Sex Worker Unite

In Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk, Milinda Chateauvert, documents, contextualizes, and highlights the history of sex worker activism and the lives of the people who fought for the movement toward sexual liberation. In the introduction, Chateavert begins by giving an overview of how sex workers are policed, paid, and seen in society. She also starts with debunking misconceptions that are associated with sex workers. She describes them as autonomous beings with agency, that are not the “victimized teenage runaway” narrative that is fed to society (1). The first chapter discusses the reluctance that mainstream social justice movements had towards engaging sex workers’ rights because it went against the respectability politics that allowed some of the most assimilated groups to be accepted into white heteronormative society. This chapter also summarized how groups like COYOTE, The Exotic Dancers Alliance, and the US PROStitue Collective organized, especially when AIDs crisis was cultivating fear and hatred of queer people and sex workers. And when terms like “sex worker” was coined, it gave sex work activist and allies the linguistic room to express and organize around (13). The second chapter explores the shortcomings of the “straight” feminist movements. While “straight” feminists faced the same systematic oppression that criminalized sex work, sex workers gave “straight” feminists the ability to have an ideology to demonize that would make the white heterogeneous society accept their movement.

Chapter 5 retells the history of how sex work was not just a job, it was a market. It became a capitalist tool. And with the increase in “telecommunications, video, cable television” (119), and later the boom of the “world wild web” (127), there was an invigoration in the market for sex work. However, because it is a capitalist exploit, stakeholders allowed sex workers to be brutalized and underpaid like through the Playboy enterprise (141). In Chapter 6, Chateauvert exposes how police throughout the history of the sex working movement, ignore crimes against sex workers, especially if they were transgender, a migrant, and/or Black. The police not only overlooked the violence against sex workers, and criminalized them, they also were the perpetrators of it. In the seventh chapter, Chateauvert writes on the ways students pursued sex-positivity and bodily autonomy in academic spaces, and how Riot Grrrl and groups lie Bikini Kill differed the anti-porn philosophy in the “feminist” spaces that negated the next generations liberation (189). This chapter also explains how these ideas contributed to works like the SlutWalk Toronto and how it started an international conversation on sex work and violence against women.

I thought the most powerful part of this work is how it humanized the narrative associated with sex workers. Regardless of if they were organizing, marching, or making a living, they were people. They were not just bodies for pleasure and victims of childhood trauma. They worked in a system that “pays the bills. Some people like the work, some don’t, and many have mixed feelings” (123). Sex work is different because it unlocks a certain discomfort and ambiguity in Americans. It is something that could give women freedom. After reading this work, I am left questioning why people are so uncomfortable with the idea of sex work in the first place.

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