Sex Worker History

Home Sex Worker History

How Sex Work Got Us This Far In Gay Liberation

Marsha P Johnson, Stonewall riot participant, STAR House founder, ACT UP activist, and Black trans woman street sex worker. (Screenshot from "Pay It No Mind: The Life And Times of Marsha P Johnson")
Marsha P. Johnson, Stonewall participant, STAR House founder, ACT UP activist, Black trans woman, and street sex worker. (Screenshot from Pay It No Mind: The Life And Times of Marsha P. Johnson)

Like many of my LGBT peers and allies, I am grateful for the contributions made before and for the possibilities ahead. This summer, the Supreme Court acknowledged the humanity of LGBT individuals. And one of our pinnacle liberation symbols, New York City’s Stonewall Inn, the site of the 1969 Stonewall riots, was made a national landmark—all substantial markers of the rapidly increasing acceptance of LGBT individuals in mainstream America.

Over the past decades, important work to raise awareness and funds for the #gaymarriage movement has dominated the LGBT landscape. Each $1000-plate dinner and garden party brought together the well-dressed and privileged of the LGBT community to establish a strong presence against prejudiced, formidable foes. Many of these participants called on the ghost of Stonewall as an emblem of retaliation, reaction and unity. Simply by uttering the “S-word,” the President inspired LGBT people and their allies nationwide to have confidence to continue pushing for broad rights and protections. This summer our victory cry has been #lovewins.

But something is missing in all our gratitude. While it’s great that gay men and lesbians are building wedding registries, shopping at malls, and openly holding hands in places where it was previously forbidden, many of our most high profile spokespeople risk encouraging a spineless edit of history. We are so swift to lionize Stonewall and all of the early LGBT civil rights movement that the process has forced us to acquiesce to an acceptability politic which punishes many identities which represented the very heart and soul of our liberation mantras.

We must challenge our collective desire to strip a story that subverts a normative way of seeing the world. We as LGBT individuals and allies must tap our recent tragedies and triumphs to prevent our own story from disappearing into the exact same narrative most embraced by the bigots who used that norm against us.

The riots at Stonewall are, in fact, the perfect example. Conversations about its history selectively ignore significant components of the rioters’ identities, often including the vital presence of trans women (Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major, Marsha P. Johnson) and gay men but excluding the fact that many of these individuals were hustlers and street workers. Look for the biography of Sylvia Rivera, one of the most well-respected trans activists and Stonewall participants, and you will find her experience of street work excised. This, despite how sex work may have formed her only available opportunity at that time to afford to engage in her activist work. She was hardly the only trans woman of color involved in the sex industry supporting the riots. And then there were the hustlers, the young men working to support themselves after escaping to the city from lives that would have ended up in false marriages, depression, or, as it did for many, suicide or deaths by gay bashing. These were the people, harassed by the police to the point of exhaustion, willing to publicly engage as LGBT people at a time of great risk, the people who actually make up our liberation narrative.

Activist Spotlight: Morgan M Page on Trans History And Truth

amorganheadshot
Morgan M Page

Morgan M. Page, veteran Canadian trans and sex workers’ rights activist, artist, and writer, recently launched a new podcast focusing on Western trans history called One From The Vaults. Tits and Sass interviewed with her to coincide with the posting of the fourth episode of the podcast.

Two of the three episodes you have up so far have a lot of sex worker history as well as trans history content. Do you expect to encounter any backlash from trans activists who would rather whitewash the past? Can you talk a bit about the inextricable connection between trans history and sex worker history?

This was something I did purposefully. You might also notice that all three of the episode focus on trans women who are of color and/or Indigenous. I felt like I needed to begin my telling of trans history in a way that contradicts nearly every available trans history book on the market—by fronting sex workers and women of color. So often trans history starts with Christine Jorgensen, or in a post-Danish Girl world with Lili Elbe. Both of their stories are important, and I’ll cover them eventually, but to me the most moving parts of trans history speak to resistance and collective strength on the streets. Honestly, I thought I would get pushback on this, as I often have, especially when discussing the trans/sex work connection, but so far people have been enthusiastic.

Trans people’s history is tied up with sex work due to the variety of economic and cultural factors that have often made sex work the most viable option for trans survival. And it’s personal, too—my own history as a trans woman and as a sex worker are connected so closely that I cannot speak about one without the other. So often trans people seeking the supposed safety of respectability try to jettison our connections to prostitution, and while I understand this strategy and the emotions behind it, I can see that this comes at the cost of rejecting sex workers. And that rejection has profound implications for our life chances, which multiply exponentially for many trans sex workers of color.

