Sex Worker History

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.

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"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.

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