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To Live Freely In This World: Sex Worker Activism In Africa (2016)

tolivefreelyA version of this review originally appeared in issue 19 of make/shift magazine

In March 2016, South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa made a historic announcement of a nationwide scheme to prevent and treat HIV among sex workers, proclaiming, “we cannot deny the humanity and inalienable rights of people who engage in sex work.” Though Ramaphosa remained mum on the topic of decriminalization, the rousing endorsement this statement represents can’t be underemphasized. It’s impossible to imagine a U.S. politician of any importance saying something similar. The credit for this sea change in attitude goes to South African sex workers’ rights organization SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce) and sex worker peer organization Sisonke. In her book, To Live Freely In This World: Sex Worker Activism In Africa, Fordham University law professor Chi Adanno Mgbako covers SWEAT and parallel organizations in seven countries.

Mgbako deftly and concisely goes over sex workers’ rights 101 material. The epilogue’s history of global organizing comprehensively places the African movement in its broader context, from the 1970s—Margo St. James’ COYOTE and the French Collective of Prostitutes—to the 2012 Kolkata Sex Worker Freedom Festival. Mgbako explains the importance of not reducing sex work to “a single story” of victimization, the necessity of respecting human agency, and the need to understand sex workers’ rights activism as a labor movement. She traces the connection between violence and criminalization as represented by police abuse and client violence and the structural violence of social stigma, labor exploitation, and healthcare discrimination.

To Live Freely also transcends respectability politics and actively includes the sex workers often left out of our histories. One of the book’s seven chapters is dedicated to the multiple stigmas navigated by queer, migrant, trans, and HIV-positive sex workers. Mgbako makes sure to discuss sex-working queer women, trans men, and gender nonconforming people, who because of their lower visibility are too often excluded.

Many times throughout the text, Mgbako provides long oral histories from sex worker activists. In an admirable and sadly rare move for an ally, she explicitly connects this choice with the fact that she is not a sex worker herself, “and too often, non-sex workers take it upon themselves to speak for sex workers when the latter are fully capable of speaking for themselves.” I found these sections of the book and the solidarity they represented perhaps the most valuable. Kenya Sex Worker Alliance’s Phelister Abdallah’s harrowing account of gang rape by police, the moment representing her personal awakening as an activist, was particularly affecting. Yet, Mgbako never allows these stories to become tragedy porn for non-sex-worker readers—in her introduction, she avers that she only included narratives of abuse when those narratives illustrated the sociopolitical realities of sex workers’ struggle against criminalization. “There are no broken people in this book,” Mgbako declares. Instead, the author’s interest lies in displaying the “radiating strength” of African sex workers.

Tina Fey Hates Sex Workers: Part One of Infinity

Location on Long Island where the bodies of four women who worked as prostitutes were found

Y’all catch that joke on 30 Rock a couple of weeks (S05E13) ago? Jack Donaghy is in his office, mourning the change in GE ownership. “This is where we used to hold retirement parties. The balcony below is probably still littered with stripper bones.” HAR.

One of the reasons sex workers become politicized is to make ourselves visible as real people to decrease our chances of being easy victims of violent crimes in a society where we are considered lesser members. Jokes like this (and Tina Fey looooves to write stripper jokes*) are one of the constant small ways sex workers are dehumanized to the public. Cracks about dead ones are less funny in light of the women’s remains that were found on Long Island.

Fey is beloved by a lot of women for modeling success in a male-dominated field, which makes her rage towards other women come off as bitter and unreasonable. You know what’s harder than being a rich white woman in Hollywood who gets called crazy because men don’t want to fuck you (hey, you still get to complain about it in The New Yorker)? Having your humanity denied because you are the woman they do want to fuck.

* “I love to play strippers and to imitate them,” says Fey. “I love using that idea for comedy, but the idea of actually going there? I feel like we all need to be better than that. That industry needs to die, by all of us being a little bit better than that.” Vanity Fair, January 2009

Support Hos: Elementary, Season One (2012)

That's the face I make when snide detectives blindside me with blackmail videos from my former career as an escort. (Screen shot from Elementary, season one, episode eight.)
That’s the face I make when snide detectives blindside me with blackmail videos from my former career as an escort. (Screen shot from “The Long Fuse,” S1E8, Elementary, CBS)

I’m a sucker for procedurals (while also being deeply ambivalent about them), so of course I was going to watch Elementary, CBS’s not-so-new-now take on Sherlock Holmes; I was immediately sold because female Watson. Played by Lucy Liu. And Jonny Lee Miller as a weird, twitchy, tattooed, recovering-addict Sherlock Holmes. I’m beyond over the BBC’s Sherlock, Howling Cabbagepatch’s shark-face, and the disappointing but predictable treatment of domanitrix Irene Adler—not really surprising considering the writers, but I digress.The formulaic nature of procedural mysteries is inexplicably soothing to me, and, however lackluster (and aren’t they the definition of “formulaic”?) they have the serious merit of being one of the only genres to consistently feature sex workers. Sure, they’re usually dead sex workers, but I don’t give up hope. The times they are a-changin’, and live lovable sex workers have carried their weight on some critically acclaimed cable dramas: Deadwood, Copper, Secret Diary of a Call Girl. I have faith that network procedurals will catch up soon.