The History Behind Harlots

Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and William North (Danny Sapani) at the door of her brothel in Harlots.

Harlots is a new drama on Hulu following the misadventures and rivalries of two competing brothels in mid-18th century London. Created by Moira Buffini and Allison Newman, and loosely based on research by Hallie Rubenhold, Harlots isn’t only notable for being about harlots—all the writers and  directors are women also, which allows for a truly unprecedented lack of the male gaze and titillation shots, and instead creates room for the characters to be fully-fleshed people. History geek Tits and Sass contributors Kitty Stryker and Red discuss the first episodes and what sex worker life was like in the Georgian England setting of the show. 

On historical context:

Kitty: The one in five women are sex workers at the time statistic, cited in the beginning of the show, is a high estimate, but it is quoted a lot, and may not be incorrect. The number appears to come from historian Dan Cruickshank in his book, The Secret History Of Georgian London: How The Wages Of Sin Shaped The Capital. He is also where the number of of £1.5 billion in today’s money as the gross turnover of sex work funds at the time comes from.

Red: Capitalism and a market economy were just starting to take over and the situation of women was changing, as the public sphere became the exclusive province of men in England. At the same time, capitalism was pushing the growth of a relatively new genre: porn! Much of the earliest porn consists of dialogues between whores or a whore recounting her exploits (a la Fanny Hill).

While the one in five stat is high, women dipped in and out of sex work as necessary, and the word whore didn’t exclusively mean a professional until later on in the century.

Kitty: It’s also worth noting that while sex work was prominent, “bawds,” or madams, were deeply loathed by London society—one famous bawd was stoned to death for her part in “corrupting the innocent.” Now, to be fair, many bawds did go around looking for naive farm girls to offer free housing to, only to then trap them with false debt for the lodgings and food they used. But this is also definitely where the hatred of pimps strongly developed.

Covent Garden was the place for sex workers at the time! Golden Square, also referenced in the show, incidentally, went from being a place for wealthy up-and-coming sex workers to a place for dire poverty—it becomes the epicenter of the cholera epidemic that wiped out a lot of London in 1854.

On Harris’ List, an anonymous book of commentary on Covent Garden prostitutes, a kind of antecedent to today’s board escort reviews—the show opens with Lucy (Eloise Smyth) reading each brothel worker’s entry aloud to her:

Kitty: The history of Harris’s List is actually super interesting and this was a good book on it—Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Rubenhold, the book this show is actually loosely based on. You can read the list here for free, by the way!

Red: Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay) is based on a real woman Rubenhold wrote about, and so is her mother—Elizabeth Ward, Samantha Morton’s character. They changed the last name to Wells in the show, and her first name to Margaret. The real Charlotte changed her last name to Hayes after she got her first rich protector and left her mother’s brothel.

Interesting note: Some of the women who paid Harris to write good reviews of them in his list formed a “Whores’ Club” where they met and drank together and paid dues, and any of the club members who needed help got some of the dues.

On the contract Charlotte’s thinking about signing with her benefactor and how it compared to marriage at the time:

These contracts were common among famous, sought-after sex workers. Some had two or more going at a time sometimes! Many times these contracts were oral contracts, and would stipulate how much the kept woman would get per month in cash and gifts, if she would be given an apartment or not, if her bills would be paid, new clothing, etc.

Because what she gave in exchange was often just “understood,” it left a lot of wiggle room for her. Often, when such a contract was broken and the arrangement was declared over, she could also negotiate for annuities, perhaps in exchange for keeping his secrets.

One attractive thing about having such a contract is that the person paying often paid to the bawd who “owned” the sex worker in question. In order for the sex worker to be “released” to the status of kept woman, the buyer would have to pay off all debts the sex worker had accrued according to the bawd. Becoming a kept woman could mean less risk of syphilis, which was a disfiguring death sentence at the time, and also could mean when the arrangement ended, you were free to do what you wanted as you weren’t indebted to a house anymore.

I think it’s interesting that while Margaret obviously feels a lot of resentment for being sold to Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) when she was 10 (a sadly pretty common occurrence at the time—the youngest on record was eight, and people believed having sex with a child would cure you of STIs), and Charlotte’s virginity was auctioned off at the age of consent (which was 12 for girls, 14 for boys at the time), Lucy appears to be at least 18 and is still “not ready.” I wonder if Charlotte is upset that her mother got her into sex work, or that she’s upset that despite her mother’s distaste for marriage, here she is being roped into a different but similar contract with Sir George Howard (Hugh Skinner).

