sex worker history

Hugh Hefner the image. (Photo by Flickr user Sarah Gerke)

Content warning: this post contains brief references to rape and abuse. 

Hugh Hefner died.

Of course he did. Dude was 91. When my castmate announced it after rehearsal, I didn’t feel shock at the news. Hefner may as well have died when he stopped being the editor of Playboy magazine. Or when The Girls Next Door tried selling us on twincest. Or when the magazine stopped publishing nudes. He was a go-to pop culture joke about debauchery and smoking jackets, but he’s hardly been relevant for years.

Still, I had some mixed feelings. I never much cared for Hefner or his image, having been introduced to him as a doddering grandpa on reality TV, but Playboy the brand had been in my life since I was a child. It molded my early ideas of what it meant to be attractive. It introduced me to the idea that sexiness could be playful or serious. When I turned 18, I bought an issue just because I could and delighted at the articles and interviews just as much as the pictorials. This, I thought, was the intersection of brains and beauty. By thumbing through the pages at my grandma’s house I was somehow becoming a well-rounded adult.

To say nothing of the accidental connection between Playboy and queerness. For generations, Dad’s secret stash (or in my case, my mother’s boyfriend Chad’s collection that he just left out in the open in his office) was a gateway not just for teenage boys but also girls. It felt like fate that my first issue featured a spread with Adrienne Curry, the first out bisexual I had ever seen. Since Playboy could also be “for the articles”, I was able to hide my queerness even from myself. Perhaps even more than the cool girls I had met in high school, Playboy gave me the most intense stirrings of looking at a woman and not being sure if I wanted to be her or be with her. As I grew I realized, hell, why not both?

When I went to college I found vintage issues and hung the centerfolds in my kitchen, aspiring to their fresh-faced, breezy beauty. I copied the makeup, teased my hair higher, and then rebelled against the streamlined pin-ups in favor of some Hustler-esque trashiness. Those styles helped me experiment and come into my own again and again as I rolled through my early 20s. Even now, I’ll sometimes look at them and imagine living in a dreamy world of sheer babydolls and fur rugs. It’s a world I realize I now have the means to create for myself at any point. Several photographer friends are just a Facebook message away, and within the week I’ll have a pin-up of myself to tuck away. In them, I’m eternally 19, 21, 24, and these versions of me seem younger and younger every year. They’re my own digital flashbacks that I wish I could share with my younger self. “Look,” I’d say. “You’re pretty too.”

But none of that was Hefner. It was the women I idolized—women who were paid peanuts to be immortalized in soft focus.

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AMMAR General Secretary Georgina Orellano and Maria Riot at a Women’s Strike event this month.

Maria Riot, a member of Argentine sex worker trade union AMMAR, contacted Tits and Sass after the Women’s Strike this month, eager to talk about how her organization participated in the event in their country. AMMAR has maintained a strong presence in Argentina for more than two decades, and its many bold campaigns have often made mainstream news internationally. I certainly had many questions saved up over the years to ask an AMMAR spokesperson. 

Riot is a 25-year-old porn performer, sex worker, and activist who joined AMMAR a year ago, after three years not speaking publicly about her sex work. “Now I do,” she wrote to me. “I realize[d] only some [representatives] of AMMAR were talking in the media, and [we] needed more voices telling their experiences and doing activism, so I started doing it.” English is not Riot’s first language. Tits and Sass is presenting her answers to the interview questions below as written as faithfully as possible, in order to preserve her meaning. 

Can you tell me about how AMMAR came to participate in protests on March 8th for the Women’s Strike? What sorts of reactions did you receive from local feminist organizers in response to your involvement?

AMMAR [has] a lot of presence in the women[‘s] rights movement. Since the last [few] years, we become really active at it so of course we participate in feminist events, marches, mobilizations, and debates. We believe that if we want women and feminism to listen to us, we have to be part of it and the most active we can [be].

In Argentina, we started organizing [for] the Women[‘s] Strike one month before it, in every city and province with assemblies where a lot of organizations participated. We did really intense and hard work because a lot of feminist[s] against sex work didn’t want us there. But the group that was organizing [the events] (Ni Una Menos) approved our asks to be part of the official document, so after lot of weeks of debates and discussions, we achieved having our voice in it and for the first time, our voice was [heard] on Women’s Day.

The fight was about the word “sex workers”: they wanted us to be “prostituted women” (that was [the language] in the document already), and we [spoke] up to have our identity and not the one they wanted to give to us. But the violence they used, calling us “pimps” and telling [us] that we don’t exist, made a lot of feminist[s] empathize and support us too. After all [that], [on the day of the strike], we participated with red umbrellas, lot of signs calling for a feminism that includes sex workers, and lot of women walking with us, and we [had] a lot of press and media reporting that it was the first time we officially were part of the 8th of March document and the [event].

