A pungent mixture of sweat, deodorant, and cooking meats from the Tibetan restaurant next door immediately assaults the senses upon walking into the Jackson Heights dojo used by Elena Waldman.
The utilitarian second-floor space sits hard by the elevated tracks of the Roosevelt Avenue subway station, where the E, F, 7, and R lines converge. Mexican tortillerias, Colombian taxi-bars (where the women selling dances for $2 allegedly provide a broader menu of services for an additional fee), Middle Eastern grocery stores, and Bangladeshi cell phone kiosks line the sidewalks below. Late at night, as well as early in the morning, the dojo’s sealed windows provide an unobstructed view of sex workers on “the stroll,” which runs along Roosevelt from around 72nd Street to Shea Stadium.
Roosevelt Avenue is also the place to go if you need to buy a counterfeit birth certificate or Social Security card. But although the fake-papers trade is entrenched enough for the stretch of pavement to be nicknamed “La Embajada,” or, “The Embassy,” sex is the product being sold at night. Those selling it are overwhelmingly black and Latino, a large number of them transgender. Commercial activity in these parts always bustles, but the pace of business picks up considerably shortly after 4 a.m., when the bars close.
And with that activity comes danger. According to the most recent data available, 3.3 workers per 100,000 are killed on the job each year in the United States. For sex workers, the number is 204 per 100,000. That’s 51 times the death rate of liquor store workers, the next-riskiest occupation in America. At least 41 sex workers were murdered nationwide in 2015, though the actual rate is almost certainly far higher; many crimes against sex workers go unreported. Nearly 40 percent were shot, 15 percent were strangled, and 5 percent were beaten to death. One-third of the victims were trans women.
Waldman, a 52-year-old native New Yorker with a blackbelt in kyokushin karate, is teaching them how to fight back. She will travel anywhere to teach anyone who needs to learn self-defense, wherever they are, free of charge. This has often meant drug addicts, the homeless, and victims of domestic abuse, though sex workers, the most vulnerable of whom Waldman says are transgender and undocumented, consistently make up a large portion of the student body.
No one wears a gi in Waldman’s classes; she prefers that students come in their regular clothes, which she says is what they need to learn to fight in. If it’s a morning class, some students might be coming straight from work. If it’s an evening class, they might be headed out for the night. As such, it’s not unheard of for someone to arrive in booty shorts and stilettos. People occasionally arrive high, drunk, or both, which Waldman, who is built like a reinforced concrete blast wall, accepts without judgment; she is herself a recovering addict. Waldman always keeps baby wipes and baby powder on hand, since foot (and other) odors can be an issue.
To approximate real-world conditions, Waldman wraps blindfolds around her students’ eyes, and stuffs earplugs into their ears. She restricts their movements with duct tape and rope, forcing them to fight from a position of near-helplessness. She has had accomplices burst into the room and assault her in front of a class, to help the students learn to deal with fear. When an older female sex worker insisted that the rhinestone-bedazzled hammer she kept in her pocketbook was all she needed to stay safe, Waldman let a few moments go by before informing the woman that she had already stolen the bag off the back of her chair without her knowing.
“It’s disconcerting and scary,” Waldman admits. But it works. There are group walks through the neighborhood so Waldman can point out dangerous spots, safe havens, and anything and everything one can use as a weapon, including sandwich boards, police sawhorses, and the acrylic menu holders outside Chinese take-out joints.
De-escalation should be the goal, though is not always an option, says Waldman. A john can turn violent for reasons from a disagreement over money to the level of service he believes he is entitled to. Other times, Waldman says, “A girl gets in a car, the trick didn’t realize she had a penis, violence ensues. I’ve heard that story over and over and over again.”
By design, none of Waldman’s techniques require hours of practice to master. She’s not teaching martial arts, she explains, she’s teaching self-defense. Leave car windows open a crack; they’re easier to kick out that way. If you’re on a violent john’s lap, facing away from him, slam the back of your head into his face to break his nose.
“Gouging somebody’s eyes out can also be very effective,” says Waldman. “A lot of the people I work with have long nails, and I tell them, ‘You will get eyeball matter under your nails, you just will.’”
In the early 1980s, before she ever entered a karate dojo, Waldman, who has worked as an emergency room rape counselor and a rape crisis hotline operator, was fully immersed in what was then called the “feminist empowerment model” of self-defense. It’s as much an ethos as it is a fighting technique, rejecting “cultural victim-blaming” and holding perpetrators “solely responsible for sexual violence.”
“I fell in love with self-defense as a political statement and as a statement of human rights,” she says.
Waldman eventually began learning karate, and when the women working the stroll expressed an interest in learning how to protect themselves, Waldman combined aspects of the empowerment model with aspects of kyokushin—which is a full-contact style she describes as “very, very martial, very little ‘arts’”—to create a curriculum specifically to fit their needs.
As one might expect, violence affects street-based sex workers far more frequently than it does high-end escorts or call girls.
“The more your clientele feels they have to lose, the safer you will be, because they are not going to cause trouble,” says Anna Saini, an escort and activist in Brooklyn who charges $400 an hour. (All women named in this article agreed to do so in advance).
However, while violence may occur more often on the streets, rapes, murders, and assaults happen at all price points and in all locations.
“The very first time I was ever raped on the job was in the most expensive hotel in New Orleans,” says Maggie McNeill, a call girl and author who also charges $400 an hour.
Escort and author Amanda Brooks says she uses a web-based tool called VerifyHim to vet new clients. Local sex worker organizations compile “bad date lists,” which list the names of dangerous and abusive johns. And the worst of the worst are featured on their own dedicated sites and pages, one of which is maintained by Brooks herself.
Yet, many sex workers insist they fear law enforcement more than any client. According to one study, 24 percent of Chicago street-based sex workers surveyed said they had been raped by a police officer. In another, almost one in five Washington, D.C., sex workers reported having been propositioned for sex by cops. Several respondents said officers demanded sex in exchange for leniency. According to a 2007 working paper by economists Steven Levitt and Sudhir Venkatesh, roughly one in every 33 tricks turned by Chicago street prostitutes was actually a quid pro quo “freebie” for a cop. Their chances of being locked up? One in 450.
There’s an argument to be made for removing police from the equation altogether, which has been shown to substantially reduce the violence suffered by sex workers. In Rhode Island, where an inadvertent loophole accidentally legalized indoor prostitution from 2003-2009, the overall number of rapes committed across the entire population reportedly dropped by 33 percent.
None of this matters much to Autumn Burris, an anti-legalization activist who was forced into the sex trade as a young woman. Burris describes prostitution as “compensated rape,” adding, “the exchange of money does not change that fact.” Waldman doesn’t hide her disdain for this point of view, countering, “To say that all sex work is exploitative is as offensive as saying that all penetration is rape. You can’t scientifically demonstrate to me that giving someone a blowjob is hurting somebody else.”
Back on Roosevelt Avenue, the stroll is quiet. Waldman orders a falafel from one of four competing food carts sharing the same corner, and looks at her phone. She’s got 14 unopened voicemails from people that want to train with her.
“I say, ‘Tell me what you need, tell me what you’re exposed to, tell me what your fears are, and how can I be of service?’” Recently, a sex worker student of hers asked how to escape a violent john inside a vehicle. Waldman didn’t have a solid answer. So, she went away and came up with one.
“She was selling anal sex, doing it with the passenger seat laid down, and fighting on your stomach is extremely hard to do,” says Waldman. “So, I got in the car with my sensei, got down on my belly, and he choked me out.”