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Read Revolting Prostitutes

Your Socialism Depends on It

Sex Work

Photo credit: Juno Mac.

Brit Schulte is a lecturer, curator, community organizer, and underemployed art historian. They are currently based in New York.

Juno Mac and Molly Smith, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights (New York/London: Verso Books, 2018), 288 pages, $24.95, paperback.

In the days and weeks immediately following Verso’s announcement of the release of Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, sex work-centered social media erupted in unprecedented and rightful excitement. Several months after its release, the buzz continues. Around the world, across platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr (R.I.P.), people have not stopped, or even slowed, posting photographs featuring the book: posing with it, sharing snapshots of favored passages, advertising sex-worker reading circles and book clubs on it, adding it to their end-of-the-year reading roundups, and excitedly sharing into the wide-Internet-yonder that they too got a copy for a birthday, Hanukkah, Christmas, Boxing Day, etc.1 A typical accompanying post with a shared photo might read, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this book!”; a cheeky variation, “I’ve been waiting all my Ho-life for thisssss!” The visible commitment to expressly political, and radical at that, reading among the sex-working community (broadly defined) and other members of the left is not just heartening, it is life giving.

This is all to say: Revolting Prostitutes is a long-anticipated title by two already beloved and respected sex-working community members and activists, Juno Mac and Molly Smith. The book is chiefly concerned with the harms of criminalization and could not have come at a more politically charged moment. The stakes are yet again very high for sex workers and their accomplices-in-struggle in the United States and around the world. Sex workers find themselves and those doing community organizing centering harm reduction within or around alternative economies, as well as their labor rights, perpetually under attack. In a direct fuck you to these attacks, by December 29 Verso had run out of physical copies, recommending the e-book version while they put in a new printing order. From Smith: “We sold what Verso thought would be a year’s worth of books in the first six weeks!”2 But those of us actively engaged in the fight to end criminalization of survival have been anxiously awaiting something to connect us—to remind us that what we do constitutes a human-rights movement and a global workforce.

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Revolting Prostitutes reminds readers that this struggle is at once bigger than any one sex worker’s immediate needs, but also must be precisely driven by these day-to-day needs. While this might at first seem contradictory, Revolting Prostitutes emphasizes how the collective workforce is constituted by individual workers with varied experiences, all of which are unique and valid. To be very blunt, I would find myself tracing the cover, fanning through the red-dyed pages, and gripping the thing in both hands, assuring myself it was real; reconfirming to myself that our struggle for labor rights and recognition as workers is legitimate and deserving of unequivocal solidarity. Narrative matters and, with Revolting Prostitutes, we are gifted one shaped by nuanced, considerate, care-informed members of the impacted working community.

Is Your Socialism Sex-Worker Centered?

So, you thought this was going to be a book review? Well, it is and it is not. Consider this a humble and personal afterword to Revolting Prostitutes; consider this a call to action. The necessity of reading Revolting Prostitutes in this political landscape cannot be understated. The current state of organizing for sex workers’ rights is one of many threats—the only “given” regarding sex-worker organizing. Despite laboring/surviving in a working community where no two workers have the same experience, sex workers remain connected by the various degrees of stigma, shame, and criminalization. Whorephobia is part and parcel of this constant threat, pervasive among the whole political spectrum, from those on the far right to liberals to revolutionaries. This is precisely why it is essential for Marxists and leftists more generally to get on the right side of whorestory. There is a workforce organizing itself under serious threat from state violence and the violence permitted and generated by misogyny, transphobia, racism, classism, and all other forms of oppression.

At the risk of being labeled a reductionist, I nevertheless feel a need to pitch expressly this text to a few (admittedly overlapping at times) distinct audiences.

