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The Feministing Five: Juniper Fitzgerald & Elise Peterson

Juniper Fitzgerald’s new book, How Mamas Love Their Babies, out February 12th from the Feminist Press, is the first children’s book to feature a sex worker parent! The book, beautifully illustrated by artist Elise Peterson, explores the many ways mothers care for their children—piloting airplanes, washing floors, dancing at a strip club, working in an office, and more. Introducing the idea of bodily labor, the book provides an expanded picture of working moms and challenges head on the idea that only certain jobs are analogous with positive parenting.

This week, I had the pleasure of catching up with Juniper Fitzgerald, herself a former sex worker, and illustrator Elise Peterson for The Feministing Five. We chatted about motherhood and labor, how communities can support sex workers, and what How Mamas Love can mean for kids and parents alike. You can pre-order this gorgeous picture book today straight from the Feminist Press.

Senti Sojwal: How did the idea for this book come about?

Juniper Fitzgerald: I worked in the sex industry for over a decade. When I had my child, I read them every queer children’s book I could get my hands on. And while many of these beautiful books exposed my kid to the idea of gender and sexual fluidity, none of them introduced the idea of erotic labor. As a former sex worker, queer femme, and platonic co-parent, I found that these progressive children’s books spoke to the complexity of family life but none addressed sex work head-on. And then Terry Gross famously gave a “listener warning for parents with small children” when she interviewed a sex worker on her show, further dichotomizing motherhood and sex work. The organization The Red Umbrella Babies wrote a beautiful open letter to Gross about the stigma of “warning” children about sex workers, especially when so many sex workers have children of our own.

When my child was older, I helped write and film an avante garde, feminist porn with Madison Young and others. I was still breastfeeding at the time and the stringent laws surrounding legal erotic labor meant that I had to leave the porn set every two hours to sit on the curb in San Francisco’s Mission District to breastfeed. It was painfully ironic and sad. I spent the day filming beautiful naked bodies, surrounded by queer, mostly gender non-conforming folx, where breasts could be used for erotic purposes but not to feed a child. It really spoke to what Jung called the “adolescent” phase of intimate development wherein societies can’t hold onto the nuance and complexity of bodies. Like, bodies can be sexual and nurturing simultaneously! That juxtaposition is hard for most people, I think, and it’s at the foundation of why so many people in our society believe sex work is incompatible with parenthood. Not to mention, being a sex worker is used as “character evidence” in custody cases all the time. Most sex workers are familiar with the tragic story of Petite Jasmine, a Swedish sex worker who lost custody of her children to an abusive man—the children’s father—who later killed her.

All this to say: writing a children’s book about a sex-working parent became more than a dream or a passion. It became a necessity.

Sojwal: What are your hopes for how this book can educate young readers about motherhood and labor?

Fitzgerald: The book doesn’t focus exclusively on erotic labor. When I wrote the book, I was thinking and writing a great deal about the popular saying among sex workers and allies, “sex work is work.” I wanted to get at the idea that all labor, all work, engages the body in one way or another. Even childbirth is laborious! So if we can start to talk about labor as intimately tied to the body, my hope is that we can start to reclaim what white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism have taken from us. I also wanted to make a very subtle comment on the unpaid domestic labor of women and how that labor, along with the labor of sex work, is often deemed “invalid” or undeserving of compensation. So while suburban stay-at-home mamas haven’t been the most outspoken supporters of sex workers’ rights, I think there are many understated parallels in our experiences with the body, labor, and compensation (or lack thereof). My hope is that all mamas will see themselves reflected in this book and in that reflection, find deeper empathy for sex workers.

Elise Peterson: My hope is simply that those that find themselves and their familial experiences underrepresented can see themselves in this book.

Sojwal: The book is so beautifully written and illustrated. What was your process of working together to create the look and feel of the book? What were your goals?

Fitzgerald: When I saw Elise’s initial portraits, I started weeping. I’ll never forget it—I had an amazing cocktail in my hand and had just undergone a complete hysterectomy. There was something profoundly otherworldly happening, as Elise became pregnant, I lost my womb, and together we birthed this book into the world. I certainly can’t speak for Elise’s process, but knowing her background and knowing that we share a certain degree of familiarity with the sex industry, my hope was always that she would take my words and create images that spoke to her own experiences in the world. And obviously, she created something that is pure magic.

Peterson: Our processes were actually very separate. After Juniper completed the written portion, the transcript was then given to me to illustrate. I had no real prior knowledge of her aesthetic preference. I simply trusted my gut with the visuals. Above all, I wanted to make sure to create space for inclusive and expansive of imagery around mothering and motherhood.

Sojwal: How Mamas Love is notable because it’s the first picture book to depict a sex worker parent. What are some ways we as a community can work to better support sex workers and de-stigmatize sex work?

Fitzgerald: First, thanks for asking! That’s the first thing communities can do: ask sex workers directly what kind of support they need. At a micro-level, the most important thing that communities can do to support sex workers is to take up less space so that sex workers can take up more. Let sex workers speak to their own complex experiences in the sex industry and don’t assume that you get to frame the narrative of a sex worker’s experiences.

Additionally, and more broadly, femmes need to stop slut shaming other femmes or punitively commenting on a femme-presenting parent’s sexual behavior or proclivities. I remember when Patrick Califia did a spread for Village Voice where he etched children’s drawings into his skin. It was a performance piece illustrating his involvement in BDSM and the stigma of being a sexual “deviant” while also being a parent. Again, we all need to hold nuance and complexity in our hearts. Engaging in consensual adult sex or other erotic play with other consenting adult humans is not incompatible with raising children. People are complex.

At a macro-level, literally the only intersectional feminist perspective on sex work is one that advocates for the complete decriminalization of prostitution. Communities need to be vocal in their opposition to policies that make sex workers’ lives more difficult. For example, any kind of “End Demand” program pushes sex workers further underground and erodes our safety nets and social bonds. They are unethical policies, just as they were in Victorian Britain, and they serve just one purpose: easing the social anxieties of (white) middle and upper class people.

Sojwal: What’s on the horizon for you both creatively and in your activist work?

Fitzgerald: I just pitched an auto-theory (for grown-ups) on motherhood, sex work, and feminism to the Feminist Press, so cross your fingers and make some animal sacrifices! I am also co-parenting a child in a red state, which is its own sort of creative process, while advocating for sex workers’ rights here. I recently met with the only “feminist” organization in town, begging them to recant their support for a policy that further criminalizes people in the sex industry (the policy passed). They showed me my hat before I’d even taken it off. My hope for the next year is to create a meet-up/karaoke/coffee and cocktail night for sex workers locally. Being in a red state with horribly punitive policies, though, organizing an event like the one I mention could actually land me with a “pimping” charge because pimping is now defined so loosely. Creating community is tough when your very existence (even as a mostly former sex worker) is criminalized. We’ll see…Of course, I’m doing all of this while also trying to hold on to my straight job as a professor. Life is funny.

Peterson: The work that I create is inherently activism. Next up, I’m working on illustrating my next children’s book, The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gasket written by Brontez Purnell. It’s an account of single motherhood that I don’t think we have seen before especially within the realm of children’s literature. I’m also hosting a new series, MANE, with Now This News on the intersection of hair and culture as it relates to the experiences of women. I’ll also be taking some time to embrace and be immersed in my approaching motherhood.

NYC

Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics, and has worked with NARAL, The Civil Liberties & Public Policy Program and its sister program PopDev, and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She currently works at Sakhi for South Asian Women, an advocacy organization that supports immigrant survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence through an array of culturally competent services and programs. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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