road, hers ends.

The same stigma on sex workers extends to any woman acting taking on adventure or agency. In the same bloodline is the ability to walk down a street unescorted without getting harassing or negative commentary. To be a man alone is to be a hero, to be a woman alone is to be a target. You aren’t easy prey because you’re smaller but because it’s always hunting season on femininity. Rarer still than a narrative of the woman on the road is the story of the trans*woman on the road, let alone hitchhiking.

During my travels I had literally thousands of interactions with people’s ideas about what I was doing with my life, but almost none of them allowed for the possibility of exploration, enlightenment, or destiny. Fate, yes. Destiny, no. I was either “lucky to be alive” or so abysmally stupid for hitchhiking in the first place that I deserved to be dead. And, while I may have been abysmally stupid, my choice to leave home and hitchhike was certainly no stupider or more dangerous than signing onto a whaling ship in the 1850s, “stealing” a slave and taking him across state lines, burning through relationships following some sketchy dude around the U.S., or accepting rides from drunk people while on hallucinogens. These tales are fictions, yes, but they deeply affect how we see people on the road. And the shadow cast by these narratives—one that valorizes existential curiosity, adventure, individuality, and surliness—does not fall over women.

There’s the rub, right? Whether you’re the woman who dared to stick out a thumb for a ride, tits for the rent, or a tongue for a tab of acid you get that message loud and clear: you’ll get what’s coming to you one way or another. There’s an incredible safety net for men, especially white men, to not only go on adventures but also to make mistakes. Beyond being safer from harassment, assault, and murder attempts it’s also in the ability to make a wrong move, to not see something coming, to not think of every single thing.

Engaging in sex work as a method of survival is seen as tragic, not victorious. You’re relegated to life in the objective case, not the subjective. When people are committed to the narrative of your context as defeat they will only see you as defeated. Sex work was a massive window into oppression for me and it mirrored back the types of privileges and entitlements I carry with me. Walking by the wayside is an incredible petri dish for the intersections of oppression. Who sees you? What do they do with you there? Who will stand by your side when you need help? Who will fight for your justice? Who will acknowledge your narrative?

To be human is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world
is to live in your true inheritance.
You are not a troubled guest on this earth,
you are not an accident amidst other accidents
you were invited…
(David Whyte, “What to Remember When Waking”)

3 Comments

Filed under activism, community, culture, feminisms, sex work

3 responses to “Women By The Wayside

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  2. John the Drunkard

    Another contributor to invisibility for the victims might be the transient nature of the truckstop culture. None of the jobs held by women near the parking lots and dumpsters are likely to attract long-term career commitment.

    The waitresses, fast-food workers, and convenience store clerks are all near-disposable people by corporate standards. How many would be in place long enough to have a specific crime to forget? How many such workers have any chance to develop any real knowledge of their co-workers?

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