Not Oprah’s Book Club: Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk

Sex Workers Unite coverWe have told the story of the last half-century so many ways, and we are not done telling it. Much feminist work has been devoted to decentering dominant histories in order to cultivate what Adrienne Rich called “the precious resource of knowing where we come from: the valor and the waverings, the visions and defeats of those who went before us.” Given the direct and enabling role that Official History plays in today’s many scenes of violence—for example, the starring role of the History in Which Obama Ended Racism in the ongoing drama of the prison industrial complex—retelling a familiar story from a previously silenced perspective can itself be a vital form of activism.

The imperative, as the Knife put it, is clear: “Rewrite history to suit our needs.” From Alice Walker, from Angela Davis, from George Chauncey, we’ve learned this. From Melinda Chateauvert’s Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk (Beacon Press, $26.95), we learn it anew.

Sex Workers Unite covers familiar historical ground—sexual liberation, Reaganomics, the AIDS crisis, neoliberalism—from the still too unfamiliar perspective of sex workers, a term capacious enough to include “escorts, exotic dancers, porn stars, peep-show workers, professional dominants, rent boys, phone-sex operators, strippers, webcam performers, erotic priestesses, prostitutes, and providers of a vast array of niche adult services.” Making good on her title, Chateauvert begins with the riots at Compton’s Cafeteria and the Stonewall Inn in the late 1960s and works her way forward to the present day.

The book strikes a triumphal tone from the very first sentence: “Sex workers are fighters.” The parade kicked off at Stonewall continues (deep inhale) through the paternalistic anti-prostitution and anti-pornography arguments of 1970s radical feminists, early sex worker-led efforts at providing services and organizing politically in San Francisco, the devastating blow of the AIDS epidemic and the deadly rise of sex-negative conservatism, the staggering expansion of commercial sex work enabled by proliferating markets and technologies, the renewed organizing undertaken in the 1990s against police violence and repression, and contemporary reclamations of “slut” sexuality among a new generation of pro-sex feminists.

This should sound like a lot to cover in two hundred pages, and it is. Chateauvert is smart to frame her book as a “collection of stories” rather than a comprehensive or field-defining work, and the sections where she forgoes sweeping scene-setting for specific anecdotes are her most successful. When Chateauvert zooms in closely and at length, she is a shrewd and able analyst of cause and effect. Unfortunately, much too much of the book is occupied by the setting of scenes. The more familiar contextualizing details of the historical periods in question are put forth repeatedly as if to orient the reader, usually jumped between briskly but almost always drawn out far too long and recurring far too soon.

Some of this is necessary, of course, to situate her specific cases within larger political and cultural currents, but a book this slim can’t afford the padding. Less benign are the instances in which Chateauvert simplifies to the point of inaccuracy, as when she claims that during the 1980s, “In the ferment of analyzing the construction of sexuality and gender, race, and sometimes social class, theorists didn’t free themselves from the trap of identity politics, preserving a kind of biodetermined nationalism that at first somewhat eased progressives’ fears of expanding state power,” which is as unhelpfully general as it is unfair to the urgent intellectual work being done both within and outside of the academy throughout the decade.

These too-frequent, too-broad strokes aside, the book’s disparate settings and characters are well managed and its big shifts well finessed; her turn from the misguided paternalism of New York radical feminists in one chapter to the organizing work of San Francisco “sex radicals” in the next is an instructive juxtaposition of ambitious theorizing on the one hand and piecemeal policy reform on the other.  Chateauvert, you may have guessed, lands on the side of praxis, and the energy and efficacy of sex worker-led groups like COYOTE (“Call Off Your Old, Tired Ethics”) in San Francisco is rousing to read about in such detail.

And despite how often sex workers share center stage with sex-negative feminists and politicians in her book, what a relief that Chateauvert largely sidesteps the polar vortex of the is-sex-work-inherently-sexist-or-not debate! It is so cold, we are so over it, and nothing grows there anyway. Instead, she prioritizes the health, dignity, and self-determination of (gasp) sex workers themselves. “It’s a job,” she writes; “it pays the bills. Some people like the work, some don’t, and many have mixed feelings.” To her endless credit, Chateauvert never forgets that sex workers start working for a variety of reasons—some by choice, some by exigency, some by coercion—and focuses her attention on obstructions of their agency, the conditions of their work, and their dauntless resistance to violence and shame.

Drawing on the writings and testimony of generations of sex worker activists, Chateauvert reminds us repeatedly that sex work is, well, work, and the framework of labor rights and organizing is a fruitful one. Refusing to view sex work through this lens by condemning it wholesale as trafficking impedes sex workers’ ability to demand better conditions. Criminalization of prostitution is wrong not simply because of the sex-negative morality that motivates it, but because it prevents prostitutes from organizing and makes labor conditions worse even for legal commercial sex workers. Indeed, Chateauvert also resists privileged and abstract conceptualizations of sex work that emphasize sex over work, noting, “stories that don’t conform to the ‘superhappyfunsexysexwork!’ narrative tend to flummox pro-sex feminists.”

The labor framework also allows Chateauvert to draw connections between sex work and other labor movements, especially “in other industries dependent on contingent labor, independent contractors, low wages or piece rates, and high employee turnover”—industries like child care and domestic work that tend to “draw from the same female labor pool” of poor women, immigrants, women of color, undereducated women, and women with criminal records. But rather than simply shoving sex work into pre-existing organizing models, Chateauvert insightfully elaborates the different strategies required for building and sustaining sex worker organizations as opposed to more established labor unions.

For Chateauvert, understanding sex work as a form of labor goes hand in hand with a shift in activist vocabularies from identity politics to harm reduction and human rights, combining labor organizing with service provision in order to better attend to concrete threats to sex workers’ survival. In a model that anticipates Dean Spade’s arguments against a queer politics centered around state recognition and civil rights, Chateauvert shows how “feminist” advocacy for stronger regulation and reformed policing have actually strengthened the primary institutional perpetrators of violence against sex workers. She instead applauds organizing efforts led by and for sex workers themselves: activist work that emphasizes community-building, cultural politics, and collective empowerment.

Throughout Sex Workers Unite, we see shrewd and tireless sex workers—fighters, all—organizing their own movements and telling their own stories over and against activist histories that do not yet acknowledge them. The book is, as Adrienne Rich would say, a “precious resource.” Chateauvert is frank from the very beginning about “the complexities of documenting the history of sex-worker activism,” and she seems at every point aware that all histories are strategically motivated, all written with the implicit expectation that they do something in the world.

“Movement goals are always idealistic,” she writes; “like utopian fiction, goals provide people with a vision of a world not yet achieved, but one that is within the realm of possibility.” Though the obstacles to sex workers’ goals can often seem dystopic in scale and number, Sex Workers Unite does the invaluable work of showing us what a responsible and effective movement might look like, centering the voices and strategies of sex workers themselves in order to restore our best future to the realm of the possible.

Sam Huber lives and writes in New York City. He is a guest contributor to Feministing.

New Haven, CT

Sam Huber is a writer and editor living in New Haven, CT. He is a books columnist for Feministing and a graduate student in English at Yale University.

Writer, editor, queer.

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