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Recommended Reads for Sex Worker Rights Activists (Part 1)

Updated: Mar 10

Following is a collection of literature suggested for sex worker rights activists to continue expanding upon intersectional feminism and radical thought from sex workers and advocates who have released a variety of compelling work.

Heaux History Project

Heaux History Project is a multimedia archival project documenting Black, Brown, & Indigenous erotic labor histories and sex workers’ rights movements through essays, zines, and other publications, digital archives, exhibitions, interviews, and film.

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Revolting Prostitutes — Juno Mac and Molly Smith

You hear that selling sex is degrading; you hear that no one would ever choose to do it; you hear that it's dangerous; that women get abused and killed. You often hear, "There should be a law against it!" Or, perhaps just against the buyers. What do sex workers want? That's not something you hear asked very often. In this accessible manifesto, the strong argument for full decriminalization of sex work is explored through personal experience and looking at laws around the world.

In some places, like New York, selling sex is illegal. In others, like Sweden, only buying it is. In some, like the UK and France, it's legal to sell sex and to buy it, but not to run a brothel or solicit a sale. In New Zealand, it's not illegal at all. In What Do Sex Workers Want?, Juno Mac and Molly Smith - both sex workers - explain what each of these laws do in practice to those doing the work. Addressing each model in turn, they show that prohibiting the sex industry actually exacerbates every harm that sex workers are vulnerable to.

Purchasable on Verso Books


Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York

City's Underground Economy LaShawn Harris

During the early twentieth century, a diverse group of African American women carved out unique niches for themselves within New York City's expansive informal economy. LaShawn Harris illuminates the labor patterns and economic activity of three perennials within this kaleidoscope of underground industry: sex work, numbers running for gambling enterprises, and the supernatural consulting business.

Mining police and prison records, newspaper accounts, and period literature, Harris teases out answers to essential questions about these women and their working lives. She also offers a surprising revelation. Harris argues that the underground economy catalyzed working-class black women's creation of the employment opportunities, occupational identities, and survival strategies that provided them with financial stability and a sense of labor autonomy and mobility. At the same time, Harris shows, urban black women strove for economic and social prospects and pleasures, and in the process experienced the conspicuous and hidden dangers associated with newfound labor opportunities.


Cooking in Heels  Ceyenne Doroshow

In Cooking in Heels, Ceyenne Doroshow offers up 40 Southern-style favorites with a Caribbean twist. As a transgender woman who was inspired to write her book while serving prison time for a prostitution conviction, Ceyenne might not seem like the most likely representative of home cooked family values. But her book, which is peppered with good humor and begins with the story of her life, shows that food and love are the ties that bind, and family is what you make it.

Purchasable on Amazon


Miss Major Speaks: Conversations with a Black Trans Revolutionary Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and Toshio Meronek

A legendary transgender elder and activist reflects on a lifetime of struggle and the future of

black, queer, and trans liberation Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is a veteran of the infamous Stonewall Riots, a former sex worker, and a transgender elder and activist who has survived

Bellevue psychiatric hospital, Attica Prison, the HIV/AIDS crisis and a world that white supremacy has built. She has shared tips with other sex workers in the nascent drag ball scene of the late 1960s, and helped found one of America’s first needle exchange clinics from the back of her van.

Miss Major Speaks is both document of her brilliant life–told with intimacy, warmth and an undeniable levity-and a roadmap for the challenges black, brown, queer and trans youth will face on the path to liberation today.Her incredible story of a life lived and a world survived becomes a conduit for larger questions about the riddle of collective liberation. For a younger generation, she warns about the traps of ‘representation,’ the politics of 'self-care,' and the frequent dead-ends of non-profit organizing; for all of us, she is a strike against those who would erase these histories of struggle. Miss Major offers something that cannot be found elsewhere: an affirmation that our vision for freedom can and must be more expansive than those on offer by mainstream institutions.

Purchasable on Verso Books


I've Got to Make My Livin': Black Women's Sex Work in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago  Cynthia M. Blair

For many years, the interrelated histories of prostitution and cities have perked the ears of urban scholars, but until now the history of urban sex work has dealt only in passing with questions of race. In I’ve Got to Make My Livin’, Cynthia Blair explores African American women’s sex work in Chicago during the decades of some of the city’s most explosive growth, expanding not just our view of prostitution, but also of black women’s labor, the Great Migration, black and white reform movements, and the emergence of modern sexuality.

Focusing on the notorious sex districts of the city’s south side, Blair paints a complex portrait of black prostitutes as conscious actors and historical agents; prostitution, she argues here, was both an arena of exploitation and abuse, as well as a means of resisting middle-class sexual and economic norms. Blair ultimately illustrates just how powerful these norms were, offering stories about the struggles that emerged among black and white urbanites in response to black women’s increasing visibility in the city’s sex economy. Through these powerful narratives, I’ve Got to Make My Livin’ reveals the intersecting racial struggles and sexual anxieties that underpinned the celebration of Chicago as the quintessentially modern twentieth-century city.

Purchasable on AbeBooks


I've Got to Make My Livin': Black Women's Sex Work in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago  Chi Adanna Mgbako

Sex worker activists throughout Africa are demanding an end to the criminalization of sex work and the recognition of their human rights to safe working conditions, health and justice services, and lives free from violence and discrimination. To Live Freely in This World is the first book to tell the story of the brave activists at the beating heart of the sex workers’ rights movement in Africa—the newest and most vibrant face of the global sex workers’ rights struggle. African sex worker activists are proving that communities facing human rights abuses are not bereft of agency.