To fellow Marxists, socialists, and leftist feminists: Mac and Smith’s approach is both humanizing and materialist, and blatantly Marxist-feminist. The book provides the reader with data, experiences, and analysis to thoughtfully and deliberately consider all aspects of the material conditions—or rather, the utter lack of acceptable conditions—sex workers encounter while working. It further reveals the multifarious points of violence stemming from interventions by the state. These are necessary entry points in a world in which socialist feminists, Marxists, and organized labor alike still struggle with a particular blind spot: the commercial sex industry. Solidarity, the express action the authors call for, cannot be realized in the abstract, it has to be championed in practice. This solidarity will become reality when non-sex working people on the left take seriously the fight for labor rights, the defense of survival methods, and the unacceptability of the social, political, and economic ostracization of all sex-working/trading people.

To fellow and former sex workers: This book is exhaustively researched to foreground the voices and experiences of sex workers (us). The authors extend their analysis to those in the sex trade and commercial sex industry by choice, circumstance, force, fraud, or coercion. The authors do not abandon groups of workers to conveniently prove their point—they are unapologetically inclusive of a range of neutral and negative experiences of people who relentlessly demand rights and protections. They discuss labor trafficking, migrant sex workers, acts of survival sex, and a range of other methods of work, hustle, and trade. In doing so, Mac and Smith, and by extension their text, join the vital legacy of sex-worker voices, narratives, and resistance, such as Prostitutes: Our Life; To Live Freely In This World; Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry; and Playing the Whore, titles that are essential in shaping the radical (if not revolutionary) sex-industry worker.3 Revolting Prostitutes is also a corrective, or an antidote if you like, to pervasive oversimplistic narratives that have persisted for perhaps legitimate but ultimately unhelpful reasons. For example, Tits and Sass notes in their “2018’s Best Writing by Sex Workers” list that the book is “so deeply gratifying and validating, like a soapy cloth wiping away some of the classist sex positive nonsense fugues that obstruct progress and necessary development in sex work activism.”4

To fellow Marxist-feminist sex workers who are also community organizers: You have probably used what very little “down time” you have to finish reading Revolting Prostitutes and we should talk about it! There are undoubtedly deeper discussions to be had about strategy and tactics and what we want solidarity to look like in practice in the United States. To draw upon the authors’ emphasis on overlapping identities, “sex workers are incarcerated inside immigration detention centers, and sex workers are protesting outside of them.”5

One thing that makes this book really special is that it introduces readers to (or reminds them of) a multiplicity of identities. There is no straw-sex worker, no vague amalgamation of traits or disconnected ideas; actual workers’ words and stories speak to the complexity of experiences operating under varying degrees of criminalization. For example, migrant workers, Thai, Romanian, Ethiopian, watembezi, and Chinese working women’s interactions with law enforcement are reported, as well as stories of survival of trans and cis black women like Alisha Walker and GiGi Thomas. This is coupled with the authors’ uncompromising nature of the assumptions made about their readership: that we are ready for this information, that we are of the left, and that, broadly, we are needed in this fight for decriminalization. Some of this might be informed by the book’s UK-based framing and prominently featured working experiences, but nevertheless echo internationally across English-speaking communities. One of my first thoughts after reading Revolting Prostitutes was, “I cannot wait for this to be translated into, at minimum, fifteen languages.”

In our post-Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA)/Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) world, this book should be seen as required reading for all of the above, as well as anyone concerned with building a better world, ending the overpolicing of marginalized populations, and increasing access to basic human rights and needs.6

Revolting Prostitutes is a book concerned with criminalization and reducing harm, and the moment has never been riper than now for its analyses. SESTA and FOSTA were two bills, Frankensteined together, that became law in April 2018 and targeted websites and online platforms on which sex workers advertise their work. SESTA/FOSTA also threatens harm-reduction organizing by websites compelled to self-censor anything that mentions sex work/trade and drug use or needle exchange, condom use, “bad date” lists, and so on. Even before its passage, the fear and paranoia the bills created resulted in direct harm to queer and trans sex workers, as well as sex workers of color, especially those whose work was most precarious.

