By Melinda Chateauvert, author of Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk (Beacon Press, March 2015)
My mother kind of freaked out when I told her about the proposal for Sex Workers Unite! I never thought of her as a prude. When I was growing up, she rarely seemed embarrassed about sexuality matters, and her several non-traditional relationships definitely influenced my critique of the whole white picket fence family idea. But for her daughter to write about prostitutes’ rights threw her for a loop.
There are huge stigmas against sex work. For my mother, who came of age after World War II when the sexual double standard was as popular as drive-ins and girdles, embracing the women’s movement and sexual liberation of the 1960s was a radical rejection of her parents’ protestant conservatism. As a feminist, she rejects the idea that a woman’s sexual history is evidence of her worth or her integrity.
But sex work and the sex industry are another matter. For her, women “shouldn’t have to” be prostitutes; women should have education and employment opportunities and enjoy wage equality and childcare. My mother is also a successful businesswoman, a pioneer in a field that had very few women when she entered it in the early 1970s, rife with sexism, harassment and even sexual violence. She’s a feminist because the movement was supposed to liberate women through economic independence so they didn’t have to exchange sex for money or other support.
I don’t know any sex worker, male or female, who doesn’t support wage equality or, better, a living wage for all workers. The sex workers’ movement has always spoken out again sexism, sexual harassment and sexual violence too. Sex workers with children understand acutely the burdens of organizing their care and the costs of raising children; indeed, they do sex work because they earn more and have flexible hours to care for their kids. My mother and Margo St. James, the founder of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, the first feminist prostitutes’ rights organization) were born only a few years apart; I think they would agree about a lot of things.
For all that Margo and COYOTE accomplished, sex worker activists today have other views about the movement’s direction. Their perspectives have been shaped not by the “bra burners” of the 1960s but by HIV/AIDS, immigration, the prison-industrial complex, gentrification and even the revival of burlesque. Sex workers have fought the war on drugs, educated clients and the adult public about sex and HIV prevention, and are challenging the anti-immigrant sex panicked rhetoric about human trafficking. They are demanding that #BlackLivesMatter and #TransLivesMatter. These are matters literally of life or death, of freedom or imprisonment, of empowerment or impotence.
Burlesque, Beyonce, and sex-positive feminism have helped to overcome some of the stigma against sex and sex work. Cultural attitudes towards the sex industry and alternative sexual expression have shifted, emphatically so in some areas of the U.S. Burlesque and boylesque performers, professional and amateur, enjoy titillating their audiences, celebrating the public display of the human body, while Beyonce declares herself “FEMINIST” in cut-to-there spangled high-cut briefs. Feminism is sexy.
The sex workers movement recognizes that no one “should have to” engage in prostitution because they have no other choice. That’s why activists are involved in efforts to change immigration laws, to provide safe, nonjudgmental health services to drug users and others at risk for HIV or impregnation. It’s why sex workers volunteer in shelters for battered women and for homeless LGBTQ kids. It’s why they’re out protesting with Occupy and in Ferguson. But however narrow or wide the choices are for those who engage in sex work, stigmatization is violence.
Stigma remains and stigma kills. Slut-shaming, what my mother and Margo called the double-standard, can be found everywhere, online and in real time, in Tickfaw, Louisiana as well as San Francisco. Girls and queers are bullied by their classmates when perceived as sexual or otherwise transgressive. SlutWalk participants rightly denounced law enforcement procedures that question the “virtue” and integrity of female sexual assault victims. Transwomen of color are being murdered every week, but the media mis-genders them, suggests they had it coming because there bodies were found in areas “well-known for prostitution.”
Sex Workers Unite! is about sex workers who became political organizers and cultural activists to fight against stigma. “Brazen hussies,” “crack ‘hos,” “American gigolos” and “screaming queens” dare to believe that they deserve respect and human rights. These are stories about their many campaigns for justice.
MELINDA CHATEAUVERT is an activist who has been involved in many grassroots campaigns to change policies and attitudes about sex and sexuality, gender and antiviolence, and race and rights. As a university professor she has taught courses on social justice organizing, the civil rights movement, and gender and sexuality. She is a fellow at the Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.