“To protect and serve” is the motto of police departments from Los Angeles to Cape Town. When police officers deviate from the twin goals of protection and service, for example by using excessive force or by maintaining hostile relations with the community, scholars recommend more training, more oversight, or more resources in policing. However, police appear to be motivated by a superseding goal in the area of sex work policing. In some places, the policing of sex workers is connected to police officers’ perceptions of beauty, producing a hierarchy of desirable bodies as enforced by those sworn to protect and serve us all.
This Article examines how police preserve racial and gender subordination in South Africa, an instructive analog for the United States because of both nations’ shared histories of racial apartheid and valorization of whiteness. Drawing from extensive original data from a multiyear study, this Article exposes how police officers’ perceptions about sex workers’ beauty influenced their policing of different classes of sex workers in Johannesburg, South Africa. Police valuations about sex workers’ beauty resulted in benevolent surveillance of sex workers who were higher on the social hierarchy and decreased police protection for sex workers whom they viewed as less beautiful in more dangerous areas of the community. If community protection and service were the primary motivators for police conduct, police officers should have focused on the spaces that were more dangerous, which were those with sex workers police deemed less professionalized and less beautiful.
This act of assigning value to different bodies, through the subjective language of aesthetics and beauty, reinforced existing racial and sexual hierarchies. Beauty was a proxy for race. Police assigned higher values to whiter and more European bodies, and discounted blacker bodies as foreign and less beautiful. So blacker bodies, which were less valuable than whiter bodies in their eyes, were simultaneously neglected yet susceptible to more brutal forms of policing during their limited interactions with police. Whiter feminine bodies were both well-protected and subject to the constant gaze of the police. These whiter bodies were ignored when they challenged white masculinity, but prioritized over blacker bodies. Reinforcing the higher value of whiter bodies over blacker bodies took precedence over reducing crime, suggesting that police serve and protect racial hierarchies in countries that have a history of white supremacy before they serve and protect the people.