‘Sex Workers Unite’

From the March-April 2014 issue of News & Letters:

‘Sex Workers Unite’

Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk, by Melinda Chateauvert, is a valuable history of the Sex Workers’ Rights Movement in the U.S. from its start in the 1960s to the present and its intersection with other social justice movements. Activists chose the term “sex worker” because it includes providers of any sexual service or entertainment and is gender neutral. “Worker” puts it into the same context as other labor struggles with the need for safe and fair working conditions.

Chateauvert explains that whether people become sex workers from “choice, circumstance, or coercion,” they are “fighters” who need others to be their allies not rescuers. Trafficking victims could find help more easily under the human rights approach rather than the current one in which they are criminalized. She also explains the many reasons why sex workers demand decriminalization rather than legalization, which results in more harassment and exploitation from law enforcement and the state. In fact, sex workers most often cite the police as perpetrators of rape, harassment and violence.

SEX WORKERS BUILDING COMMUNITY

Chateauvert thoroughly describes the changes in the sex industry over the years, as well as new oppressive laws intended to take public attention off of globalization and job loss, and the movement’s successes in changing some of those laws. Equally important have been sex workers’ efforts at building community such as: hotlines to report dangerous clients; nonjudgmental medical clinics run by and for sex workers; and zines giving encouragement and medical advice to youth who mistrust the medical and legal systems. They also speak for themselves through books, films, podcasts, zines, speakouts, conferences and art shows.

Sex workers have been on the forefront of other social justice movements, but have been shut out as these movements achieve mainstream acceptance. People—especially women—who are of color, Transgender, undocumented immigrants, the poor and/or the homeless are more likely to resort to or choose sex work, especially trading sex on the street, which is the most targeted by law enforcement. They are thus more likely to become incarcerated.

Sex workers have been activists against sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty, homelessness, and the prison industrial complex. However, the mainstream LGBT movement does not recognize their prominence in the Stonewall Rebellion and early Queer movement. Today, it favors marriage and conformity over acceptance of a range of different sexualities and appearances. But, as the fight against HIV/AIDS shows, sex workers and their movement have educated the public about safer sex. This has been more effective than the Right’s policies of sexual repression and scapegoating of sex workers.

WE OWN OUR OWN BODIES!

It may seem strange that the sex workers movement and the feminist sex-positive movement have been close allies since sex work is not always pleasurable. What they have in common is an insistence on the ownership of one’s own body and sexuality, which means a rejection of the shame used to keep women and sex workers from insisting on rights and freedom from violence. Sex workers were involved in the feminist SlutWalk demonstrations, which made the statement that a woman’s sexual and clothing choices are never an excuse for rape. Until recently both movements were rejected by the organized feminist movement, although they also identified as feminist and have used the same radical methods of consciousness raising and speaking out about their own experiences. Chateauvert describes how prohibitionist feminists who want sex work criminalized have imitated the right wing in silencing and harassing sex workers and calling them damaged victims.

Chateauvert brings up but does not delve into the question of how a struggle against capitalism would fit into the sex workers’ rights movement. However, the book is important in showing how overturning unjust social institutions will only be accomplished by listening to and being allied with stigmatized people rather than accommodating to the mainstream.

—Adele

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