Sex Wokers United Blog Post

Melinda Chateauvert discusses the various misconceptions regarding sex workers, such as trafficking, coercion, and drug use among other things—though it is entirely true some women may go through those experiences. Chateauvert includes the history and evolution of sex work, including legal changes and community efforts through activism, primarily carried out by grass roots organizations as well as police violence and sexual violence that causes sex work to be extremely dangerous, though statistics regarding sex work in general are inaccurate based on the “illegality” of the work (4).

As the “oldest profession,” sex work is one of the most ignored, dismissed, overlooked, and criticized industries (1). Coined in 1978 by Carol Leigh, sex work is defined as the “laborers who earn money to perform sexual services or who provide erotic entertainment to clients individually or collectively” (3). Sex workers comprise of prostitutes and strippers to escorts and porn stars, and many more.

In terms of the history of the sex work, Chateauvert includes how many queer and/or black trans women were sex workers and pioneered the gay liberation movement, including the Stonewall riot in the 1960’s. She included this and their experiences to highlight not only the relevance of sex work in history overall but also to point out how various movements, such as the gay movement and the women’s movement, absolutely did not except sex workers. Specifically, Rivera and Johnson helped lead this fight and were credited with essentially starting the Stonewall riot.

Additionally, “Whorephobia,” as it is called, directly influenced the evolution of sex work and continues to impact sex workers today who have been stuck in a society of shame (associated with sex) that makes it harder to operate (10). They wanted to go as far as to “abolish” sex work in the women’s movement which started this bad girl vs good girl fight where women essentially would be focused on the ways they could punish and control other women to ensure men would respect the large majority, which obviously was not the right approach (nor did it work). This did, however, create the “whore stigma” many sex workers struggle with to this day (14).

Overall, organizations called ACT UP, CAL-PREP, and others were eventually created in the 70’s and 80’s as a means to help sex workers, with free clinics, legal rights, and more. Specifically, St. James Infirmary was established in 1999 as the first free health clinic for sex workers. However, sex workers mainly focused on shifting society and erasing whore stigma rather than just having legal rights (imagine being punished for having HIV, even if you didn’t know) that protected them, especially because sex workers are one of the highest demographics of murder victims by serial killers. This ties into the severe sexual violence sex workers have suffered throughout history and the ways in which grassroots organizations began to address certain aspects of their lives experiences to include “harm reduction” (17). Other organizations emerged later like WHO (loved this acronym and I had no idea the last part stood for lesbians) and COYOTE that worked towards sexual liberation and further protections for sex workers who had no one else to turn to. 

What I enjoyed about this reading was understanding the liberationist vs assimilation perspective, and how that tied in to not only sex workers and their approach but also the perspective of other women, queer or straight. I genuinely had no idea how many aspects of history I was missing and how filling in these blanks would help broaden my understanding of social movements and what they focused on. It never occurred to me that perhaps it was possible to have many types of division within progressive social movements specifically, because they are taught differently in school. That, and there is a stigma of shame around sex in general that has slowly gotten better but is still an issue. My favorite line in the entire reading was when she mentioned how “gender bending broke down the stigmas about sexual work and sex workers” (117). What a brilliant way to capture such a significant societal shift in our culture, one I would have never picked up on before.

Another interesting point that made me pause was the idea that because of the illegality of sex work, legal jobs for sex work actually shelter women from the reality of how bad it can be and that this was not predicted as technology advanced and new types of sex work became widely available. I never thought about it this way or understood the risks associated with sex work, because everyone I know in a contemporary setting kind of glorifies being a sex worker, working on Only Fans, or having a Sugar Daddy (120-125). No one tells you how dangerous this can be but they absolutely should–I have actually had many friends fall victims to scams, money related and sex related, where they were harmed. Specifically, the author noted the Playboy Franchise and escort services alike, among others, as main reasons for this evolution of sex work based on capitalism. Sex work became a capitalist tool of oppression to further control women’s bodies and gain women off of it, which I wanted to talk about in terms of sexual violence (139-141).

The most surprising piece of information I learned was about the sexual violence that sex workers suffered at the hands of the police and their coworkers, and how this shift from “over charging customers to a policy of underpaying dancers” resulted in the perfect combination of fear and desperation that lead to violence (135-139). Sex workers were punished under the law, BIPOC sex workers at a higher rate, but this shift in payment resulted in sex workers having to accept disgusting, violent conditions in order to receive the same pay. Essentially, you were being paid (very poorly) to be abused by violent men, especially in strip clubs, where no one would protect you. Police already saw you are ‘dirty’ and ‘unclean women’ so the abuse was staggering. The language used here to describe what women should take, referencing what they should allow people to do to them for money, was absolutely disgusting and I had to pause and take a break. This broke my heart and definitely helped me become a better ally to sex workers, and think about ways I can support them better with decriminalization work.

Though there are a variety of reasons women get involved in sex work, they should have a legal right to do so that encourages a healthy lifestyle where they are able to feel and be SAFE. I want to do my part and find a way to make a difference, but not repeat the mistakes of those in the women’s movement who tried to control female sexuality in the same way men have always done for the rest of us.

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