Ironically, Harris herself has been responsible for governing the decisions that both women and men can make about their own bodies, by supporting the criminalization of adult prostitution throughout her career. As California attorney general, Harris led the case against the now-shuttered classifieds website Backpage.com, and as senator she co-sponsored last year’s anti-trafficking law, FOSTA/SESTA, endangering sex workers who once depended on online communities to screen clients and access safety resources.
Harris isn’t alone in her support for laws — branded as feminist and progressive — that make it more difficult for prostitutes to survive; feted female politicians like Carolyn Maloney and Kirsten Gillibrand, and celebrity activists like Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham share this endorsement. The organizers of the 2017 Women’s March struggled with how to approach the issue of sex work, and revised their position at least twice, only writing a statement of solidarity after author Janet Mock issued a plea for inclusion. For this, they faced an instant backlash: accusations of cozying up to exploitative pimps and promoting “sex slavery.”
It seems that the most visible of the “nasty women” helming the resistance for the past two years have been nasty enough to speak out on sexual harassment, to march in the streets wearing knitted pink pussy hats and RBG pins, and to mobilize their communities to vote blue, but not quite nasty enough to support the rights of prostitutes. A new book, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, speaks to this type of politically engaged woman, encouraging a dramatic rethinking of the subject. The authors, Juno Mac and Molly Smith, are British sex workers who harbor no illusions about the real dangers that befall those in the sex trade, but argue that such harms result from criminalization and are not simply natural or inevitable.
Their analysis starts with framing prostitutes as fundamentally rational actors navigating an unjust system “designed to harm them at every turn.” Selling sex, they write, is essentially a “nonviolent survival strategy,” made more precarious and miserable based on the degree of coercion and punishment enacted by state law and police. It sounds straightforward, but this framework upends centuries of conventional wisdom about sex workers, or what journalist Melissa Gira Grant has called “the prostitute imaginary.”
Sex work has long been “the vault in which society stores some of its keenest fears and anxieties,” the authors explain. Instead of acknowledging the prostitute as a fellow worker with material needs, we have made her into an abstraction, a symbol of our collective emotions about power and womanhood. Across time, region, and culture, sex workers have been constructed as vectors of both literal disease and moral contamination, and contrasted with “respectable” (i.e., middle-class, white, chaste) women.
It’s no wonder, then, that the feminist liberation movement of the 1970s — composed primarily of white, educated professionals — could not, in its theory of patriarchy and male violence, account for the agency of the prostitute. Second-wave feminists left unchallenged the cultural tendency to view heterosexual penetration — particularly when casual or transactional — as an inherently degrading, subjugating experience for women, an ultimate loss or risk to our “essential selves.”
The so-called feminist sex wars raged in the 1980s and 1990s, and the attitude of the anti-prostitution majority is best exemplified by a 1986 quote from British writer Julie Burchill. “When the sex war is won,” Burchill declared, “prostitutes should be shot as collaborators for their terrible betrayal of all women.” In other words, when sex workers are not understood as abject victims in need of rescue, they are seen as accomplices complicit in patriarchal oppression. It’s binary thinking either way, based on the rhetorical goals of the speaker, with no room for nuance. As Mac and Smith point out, the prostitute is left as a scapegoat to be talked over, especially if she also occupies other stigmatized identities based on race, drug use, or migrant status.
Mac and Smith know that relitigating the sex wars ad infimum is a fruitless task. Instead, they pose a more urgent central question: What types of policy-making can actually meet the immediate needs of sex workers? And who are the best experts on these needs? Most scholarship on the sex trade has relied heavily on specious statistics and the authority of those without lived experience in the industry, a perspective that is necessarily limited, while sex workers themselves have been assumed to “lack political literacy,” and cast as unreliable narrators of their own lives. Revolting Prostitutes is a corrective to such erasure. The title, of course, is a play on words, a way to transform stigma and disgust into a declaration of action, even a call to revolution.
