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Sex Workers Speak Up

J. Kirby
Date Published: 



Seal Press, 2007

Working Sex comes at a critical time. Hardly mentioned amongst the dehumanizing and damaging portrayals in most media coverage of sex workers, is the burgeoning US sex worker rights movement. It is growing stronger and more united, even in the midst of worsening government anti-prostitution policies. Art and culture are playing key roles in this movement, with sex worker art shows, film fests, and other venues of representation and expression growing and persisting over the past few years.

Some might relegate sex workers’ struggles to sideshow status, but the stakes are in fact, quite high. Criminalization and stigmatization of sex workers place people at risk: pushing them into the shadows, encouraging abuse and violence by police and others towards sex workers and those profiled as such, and leaving sex workers with little to no access to the law when they need it. With harmful ramifications for affected populations everywhere, the Bush Administration has adopted a hard line against sex workers. For example, international NGOs are now required to take an anti-prostitution stance to receive desperately needed US funding for HIV/AIDS prevention. This is rendering some of the most effective organizations addressing sex-workers’ concerns ineligible, while allowing funds to flow to certain US based NGOs whose work contradicts the desires of the population they purport to serve.

Since one of the biggest impediments to sex workers’ rights is the denial of their voices and agency in the debates and decisions that affect them, the creation of venues where sex workers share their viewpoints is absolutely necessary. Working Sex Editor Annie Oakley, the founder and curator of the dynamic Sex Workers’ Art Show, is keenly aware of the role arts and expression play in sex workers’ struggles for rights, dignity, and recognition. In a compelling introduction she writes, “When you refuse to recognize someone’s humanity, you don’t have to worry about their working conditions, their safety, their health, their ability to make a decent living.”

The writers of Working Sex come from many sectors of the sex industry. They’ve worked the streets and the net, and send dispatches from brothels and strip clubs. They’ve created porn, escorted, and talked dirty on the phone. These writers represent a multiplicity of viewpoints, ethnicities, genders, and sexualities, and they are super-talented to boot. The collection of authors’ biographies is as interesting to read as their actual works. Along with being accomplished artists and cultural workers, many have a lengthy history of involvement in various organizing struggles. The pieces themselves encompass a wide range of forms, and are hilarious, maddening, engaging, sexy, and inspiring.

Flourishing movement

Some authors directly tackle the intersections of class, race, migration, and gender, highlighting the clear connections between sex worker rights struggles and broader struggles for economic and social justice. After brilliantly connecting dots to demonstrate that the US government is “the biggest pimp of ‘em all,” Tre Vasquez writes, “Please, next time you feel for those women on the street in that alternate reality on the other side of town, take a moment, too, for my sisters in the maquiladoras makin’ your clothes….”

In the beautifully simple poem Degrade, Emi Koyama takes on a host of skewed conceptions of sex work in a few short stanzas. The first four lines are themselves worth pages of reporting on sexuality and class:

degradation / is not trading sex for money / but it is exchange / of social security number for food

Another highlight of the collection is Siobhan Brooks’ interview with Gloria Lockett. Veteran activist and prostitute, Lockett is the former co-director of the sex worker rights group, COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), and current Executive Director of California Prevention and Education Project (CAL-PEP). She has much to teach new activists about the history of sex workers’ struggles, and particularly those of African-American sex workers. Hopefully this interview leads readers to her numerous writings in other anthologies.

Working Sex expands on collections like Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry. While it does not include a section on organizing and resources as does Sex Work, Working Sex adds more voices—including gender-diverse perspectives—to a discussion that is strengthened by having as many directly affected people participating as possible. So, place this gorgeous red volume on your bookshelf next to the likes of Sex Work, and let’s hope for more writing, more art, and a flourishing sex worker rights movement.