Red: My main thoughts on watching were how laughably anachronistic both Charlotte and Lucy ‘s (a fictional character made up for the show) unwillingness to participate in such a huge money generating activity is. The contract that Charlotte turns her nose up at wouldn’t have given him anything close to coverture over her. Instead, it would have offered her either carte blanche over his money or a specific amount of credit to use when shopping. It couldn’t have prevented her from having other lovers; he would have to rely on her discretion. The idea that someone raised in the poverty of Covent Garden would turn up her nose at that and just want to fuck for money without it is so hilarious to me. This was the ultimate goal of whores in the 18th century, because it was a step up to a security just below that of marriage (which also could and did happen between contemporary sex workers and their clients).

My guess is that Charlotte’s reluctance comes from the producers thinking they need some sort of 21st century young woman angst in order to make these characters relatable.

Remembering Stone Butch Blues’ Pledge To Sex Workers

"Vampire Days," a self-portrait by Leslie Feinberg on hir 60th birthday. (Photo via Feinberg's Flickr account)
“Vampire Days,” a self-portrait by Leslie Feinberg on hir 60th birthday. (Photo via Feinberg’s Flickr account)

Trans/queer writer and socialist hero Leslie Feinberg died last week. The event rekindled my memories of squatting on the floor of Barnes and Nobles at the age of 17, reading the work zie’s1 most known for, Stone Butch Blues, a bildungsroman set in the lesbian working class bar scene during the Stonewall era. I was blown away by the novel and the way it brought together class politics, trans rights, and queer rights so explicitly. I’m not the only sex worker for whom the book was important. When I wrote to him about Blues, St. James Infirmary program director and sex working trans man Cyd Nova responded:

When I read Stone Butch Blues nine years ago I was just beginning to understand my gender as something other than female, while working as a stripper and seeing the club as the only place that I felt a sense of home…The way it illustrated feeling at odds with the world and the precise quality of needing to find a community who could guide you to your ultimate true self, navigating the path against the tide, was such an important read for me at that point…I would say that this book gave me some of building blocks to understand my desire to transition, before the internet was such a bastion of resources for trans folks.

In fact, my Facebook feed was awash with queer and trans sex workers linking to obituary pieces on Feinberg last week. So many of us could identify with hir writing about finding one’s people and working along with them in factories, bars, clubs, and the street to keep ourselves afloat. That’s why I was aghast at learning from The Toast that Stone Butch Blues is actually permanently out of print. (“How is that possible, when every dyke in America has at least two copies on her bookshelf?” inimitable Toast editor Mallory Ortberg opined.) But what I remembered most clearly was my rereading of the book in my mid-twenties, when I realized just how much of it was about valorizing femme sex workers as an integral part of the queer community.

Tin Horn Gamblers and Dirty Prostitutes: Vice in 19th Century Council Bluffs (2014)

ajennytinI usually regret the rare moments in which I’m prevailed on to cut whorephobes a break. My empathetic nature is almost always taken advantage of in these instances and I’m left feeling as if I’ve been had. As compensation, I exude coolness in interactions with potential whorephobes. It’s come to be the most significant way I protect intimacy and privacy—the first casualties of publicly decrying the treatment of sex workers. So it is with great delicacy that I attempt compassion here in my review of Ryan Roenfeld’s Tin Horn Gamblers and Dirty Prostitutes: Vice in 19th Century Council Bluffs.

I picked up THGDP because I am myself a product of the vast prairie at the heart of the Bible Belt. I grew up in Omaha, NE, a sort of twin city to Council Bluffs, the city of Roenfeld’s historical analysis. I began my sex work career in these cities, too, almost a decade ago. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to read all about my “dirty” sisters in vice, my lewd and despicable ancestors. I must sadly report, though, that the heroic and counter-cultural debauchery of my sisters and brothers are only briefly alluded to in the thin pages of THGDP, their humanity watered down to arrest records and salacious anecdote. Big surprise.

First, a brief note on the word “dirty,” as the title so lovingly refers to us. At one point in my life or another, I’ve been one or more of the following: a dirty hippie, a dirty bum, a dirty lesbian, a dirty heathen, a dirty drug user, and, of course, a dirty prostitute. I’m clearly a connoisseur of the unclean. It’s worth mentioning, too, that somehow the adjective “dirty” has always stung more than the noun following it, namely because “dirty” conjures up specific, visceral images about the body, about my body. I’m not the first to point out that images of perceived dirtiness have historically invoked distinctions between good bodies and bad ones. I guess I just had higher expectations for someone who calls himself a historian.