Gay liberation activists may have originated this particular linguistic flourish; in the 1970s, they distributed fliers that read “The Queers Are Revolting” to promote their meetings and brandished protest signs with the same slogan. Indeed, the similarities between the sex worker’s rights movement and other modern liberation projects are striking. While the most obvious comparison might be to Black Lives Matter, which insists upon the humanity of a group often considered disposable, Revolting Prostitutes also frequently evokes the fight for disability rights, which uses as its rallying cry, “nothing about us without us.” In reading how prostitute testimony has been twisted and silenced to often fatal ends, I thought, too, of the words of disability activist Jennifer Brea: “What scares me is that you can disappear because someone is telling the wrong story about you.”
If you expect Mac and Smith to tell a clichéd story of “empowerment,” or put a rosy gloss on the fraught relationship between sex workers and clients, think again. Revolting Prostitutes doesn’t sugarcoat the problems with the industry, nor demand “sex positivity” of readers; in fact, it reveals how some of the most popular defenses of prostitution are insufficient for achieving real social justice. For instance, the “sex radicals” of the 1970s, who defended queer intimacy, BDSM, and pornography by emphasizing the right to sexual pleasure, failed to incorporate class or labor analysis into their activism. And the reductive libertarian argument that everyone deserves the individual “freedom” to make their own sexual choices has the same blind spot. Neither position will give people who trade sex tangible rights in the workplace.
The seemingly indelible belief that prostitutes sell their bodies — as opposed to their time and labor, like other workers do — allows us to see sex work as a pathology, perhaps the reenactment of childhood trauma, essentially “a form of self-harm,” instead of a job. The refrain “sex work is work” has emerged to underscore the economic dimensions of prostitution, and the fact that sex workers, like everyone else, are “motivated by familiar, mundane needs,” like paying their bills. It doesn’t mean, Mac and Smith clarify, that such work is necessarily “good or fun,” but:
Sex workers should not have to defend the sex industry to argue that we deserve the ability to earn a living without punishment. People should not have to demonstrate that their work has intrinsic value to society to deserve safety […] you don’t have to like your job to want to keep it.
In fact, the imperative that any work be “so personally fulfilling that you would pursue it for free” is a “deeply aspirational […] lean-in fantasy,” and “a significant class-marker,” out of touch with the reality of most people’s lives. Ironically, the jobs that anti-prostitution groups would have sex workers perform instead — things like garment or factory labor — are not especially prestigious, enjoyable, or well paid. Mac and Smith quote a stripper who says, “There should be another word for the kind of work working-class people do; something to differentiate it from the work middle class people do; the ones who have careers. All I can think of is drudgery. It’s rotten and hopeless; not even half a life. It’s immoral.” Those who wish to abolish prostitution might consider what type of labor they imagine replacing it with.
Any contemporary book on prostitution must weigh in on the problem of human sex trafficking that currently preoccupies politicians, NGOs, and activists. Here, Mac and Smith again untangle popular mythologies from reality. The sex trafficking conversation of late has become a “battle between good and evil, monstrosity and innocence, replete with heavy-handed imagery of chains, ropes, and cuffs to signify enslavement.” Anti-trafficking campaigns often rely on racialized, white nationalist rhetoric (see the figure of the black pimp) paired with facile stories of kidnapping. This amounts to a sensationalist distraction (“[p]eople are not, en masse, being snatched off the street,” the authors assert) from a real concern: the exploitation of undocumented migrants crossing borders without legal rights. Punitive immigration laws of the Global North make migrants vulnerable to debt cycles and abusive employment practices. “Any work they do,” explain Mac and Smith, whether at “a restaurant, construction site, cannabis farm, nail bar, or brothel — carries a risk of being jailed, detained, or deported.” Yet NGOs tend to focus almost exclusively on the element of commercial sex, because most of these organizations are steeped in either a Christian or a “carceral-feminist” perspective.
Revolting Prostitutes exposes deep flaws in the carceral-feminist vision of gender justice, which hinges on increasing the power of police, prisons, and immigration control. Black activists like Angela Davis have long argued against this approach, but it endures in the prostitution laws of many countries. In the United States, the criminalization of sex workers has disastrous results: violence in every step of an arrest process that disproportionately targets women of color, a prison record that makes other employment options nearly impossible, loss of child custody for the incarcerated, and in some states, even a listing on the sex offender registry. In the United States as well as in South Africa and Kenya, many sex workers suffer what Mac and Smith describe as “social death.” Existing on the periphery with no legal protections leaves them vulnerable to further harm — in the most extreme cases, murder by men who know they can get away with it.
