While editing her latest film, “Turning a Corner,” an hour-long documentary about prostitution in Chicago, Salome Chasnoff couldn’t help but cry. The scene showed Lucretia Clay, a former prostitute, returning to the Sportsman’s Inn motel on the city’s Southwest Side, where she had spent 26 years of her life “turning dates” on street corners.
Clay “thought she had all this under control, that it was behind her,” Chasnoff says. “Yet, when she was standing there, it was like she went right back to when she was 14 years old and she was sold to a pimp by her mother. I saw her battling with herself.”
Clay’s story is one of many that Chasnoff captured in the film, which premiered in February. The project was produced by Beyondmedia Education, a media activism group that Chasnoff created in 1996 in response to the exclusion of some women from the “information revolution” of the 1990s.
Since its inception, Beyondmedia has created almost 20 projects with marginalized groups of women and youth. Previous projects include a video about girls with disabilities and a multimedia art exhibit that recreated a prison cell through the eyes of female prisoners.
Chasnoff’s documentary on prostitution gives voice to a group of 13 African American women, many of whom were beaten, raped or arrested during their involvement in the sex trade. The women were participants of the Prostitution Alternatives Round Table, a program of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless that addresses issues of homelessness and prostitution. Their stories were collected through a series of workshops facilitated by Beyondmedia, with support from the Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers.
For Chasnoff, the appeal of these stories is more than their raw emotions. “I don’t want this work to be framed as though I’m some sort of tragedy junkie,” she says. Instead, she insists there’s a transformative power in storytelling, especially for the women in her documentary. “I witness time and time again –¦ how [storytelling] helps you to see your experience differently, and how it promotes a healing process,” she says. “Yes, the pain is always going to be there, but our relationship to it changes. The more we understand it and the more comfortable we feel with it, we can move beyond it.”
Chasnoff recently sat down with The Chicago Reporter to talk about her project.
Now that you’ve made this film, what does prostitution mean to you?
My knowledge of the impact of criminalization has deepened. And so has my appreciation for the pain that so many of these women have experienced. And I think I have a much better understanding of how so many different issues intersect through prostitution: all the health issues, like HIV and AIDS; the bodily effects of violence and physical abuse, mental abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence …
And homelessness, drug use –¦ ?
Exactly. And drug use has a lot to do with the economy—how people make money to survive. Prostitution is a work issue. And it’s not just a work issue for the people involved in prostitution, but there are a lot of work roles that intersect with theirs. There are the pimps, the drug dealers, and then there are the police.
How do audiences react to your film?
When we do screenings, one of the major responses we get from people is, ‘They chose to do that—so what are they complaining about?’ In this society, problems and solutions are very individualized. People are reticent to see individual situations within larger systems of oppression. And ‘choice’ is a red flag because choice, for all of us, is limited. Free will, free choice, is a fantasy.
In the film, you said women in prostitution are both invisible and visible at the same time. What do you mean by that?
Women in prostitution are the most visible of the transaction. The pimp is always behind the scenes. And the John—if you don’t catch him in the act, you don’t know where to find him.
As an issue, it’s very visible, especially in gentrifying areas, like Bucktown, where people want to eradicate prostitution from their neighborhoods because of the way it’s affecting their property values and their experience of their million-dollar homes.
But women as individuals are invisible. Who’s taking care of their kids when they’re in prison? Who’s paying for their funeral? Who’s paying for their health care when they were beaten up? As individuals, they’re invisible, and their voices are silenced.
Why are women in prostitution criminalized?
There are a lot of answers; I don’t want to be held to one of them. But, in this society, we want to blame somebody, so you pick the person who’s easiest to target. The kind of prostitution that happens on the streets is somewhere between 11 and 17 percent, and yet most of the arrests are there. And 75 percent of arrests are women in prostitution, and 25 percent are Johns—but that’s a misdemeanor; it’s not a felony. Now, in Chicago, women in prostitution can get a felony. It’s a permanent mark. With a felony charge, it’s not going to open any doors for them, for certain.
You would think that, in a logical, rational world, the people that make the money would be the ones to pay the higher price. But that’s not how it works. The people who are making the money are getting off scot-free. Women working in clubs are paying between 40 and 60 percent to the club owner, and women on the street or that have pimps often turn over their entire take to the pimp and just get a little allowance to live off of. These are not the people that are benefiting from this system, and yet they’re the ones getting criminalized.
Do you think there’s something the city can do to prevent people from entering prostitution in the first place?
I don’t believe in social controls in that way. But I think that offering people options—education, work options, treatment options—is the best form of prevention. Some people choose prostitution because that’s what they want to do, and some people don’t. They choose it because that’s what’s available to them.
Why do people get stuck in prostitution?
I think that varies a lot, according to each person. Some people are dealing with drug addiction, and there’s not a lot you can do when you’re in the grips of addiction. Other people’s self-esteem is so low. You know how hard it is to get a job? When you have 10, 20 years of nothing on your resume, you’re not just going to walk into some receptionist position—you know what I mean? There aren’t very many choices for women who have been through that.
Did your workshops contribute to the healing process for these women?
People learned how to use cameras, how to interview, how to tell their story, but they also really healed, and I don’t want to say from zero to 100, and everybody’s fine now—that’s not what I’m saying at all. What I’m saying is healing is a lifelong journey for all of us. And people moved along in that journey. Part of it was just being together with all the people that they shared this experience with, and having the opportunity to talk about it openly with people that didn’t judge them. For almost all of the women, this was the first time in their lives being in this kind of a setting.
What’s one thing you want audiences to come away with?
I want people to put a human face on prostitution, to see that they’re people that want the same things that everybody else wants. And that they deserve it.