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’sSex 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.”  

That nexus of power has been rapidly shifting and dissipating as gentrification and the demands of a neoliberal economy make it increasingly impossible for sex workers to maintain their sovereignty, and their apartments, in the face of gentrification driven by companies like Twitter and Google. At the same time, as Margot Weiss makes clear in her book Techniques of Pleasure, the sex economy in San Francisco is transforming, its kink and S&M economies having long been more exclusively populated by those who can afford the required and expensive accoutrements.

Similar tensions between real estate interests and those of a publicly visible sex culture played out in cities like Chicago and New York. In New York, in the late 1980s, Giuliani “manipulated uptown’s disgust over Times Square’s sex theaters and porn stores, pushing the ‘XXX Zoning Law’ through a protracted court battle that forced the remaining places out of business." Today, Times Square as it existed then can be glimpsed in movies, but its reality of commercial billboards and blockbuster, “family-friendly” Broadway musicals is now a glittery show directed at tourists.

None of this is to uncritically celebrate a mythic and romanticized gritty Pretty Woman urban experience which happened to involve sex workers, many of whom did and continue to fight for survival from johns, pimps and cops who exert their power over them. But Chateauvert’s point in detailing what happened to the cities where sex workers were fighting for turf and work is also to draw connections between urban gentrification and the seemingly distant laws and regulations that would eventually make it even more dangerous for sex workers to negotiate safety and space.

Intensified drug laws and the new war on drugs in the 1980s meant that many sex workers in different cities “went ‘underground,’ chased from downtown areas, away from the public view of political leaders and gentrifying voters.” Sex workers on the streets found themselves imbibing and hustling drugs, often trading them in return for sex, often while juggling childcare and health concerns. Chateauvert devotes an entire chapter to the effects of the AIDS epidemic where she points out that it disproportionately affected women of color, particularly those in the sex trade, and that mainstream feminists never quite saw AIDS as a feminist issue: “Instead, after the death of Nancy Reagan’s friend Susan G. Komen, they took up breast cancer as ‘their’ disease cause, intertwining a pink ribbon with the red AIDS ribbon in symbolic solidarity.”

At the same time sex workers were forcefully organizing themselves, and Chateauvert includes a history of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), the sex worker organization that began in Seattle and which combined feminist analysis alongside what would today be described as a “sex positive” celebration of sex and sexuality. COYOTE’s reach and effects today have been eclipsed by events like Slutwalk, which profess the same politics but which are not active, organizing mechanisms. (Disclosure: Chateauvert quotes my critique of Slutwalk in her chapter on the topic.) But it remains historically important and “inspired third-wave feminist sex workers and gender-bending queer sex radicals in later decades.”

As is typical of many books about social movements and organizing groups, Sex Workers Unite focuses on urban areas. Would a history of sex workers organizing in rural or suburban areas add to this history or complicate it, if we looked at how they negotiate their work within areas and communities that don’t afford them the anonymity of cities? That question might have to be taken up elsewhere.

I found myself wishing for a more immediate sense of Chateauvert’s voice, which is sometimes muffled behind all the history she has to provide in a relatively packed volume. All that aside, there’s a lot of ground covered in this book, which will prove to be an essential record of the history of a movement.

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Yasmin Nair is a writer and activist based in Uptown, Chicago. She's a co-founder of the radical queer editorial collective Against Equality and the volunteer policy director of Gender JUST. Her writing can be found at