You have been part of Argentinean Workers’ Central Trade Union since one year after the inception of your organization, in 1995. Internationally, sex workers often have trouble allying with traditional labor movements. Can you tell us how you’ve successfully maintained this alliance for decades?

AMMAR started in 1994, when sex workers working in the streets started to organize themselves to fight against the detentions and arrests [they] were facing just for working. They started [organizing] in the jail where they were arrested and then they started to [organize] in bars and restaurants near the places where they worked. When the police realized that, [they] started to arrest them [just for their political activity] and they were looking for them in the bars.

[So they were] [l]ooking for a place where they could do it without the presence of institutional violence, [and] a member from the CTA offered them a place. At the beginning it was not easy, mostly because of the opposition of women inside the union or others syndicates that were part of it, but the leadership of CTA gave them a big support because they wanted to include workers in the popular economy [and] workers that [didn’t have] their work recognized yet. It’s very important to be part of [the union] because without the government recognizing that our work is work yet, we [do have that acknowledgement] thanks to the Central Trade Union of Workers of Argentina, and that [creates] no place [for] debates about if our work is work or not.

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Treading Air (2016)

by Sarah on November 28, 2016 · 1 comment

in Books, Reviews

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.

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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.

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MARYWEPT_cover300Canadian comic artist Chester Brown is probably the most well-known punter-writer our there. His latest, Mary Wept Over The Feet of Jesus: Prostitution And Religious Obedience In The Bible, is an analysis of the Bible as a graphic novel. (Maybe Brown likes illustration because most clients need pictures in their books.) This review of his newly published book is composed of an edited version of an email and g-chat conversation between Tina Horn and Caty Simon.

Caty: I was surprised by Chester Brown’s Christianity as demonstrated by this book. In its afterword, Brown explicitly identifies himself as a Christian, albeit one focused on mysticism who’s “interested in personally connecting with God, not in imposing my views on anyone else.” His avowed, classic libertarianism in his sex work client graphic novel memoir Paying For It (2011) would’ve had me assume that he was a fervent atheist a la Richard Dawkins. His libertarianism does come up at an interesting point in this book when he puts the words “it’s none of your business how other people spend their money” into Jesus’ mouth when he chides Judas for judging Mary because she spent money on anointing oils for Jesus’ feet rather than on charity.

Tina: Especially when you consider that he ran for Canadian Parliament in the Libertarian Party! This was in the years right before Paying for It came out.

Caty: So he’s actually having Jesus Christ parrot his party politics—that’s ballsy.

Tina: When I was a teenager, I thought Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis was the shit, because it taught me more about what the Bible actually teaches than most of the aggressive Christian kids at my high school. Mary Wept puts me in mind of C.S. Lewis: a Christian highlighting the hypocrisy of other Christians through rational interpretation of their text.

Caty: When people say that Judeo-Christian values oppose prostitution, it gets me fuming, because it’s a lot more complicated than that. There are plenty of heroic whores in the Bible, and many more Biblical heroines who explicitly had transactional sex at some point in their stories. So I enjoyed how Brown highlights the stories of women like Rahab, the prostitute who sheltered Hebrew spies from discovery when they scouted out the city of Jericho, and Tamar, the woman who whored herself out to her father-in-law in disguise in a complicated plot to expose his hypocrisy. I only wish he’d included the story of badass Judith, the woman who beheaded the general Holofernes as he lay drunkenly asleep in her tent after possibly purchasing her services, ushering the Hebrew army to victory.

Maybe Brown felt like he just couldn’t compete with all the exquisite Renaissance and Baroque era artistic renditions of Judith in her moment of triumph, like this one:

Trophime Bigot's "Judith Cutting Off The Head Of Holofernes" (via Wikimedia)

Trophime Bigot’s “Judith Cutting Off The Head Of Holofernes” (via Wikimedia)

But I think the real reason Brown didn’t include tales like Judith’s is because he seems more focused on outlining these sex work-related Biblical narratives in order to glorify sex workers’ clients. He has a convoluted thesis going about men whoremongering as a transcendent challenge to rigid religious dogma. This ascribes nonexistent significance to an activity which is really morally neutral, and it obscures all these awesome sex working Biblical women in stories which are about them. In a memoir about being a sex work client like Paying for It, centering the client perspective makes sense. But in a book like this, it feels beside the point. I’d love to see how this material would look tackled by a sex worker amateur Biblical scholar/comic book artist.

Tina: The book does explore the subjectivity of the clients more than that of the women. Brown’s reinterpretation of a lot of these stories seems to amount to, “God totally says it’s ok to be a whoremonger!” Which is great, but I would love to see more, “God says it’s totally cool to be a whore!” Not because I personally need the validation, but because undermining Christian values with their own text is a longtime favorite sport of mine.

Caty: So, what do you make of Brown depicting God as some sort of Biblical version of a WWE wrestler? His God is BUILT.

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