Necessarily, harm reduction, sex worker-led and trans-rights organizations leapt into action and coalesced around fighting the passage of SESTA and FOSTA. Among these organizations was Survivors Against SESTA (which sunset over the summer), a small collective with experiences in the sex trade that coordinated sex worker-led campaigns for national calls, lobbying, direct actions like taking to the streets in solidarity for International Whores Day, and knowledge and resource sharing. So far, loss of work, houselessness, arrest, missing persons, and death have been reported by sex-working communities as a direct result of this law and its broader criminalizing effects. From Survivors Against SESTA:

In the lead up to the legislation’s passage, sex workers across the country were outspoken about how SESTA/FOSTA would devastate their lives—compromising safety while sending people into economic insecurity. In the months since the law was passed, sex workers have been proven painfully right about increases in violence, the loss of housing and the increases in street-based work—all of which can be root causes of labor trafficking and exploitation.7

Sex workers warned their government representatives that these bills, if passed, would only further contribute to violence. But very few representatives and senators acknowledged this warning. Insidiously, anti-trafficking organizations (with budgets bigger than the sun) applauded and participated in campaigning for the bills that would become law, knowing the criminalizing, violent effects they would have on sex-working people. As Mac and Smith point out, SESTA/FOSTA is a law that “claim[s] to create safety—while in fact decimating the Internet spaces that help sex workers protect themselves from rapists or earn what they need to keep a roof over their head.”8

Resistance to Criminalization in the United States

There should not have to be a case made for why this current, resilient movement in the United States exists, and why you should support it. But here we are. We should know the groups on the ground making things happen. But most of us do not, and many of us even in the struggle will go years without knowing the faces or names of our costrugglers because criminalization keeps the majority of our work anonymous and clandestine. This is a nuanced, complicated movement—it is not some niche concern or a cause awaiting a savior. To illustrate this point and to add to the authors’ detailed analyses of similar movements in South Africa, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, here is a relatively brief list of regional and national sex worker-organizing movements in the United States:

  • Lysistrata Mutual Care Collective & Fund is an online-based sex worker-activist cooperative and emergency fund that administers personal grants for marginalized community members in crisis.9
  • Decrim Now D.C. (created by the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition) is a collective of black and brown sex workers, organizers, and allies building safety for people in the sex trade in Washington, D.C., and working in a coalition consisting of organizations such as Black Youth Project 100, HIPS, Collective Action for Safer Spaces D.C., and others, as well as individual community members.10
  • Las Vegas Sex Worker Collective (a collective formalized after International Women’s Day in the wake of SESTA/FOSTA) is a sex worker-led grassroots collective representing, supporting, and organizing people selling sex across all facets of the industry and groups of the trade.11
  • Bay Area Workers Support is a collective also formalized after International Women’s Day in the wake of SESTA/FOSTA, which currently provides small personal grants, emergency room-specific grants, and social and political support for community members in the Bay Area.12
  • The Support Ho(s)e is a collective that organizes to build radical community for sex workers and coconspirators in Chicago and New York, as well as coordinates the Justice for Alisha Walker Defense Campaign.13
  • Reframe Health & Justice Consulting is a collective of individuals committed to developing and delivering holistic, harm-reduction solutions for social justice and mission-driven organizations.14
  • Whose Corner Is It Anyway is a campaign of mutual support organized by sex workers in Western Massachusetts that provides stipends, indoor spaces to gather, and more. One of the active coordinators, community organizers, writers and coeditors of Tits and Sass, Caty Simon, has been a source of inspiration and strength.15
  • G.L.I.T.S., led by Ceyenne Doroshow, is an organization prioritizing black, immigrant, trans, and queer folks. Doroshow’s fierce love and commitment to community is overwhelming. From their website: “The first issue we address is that of immediate need/crisis support for transgender sex workers, including community members from the NYC area, across the US and globally through supporting asylum seekers from our priority communities.”16
  • Red Canary (Song) is a coalition prioritizing migrant sex workers and massage workers in New York, formed after the one-year anniversary of the murder of Yang Song, a young massage worker in Flushing, Queens.17
  • Women with a Vision (WWAV) was “created by and for women of color.… WWAV is a social justice non-profit that addresses issues faced by women within our community and region. Major areas of focus include Sex Worker Rights, Drug Policy Reform, HIV Positive Women’s Advocacy, and Reproductive Justice outreach.”18