They’re challenging politicians, religious fundamentalists, and anti-prostitution advocates; confronting the multiple stigmas that affect the diverse members of their communities; engaging in intersectional movement building with similarly marginalized groups; and participating in the larger global sex workers’ rights struggle in order to determine their social and political fate.

By locating this counter-narrative in Africa, To Live Freely in This World challenges disempowering and one-dimensional depictions of “degraded Third World prostitutes” and helps fill what has been a gaping hole in feminist scholarship regarding sex work in the African context. Based on original fieldwork in seven African countries, including Botswana, Kenya, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda, Chi Adanna Mgbako draws on extensive interviews with over 160 African female and male (cisgender and transgender) sex worker activists, and weaves their voices and experiences into a fascinating, richly-detailed, and powerful examination of the history and continuing activism of this young movement.

Purchasable on NYU Press


Cin Sado Noir: Intimate Conversations and Reflections on Sadomashocist Love in Contemporary Cinema M. Dante and Friends

This time capsule tribute to sadomasochistic, femme fatale and neo noir romances was originally organized by Melanie Dante [M. Dante] for Andy Black [A. Black] of Necronomicon: The Journal of Horror Erotic Cinema. During undergraduate studies at Goddard College, she completed a series of critical essays comparing and contrasting sadomasochistic cinema and literature as a creative complement to a senior study of commercial sexuality and feminism. Portions of the commentary, along with peripheral interviews and creative writing appeared in The Annihilation Fountain of Canada, HeadPress UK, and Necronomicon. Black felt there was so much more to explore in other European output which was being neglected. The works of Bava, Franco, Rollin for instance, and the wealth of—say—German and then of course Asian content.”

After some discussion with two of the original contributors—Mike White and Andrew Hampsas were brought on board, adding breadth and depth to the voice of the project—this combined literary and cinematic time capsule was woven together out of shared conversations on our passion for stories of midnight romances within the postmodern fin de siècle (end of century) of the times. Now in 2020 these articles and commentary have been brought current to publish specifically for panel discussion at the Philadelphia NoirCon. We thank Lou Boxer for inspiring us to consider D/s romance in cinema as a facet of noir, and that said, we share with you:

Cin Sado Noir.

Purchasable on Mockingbird Publishing


Un-Licensed: Asian Migrant Massage Licensure and the Racialized Policing of Poverty  Red Canary Song

Asian massage work has become criminalized in a specific and racialized way in the last decade, attacked by multiple forms of state-sanctioned oppression. Whether via police raids; alleged zoning violations; or the state sanctioning of vigilantism among landlords, public health officials, and other members of the general public (e.g., anyone calling in a complaint via a non-emergency municipal “help” line, like New York City’s 311, or the National Human Trafficking Hotline), Asian massage work has become explicitly targeted across North America. These targeted attacks are inextricably linked to the misplaced advocacy of the anti-trafficking movement, which often claims it is saving Asian massage workers, when it is, in actuality, subjecting them to varied forms of state and stated-sanctioned-if-privatized violence.

This report is a collaboration between Red Canary Song in New York City, Massage Parlor Outreach Project in the Seattle metropolitan area, Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network in Toronto, Canada, and Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice in Providence, Rhode Island. It is a distillation of work done by North America-based migrant workers, sex workers, and their allies. It presents data about the anti-Asian nature of state-sanctioned violence against massage workers, ways that different municipalities, states, and provinces have targeted Asian massage work, and different forms of political action--community action and policy change in turn--that massage workers are considering to end their oppression. Different communities and collectives have different visions on how to approach state violence, some groups approving of work with governments to end these violent practices, and others preferring to focus on purely community alternatives. This report respects all approaches as methods for respecting the self-determination of communities and their specific needs and visions for justice.

Readable on Red Canary Song


Queer Sex Work  Mary Laing, Katy Pilcher, Nicola Smith

Sex work is a subject of significant contestation across academic disciplines, as well as within legal, medical, moral, feminist, political and socio-cultural discourses. A large body of research exists, but much of this focuses on the sale of sex by women to men and ignores other performances, practices, meanings and embodiments in the contemporary sex industry. A queer agenda is important in order to challenge hetero-centric gender norms and to develop new insights into how gender, sex, power, crime, work, migration, space/place, health and intimacy are understood in the context of commercial sexual encounters.

Queer Sex Work explores what it might mean to ‘be’, ‘do’ and ‘think’ queer(ly) in the study and practice of commercial sex. It brings together a multiplicity of empirical case studies – including erotic dance venues, online sex working, pornography, grey sexual economies, and BSDM – and offers a variety of perspectives from academic scholars, policy practitioners, activists and sex workers themselves. In so doing, the book advances a queer politics of sex work that aims to disrupt heteronormative logics whilst also making space for different voices in academic and political debates about commercial sex.

This unique and multidisciplinary volume will be indispensable for scholars and students of the global sex trade and of gender, sexuality, feminism and queer theory more broadly, as well as policymakers, activists and practitioners interested in the politics and practice of sex work in local, national and international contexts.

Purchasable on Routledge


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