I picked up Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk by Melinda Chateauvert because it made me uncomfortable and because I didn’t know anything about a sex worker’s movement. I kept reading because the information the book presented was fascinating.
Sex work is not a common topic of discussion in most circles. In fact, it is still a mostly taboo subject. When it comes up, especially in mainstream media, it is pretty standard to fall back on stereotypes: sex workers as victims, sinners, druggies, the dregs of society, less than human. It is hard to win rights for a group when people refuse to talk honestly about the existence of that group, refuse to acknowledge that the group deserves rights, and reject the idea that it is possible for members of that group to be harassed and abused. This is where Sex Workers Unite comes in. Chateauvert brings the issue of sex workers’ rights into the public attention and returns sex workers and their activism to moments in history from which they have been erased.
At the very beginning of Sex Workers Unite, Chateauvert firmly rejects the idea that all sex workers are victims, need saving, and are incapable of standing up for their own rights. Her introduction repeats the idea that sex workers are fighters. She writes, “It would be extraordinary if members of the oldest profession had never complained, had never organized, or had never fought back. They have a lot to fight” (1). We, even sometimes those of us who are involved in the feminist and queer movements, have simply turned a blind eye to both the abuse of sex workers and their activism to gain rights.
I think one of the most powerful aspects of the book and of the sex workers’ movement is that they challenge not only mainstream culture, but also the LGBTQ/queer and feminist movements, to reconsider the popular opinion of sex workers and sex work. They challenge the idea that sex workers cannot say no to sex because of their profession. They challenge the queer movement to fight for rights outside the “straight” ideal, beyond marriage equality and the right to serve in the military. They challenge the feminist movement to move past black and white acceptance/rejection of porn and prostitution to a more nuanced understanding of how women can be empowered to control their own sexuality.
While the information provided by the book is very valuable and eye opening, the organization and the writing style make it a rather challenging read, especially for people with little knowledge about sex work and the sex workers movement. The book is organized into chapters that focus on different issues within the sex work movement such as sisterhood and conflicts with the feminist movement, HIV/AIDS activism, police violence, and the disruption of slut shaming. The chapters are ordered more or less chronologically based on when each issue gained major attention. However, even within chapters there is a lot of jumping around on the time line, making it difficult to keep track of who is who and when different events happened in relation to each other. Furthermore, Chateauvert packed over forty years of little-known events, reality, and activism into a scant 213 pages of text. It is a lot to attempt to take in and there is very little descriptive writing to slow down the pace at which the information is presented.
Though it is a bit of a challenge to read, Sex Workers Unite is well worth the effort. It is long past time we rethought our attitudes towards sex work and sex workers.
Featured image from http://freethoughtblogs.com.
Queerview Mirror is a semi-regular feature where Queereka contributors review a variety of media. Look for Queerview Mirror posts on Friday afternoons.