Noticeably, there is even more centering of incarcerated sex workers and migrant workers in community-organizing work and political analysis in the past couple of years. Take, for example, the incredible work of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Behind Bars, the invaluable direct support work of Freedom 2 Live Network, and the broader analysis and political vision of Survived & Punished that extends to all criminalized survivors of gender-based violence.19 There is far more inclusion of prison- and police-abolitionist language within the sex-work decriminalization movement and that is a good thing. We are right to fully embrace an internationalist police-abolitionist approach (defund, disarm, disband), for Mac and Smith recount numerous threats, rapes, and acts of police violence, in addition to the violence of raids and theft: “women might have preferred working…to being raided, being prosecuted, and having their cash taken as an ‘anti-trafficking’ initiative.”20

Advocates and activists alike have seen new SWOP chapters, or reinvigorated chapters across the country, take on Know Your Rights trainings and hold community space for healing and justice.21 More and more, the importance of meeting like-minded people in person and holding space to organize for change is imperative, as access to online spaces is uncertain at best and downright dangerous at worst. Among those aforementioned excited tweets and posts about getting copies of Revolting Prostitutes, readers’ desire to discuss the book together and between impacted communities is a positive amid all the tumult.

Then there is the Third Wave Fund, extending funding and support at the grassroots level through their first formalized Sex Worker Giving Circle for organizations and collectives needing material support to continue their work within the community to politically engage, heal, and grow.22

This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are at least two dozen more formations I could name off the cuff that my word count here will not permit. But to fully appreciate the political landscape of current organizing efforts in the United States, these efforts of mutual aid and care, rising direct action, and the formation of new collectives must be named. This is to illustrate that sex-worker organizers and their coconspirators are legion and these organizing efforts deserve support, amplification, and money. As Mac and Smith state, “caring for each other is political work.”23

What Side of History Will You Be On?

If, for some reason, you still need convincing, perhaps the fact that this text takes on the necessary and crucial internationalist perspective by highlighting migration, borders, and police surveillance will do the trick. Because yes, it is easy to silo and be hyperfocused on the local in sex worker-rights organizing and within the left in general, let us be honest.

Arguably the most important section of the book is about labor and migration under late capitalism, (“sex workers asked to be credited with the capacity to struggle with work—even to hate it—and still be considered workers”) and expressly the way that borders, and their policing, are first and foremost sites of violence against migrant sex workers (“at borders all over the world, sex workers are treated as both villain and victims”).24 Precarious and criminalized working people have to constantly worry about so-called rescue efforts through eviction, arrest, and often extortion by police. The entire chapter called “The People’s Home,” presents stories and statistics from countries officially implementing the Swedish or Nordic model and clarifies myths and misconceptions about how labor and survival remain criminalized (and may I just take a moment to say, fuck the Nordic model and its implicit xenophobia and anti-blackness).

Some of the most personally affecting sections were the moments in which carceral feminism (feminism steeped in punishment and belief in the state’s role of executing such punishments) was explained and taken to task. The overtly unidimensional narratives and the embrace of the “perfect victimhood” of the “everywoman” or the “default woman” and punishment system are but a few reasons mainstream carceral feminists should be regarded as enemies of the left. The brief and necessary reminder that “cops are not feminists,” which our authors italicize for emphasis in their conclusion, had me punching the air, book in hand, inside LaGuardia Airport.25

Instead of flattening narratives to conveniently fit their argument, our authors concern themselves with truth telling, not overly favoring the ecstatic erotic professional nor only focusing on labor trafficking as the be-all and end-all of the commercial sex industry. Rather, by insisting on accounts from a range of sex workers who are navigating survival as best they can, the tired binary proves itself futile and worth rejecting. This book jumps the curb of the dead end that is binaristic thinking. Mac and Smith warn the carceral feminists: “Attempting to eradicate commercial sex through policing does not tackle patriarchy; instead, it continues to produce harassment, arrest, prosecution, eviction, violence, and poverty for those who sell sex.”26 I sincerely cannot wait until you get to the part when Mac and Smith brilliantly outline the complicated and trauma-informed ideologies of mainstream feminists who abandon those whose subject position is made “woman” and all those in the queer/LGBTQAI community, in their commitment to carcerality and the state.

