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Sex As Work? The Fascinating Story of How Sex Workers Changed Our Cities

The history of urban centers is the history of their sex workers.

The work of sex work is never done, but its history keeps getting rewritten. In recent years, trading sex for profit has gained more acceptance, and along with that has come more work chronicling the rise of a sex worker movement. Twitter handles by sex workers and allies have multiplied and the conversation and actions around sex as work have widened in scope and intensity.

Melinda Chateauvert’s Sex Workers Unite is a necessary and comprehensive look at the many ways sex workers have been organizing for decades in North America. Here, sex workers are not the sad and abject creatures so popular in certain feminist circles and television shows, but they’re also not the brazen and stupendously wealthy call girls also popular in other kinds of feminist circles and television shows.

There’s a tendency, among those who write about sex work, to erase its queer history. And there’s a tendency among gays and lesbians and their allies to erase the role of sex workers in the movement. But as Chateauvert points out, Stonewall came about because of transgender sex workers like Sylvia Rivera and gay hustlers who “fought back against yet another rousting by the Morals Squad” at the inn in 1969. The same was true at Compton’s Cafeteria, in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, where trans sex workers finally lashed out against the cops harassing them.

Chateauvert details Sylvia Rivera’s life, and the work of the group she founded, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries or STAR (the history of which can be found on Reina Gossett’s site).

It’s fitting that Chateauvert should begin her book with an account of Stonewall’s origins in trans and sex worker activism, and the figure of the controversial yet irrepressible Rivera. This allows her to complicate “ideas about identity, rights, work, and freedom.” Had she situated the history of sex only in the history of cis women fighting for rights, the book would be a less nuanced look at the goals many mainstream movements tend to fight for: liberal bourgeois ideas about sexual and other freedoms all wound into a quest for respectability and citizenship.

But sex work is complicated, and a complicated analysis like Chateauvert’s takes into account its intertwining with capitalism and neoliberalism in particular. Highlighting the work of radical queers fighting for space and recognition draws attention to the urban politics of gentrification as well as the neoliberal politics of respectability in which both mainstream feminists and gays and lesbains are implicated.

The history of urban centers is, in palpable ways, the history of their sex workers. It’s also the history of how the state gradually exerts its power through the prison industrial complex to make distinctions between good and bad citizens and desirable and undesirable places to live. Neighborhoods have been marked as blighted based on the presence of street-based sex workers, and they have been defined as cleansed and gentrified based on how effectively the state might sweep away and “disappear” sex workers from street corners.

Chateauvert focuses on cities like San Francisco and New York to describe the complicated intersections between urban renewal and decay and sex work. The former, its sex worker economy already chronicled by writers like Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, was the center of “whore power” for decades. In the 1970s, Dianne Feinstein, succeeding Harvey Milk, oversaw the development of real estate deals that contributed to the attrition of vast swaths of city areas devoted to sex work venues. In the 1990s, sex workers there began to organize more visibly; workers at the Lusty Lady, a peepshow venue, won a collective bargaining agreement in 1996. 1999 saw the opening of the St. James Infirmary, “the first occupational health clinic for sex workers.”  

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