In a way, Elementary has. For a procedural that features a sex worker body count of zero, the instances of live sex workers on the show are fairly high. I was alert from first watch: while the pilot didn’t have any dead sex worker bodies, I waited for the inevitable. As episodes went on I started to relax and feel hope, and then suddenly, in E08, “The Long Fuse”: Lisa Edelstein, aka Elementary’s first Sex Worker!!! made it through an episode unharmed. She was treated with sympathy as a working-class girl whose escorting career, after paying for grad school and a successful business, was now being used as blackmail against her by a creep who had violated her privacy and filmed their call.

Treading Air (2016)

treadingairAs a sex worker and a fairly enthusiastic reader, I’ve come across so few of our stories told in fiction—and very few set in my own country of Australia. So when I recently discovered Ariella van Luyn’s 2016 novel Treading Air, I was instantly intrigued. It had a fascinating historical premise and a sex worker protagonist, Lizzie O’Dea. Unfortunately, it wasn’t what it could have been: although van Luyn had clearly done some research and tried to humanize Lizzie’s portrayal, so many bad clichés about sad sex workers crept into her story that it totally ruined the book for me.

We first meet Lizzie O’Dea in 1943, confined in a lock hospital in Brisbane, Queensland, waiting for her husband to be released from prison after nearly twenty years. The novel alternates between focusing on O’Dea’s story in 1943 and a series of events in the regional port town of Townsville in 1923 and 1924 that would alter the course of her and her husband’s lives.

The decision to set part of the book in a lock hospital in Queensland immediately caught my attention. By Australian standards, Queensland had notoriously draconian controls on sex workers in the latter half of the nineteenth century —although substantive parts of the law remained in place well into the twentieth century as well. Under the Queensland legislation (which was based on a broader version of the English Contagious Diseases Act), sex workers were required to register with police and forced to undergo fortnightly medical checks. If a doctor deemed them to be “diseased”, they were sent to a lock hospital in the state’s main prison to receive treatment, sometimes for long periods of time. It was a system which produced plenty of horror stories, yet it’s largely unknown today. I was curious to see what kind of light van Luyn would shine on on that chapter of history. I should have known that it would turn out to be one more twist on the premise that a sex worker’s story always ends badly.

Much of the first quarter of Treading Air centers on Lizzie’s courtship with future husband Joe, whom she meets at a Brisbane racetrack in 1923. Lizzie is the daughter of an illegal bookmaker and unenthused with her options in life. They promptly marry, moving to Townsville in North Queensland when Joe gains a job as a meat worker. Joe soon loses this job after an industrial accident, and Lizzie, fed up with being back in poverty, accepts an offer to work for a madam she knows. I enjoyed this section of the book: Lizzie’s portrayal felt familiar, the historical details about how her brothel operated made sense, her reasons for entering into the industry were pretty standard, and her first clients were ordinary clients.

And so, I’m happily reading this book when I come across this sentence, not long after Lizzie begins working: “So she reinforces her demeanor of gentleness and politeness. A man can do anything—pick his nose with one hand, hold his cock with the other; piss on her [emphasis mine]; cry and snot on her – and she doesn’t move. They like her for it.”

I thought “wait, what?”. I read this passage out loud to a friend over the phone to ask if it was as fucked up as I thought it was. Her spluttering down the line told me that it was.

Oh, To Be a Housewife!

“I wonder what kind of girls do that kind of work, and how they get into it.”

Victoria Layton is bored. She’s middle-aged by 1968 standards, she used to have a wildly interesting life. Now she’s in Connecticut and she’s fuckin’ bored. She’s so bored that she spends most of the beginning of The Secret Life of An American Wife talking to herself. To be honest, I do this too (we all do), but we’re not under the microscope here so… you know. The film begins as she wakes up on a typical day, rambling about the husband who doesn’t pay attention to her and the life she resents. She gets her old man up and out of the house, drives him to the train, and heads back home afterward for yet another boring day.