Another addition that separates this book from most writing on sex worker-rights organizing and working realities is its framing of harm reduction and safer drug use. Throughout the book, there are respectful and ethical discussions of drug use, dependency, and survival strategies of sex-working people who use substances. Respectability politics do not find safe haven in these pages. In the chapter “A Victorian Hangover,” there is a section specifically addressing the War on Drugs and the subsequent war on the people who rely on them. In the United States, organizing efforts like those of the Urban Survivors Union and National Users Union are crucial and too often not given the media and funding attention they deserve.27

This Fight Is Ours

Revolting Prostitutes is for the organizer concerned with fighting against deportations, for the sex worker, for the drug user, for the academic, for the person in all four of these categories, pressured to hide multiple identities. Regardless of how you approach this read initially, allow it to expand your horizon line; let it serve as an entry point and gateway to a more radically inclusive labor politics, one that insists on refusing disposability. We need more people to embrace the need for unapologetic confrontation in order to win. For me, this book is a balm on the chapped lips of all those shouting, unheard by most, for a better world. A world that unconditionally provides for all, a world that does not punish survival. Mac and Smith said it best: “We want a future where feminist revolt and resistance is uplifted by the brazen spirit of the prostitute who demands to be safe, to be paid, and to be heard.”28

Notes

  1. Emily Shugerman, “Sex Workers Fear Tumblr Ban Will Destroy Their Bottom Line,” Daily Beast, December 3, 2018.
  2. Molly Smith, Twitter post, December 29, 2018.
  3. Claude Jaget, Prostitutes: Our Life (Bristol, Falling Wall, 1980); Chi Adanna Mgbako, To Live Freely in This World: Sex Worker Activism in Africa (New York: New York University Press, 2016); Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander, eds., Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry (San Francisco: Cleis, 1987); and Melissa Gira Grant, Playing the Whore (New York/London: Verso, 2014).
  4. Suzy Hooker, “2018’s Best Writing by Sex Workers,” Tits and Sass, December 31, 2018.
  5. Juno Mac and Molly Smith, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights (New York/London: Verso, 2018), 1.
  6. Melissa Gira Grant, “FOSTA Backers to Sex Workers: Your Work Can Never Be Safe,” Appeal, April 24, 2018.
  7. Survivors Against SESTA, http://survivorsagainstsesta.org.
  8. Mac and Smith, Revolting Prostitutes, 82.
  9. Lysistrata Mutual Care Collective & Fund, http://lysistratamccf.org.
  10. Decrim Now, http://decrimnow.org.
  11. Las Vegas Sex Worker Collective, http://twitter.com/lvswc.
  12. Bay Area Workers Support, http://bayareaworkerssupport.org.
  13. Support Ho(s)e, http://supporthosechi.tumblr.com.
  14. Reframe Health & Justice Consulting, http://reframehealthandjustice.com.
  15. Whose Corner Is It Anyway, http://gofundme.com/w-ma-street-worker-leader-stipends.
  16. G.L.I.T.S., http://glitsinc.org.
  17. Red Canary, http://twitter.com/redcanarysong.
  18. Women with a Vision, http://wwav-no.org.
  19. Sex Workers Outreach Project Behind Bars, http://swopbehindbars.org; Freedom 2 Live Network, http://facebook.com/f2lnetwork; Survived & Punished, http://survivedandpunished.org.
  20. Mac and Smith, Revolting Prostitutes, 79.
  21. Sex Workers Outreach Project–USA, http://swopusa.org.
  22. Third Wave Fund, http://thirdwavefund.org.
  23. Mac and Smith, Revolting Prostitutes, 6.
  24. Mac and Smith, Revolting Prostitutes, 55, 81.
  25. Mac and Smith, Revolting Prostitutes, 209.
  26. Mac and Smith, Revolting Prostitutes, 209.
  27. Urban Survivors Union and National Users Union, http://urban-survivors.org.
  28. Mac and Smith, Revolting Prostitutes, 220.
2019, Volume 70, Issue 11 (April 2019)
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