Unfortunately, legalization, as practiced in Germany, the Netherlands, and parts of Nevada, is not the type of protection that truly benefits sex workers. Public misconception conflates legalization with decriminalization, but the former empowers managers and bosses at the expense of workers, who are still banned from vetting clients independently and determining the conditions of their own workspaces. Legalization puts the bodies of workers under paternalistic state control; they have to submit to mandatory medical tests, register with the government, carry special identification on them at all times, and obey strict brothel rules confining their movement, policies that prioritize the needs of owners and clients. As Mac and Smith write, legalization approaches the sex industry “as a wild frontier that simply needs the firm guiding hand of a rich grown-up.” It’s no surprise that the women involved are treated as “tearaway adolescents grounded by fretful parents.”
Countries that have partially decriminalized selling sex are on a better track, but most of them still restrict the spaces and ways that prostitutes can work, to the detriment of the most marginalized laborers. In Britain, outdoor sex work remains illegal, which leads to high-risk encounters, as prostitutes are pressured to make rushed, clandestine negotiations with clients. Sex workers cannot share workspaces with each other — one of the most reliable safety measures — lest they face “brothel-keeping” charges. Stigma persists toward what one Ipswich journalist called the “grubby little existences” of “disgusting, drug-addled street whores.” When the aim of the law is to keep solicitation hidden from public view, Mac and Smith observe, “the police and the men who murder sex workers share a preoccupation with ‘cleansing the streets.’”
Those familiar with the “End Demand” model, which criminalizes sex buyers but not sellers, in Sweden, Norway, Ireland, and Canada, may be tempted to regard it as the perfect solution. Feminists typically see clients as the “archetypal perpetrators” of violence against women, and assume they’re all equally dangerous. The prospect of punishing the villains can feel gratifying. Mac and Smith sympathize, as they have confronted firsthand the imbalance of power characteristic in commercial sex — but they detail how End Demand actually exacerbates the problem. Clients afraid of being arrested are likely to be uncooperative with screening, in an effort to remain anonymous. A shortage of clients creates a buyer’s market, putting workers in a weaker position to turn anyone down, ultimately making it harder to secure the money they need to survive. The intentions of End Demand systems are clear. Of Canada’s Bill C-36, a conservative politician proclaimed: “We don’t want to make life safe for prostitutes, we want to do away with prostitution.”
To address this abolitionist mindset, Mac and Smith remind readers of the “original Women’s March,” a gathering of 200 prostitutes who protested the crackdown on brothels in 1917 San Francisco, an early prelude to the modern sex worker’s rights movement. “Nearly every one of these women is a mother or has someone depending on her,” a speaker at the march said. “They are driven into this life by economic conditions … You don’t do any good by attacking us. Why don’t you attack those conditions?”
Meeting everyone’s needs in a way that would render sex work unnecessary is one ideal scenario. But until then, full decriminalization stands out as the most humane and pragmatic approach. The final chapter of Revolting Prostitutes discusses this model as it currently exists in New Zealand and New South Wales. The authors caution that the system isn’t a panacea, as it doesn’t eliminate large structural issues like poverty and homelessness, nor the “matrix of oppressions that act together” upon the most powerless individuals in the sex trade. However, it’s a first step in making their lives safer, and unlike anywhere else in the world, the law was shaped by input from workers themselves.
It’s hard to know whether Revolting Prostitutes will resolve what sometimes looks like an intractable debate. But the takeaway for skeptical readers should be this: you don’t actually have to like prostitution, or believe it has any redeeming social value, to grant sex workers rights, resources, and safety. You just have to trust them to be the experts on how to improve their own living conditions. Anything else is infantilizing and counterproductive.
Sascha Cohen is a writer and historian of gender, sexuality, and social movements in the 20th-century United States.