We Don't Have To Love Our Jobs: a review of Juno Mac & Molly Smith's 'Revolting Prostitutes'
by Frankie Miren (@FrankieMiren) on March 5, 2020



If you’d asked me in 1994 why I was doing sex work I’d have crumpled into myself with shame. As an 18-year-old, prostitution was a secret, frightening, part of my life. If you pushed me, I’d have told you I liked the money, that I was in charge, raking it in (I wasn’t) for sex no worse than that which women were putting up with for free. The only feminist I’d read was Camille Paglia (my dad liked her) and her WOO SEXY EMPOWERED WOMEN shtick lent a gloss of glamour to fucking old men. It glossed over the fact that I felt too mental and was taking too many drugs to do any other job.

It would be many years before I allowed myself to unpick that teenage bravado. In 2014, I joined the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) and SWARM (the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement), then called the Sex Worker Open University (SWOU). I was doing sex work again, better paid, less chaotically. Now, I had community. Through the sex worker activists who became my friends, the possibility of new analysis opened up. I was allowed to talk about how traumatised I’d been as a teenager, my drug use, how abusive sex work had felt. I could do this without feeling I’d lost some unspoken argument, without negating the agency I’d genuinely felt and, certainly, without giving credence to the idea that sex work is uniquely awful or misogynist or violent in this world which is, regularly, all three things.

It’s possible—usual, even—to be a sex worker without being overtly political. The first book I read in which I recognised sex work as I saw it was Michelle Tea’s 2004 graphic novel, Rent Girl. Bitter and sarcastic, scathing about clients and darkly funny about pretending to enjoy paid-for sex, Rent Girl is an autobiographical account of Tea’s days as a San Francisco hooker. Rent Girl isn’t a polemic on legal models or structural inequality but it is, of course, political. Tea is working class and queer (I’m not), for a time she was an addict (I was). In other writing, she talks about this in an explicitly political framework, but the messy, relatable Tea in Rent Girl is equally illuminating.

In 2018, Revolting Prostitutes was published, written by SWARM members—and, full disclosure, close friends of mine—Juno Mac and Molly Smith. (The second edition is out this month.) By the time Revolting Prostitutes arrived, the sex worker rights movement was highly visible. In the UK, opinions on sex work now represent one of the fiercest dividing lines in both feminism and leftist politics. Alliances between those fighting for labour rights, immigration reform or the reversal of austerity fall apart when faced with the constant erasure or misrepresentation of sex workers. Against this backdrop, Revolting Prostitutes is vindicating, an encapsulation of the arguments we need in the battle for full decriminalisation and to tie sex workers’ struggle wider calls for liberation.

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Revolting Prostitutes takes you through the main legal models for sex work: partial criminalisation, legalisation, full criminalisation and decriminalisation. In countries where prostitution is fully criminalised—such as the US, South Africa and Kenya—enforcement is racist, transphobic and brutal. Your revolt, as you read the chapter on this legal model, is directed toward arrests which overwhelmingly target women of colour and trans people, toward police forces for whom violence, humiliation and rape are normalised, and for legislators whose bigotry overrides evidence.

Likewise the ‘Nordic Model’, current favourite among a school of feminist whose belief in the police state as a sensitive arbiter of justice is at odds with the message of every sex worker-led organisation on the globe. Under this form of legislation, paying for sex is illegal, making sex workers’ bodies the scenes of crime. While workers themselves are nominally ‘decriminalised’ under this model, in no country where the law’s been applied has this happened. Under the ‘Nordic Model’, convictions for ‘brothel-keeping’ abound (for which a brothel is usually defined simply as a premises in which more than one person works), sex workers are evicted from homes, stigma flourishes and no one reports feeling safer. In France, more than twelve sex workers have been killed since the Nordic Model was implimented three years ago.

Revolting Prostitutes captures and fleshes out a key argument in current sex worker rights discourse: that police violence cannot be separated from other forms of violence sex workers face. Feminist invocation of the police as a benign force to be harnessed for gender equality is, at best, naïve. The book is an entreaty to end our reliance on police and prisons as a means of creating a better world.

“Mainstream feminism too often puts ‘police violence’ and ‘male violence against women’ into different conceptual categories – if, indeed, it considers police violence to be a topic of feminist concern at all,” the authors write. “However, when we think of police violence not only as state violence but also (often) as male violence against women, the criminalisation of prostitution comes into focus in a new way: as a key driver of male violence against women.”

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Central for me, and reflective of the current mood in UK sex work activism, is Revolting Prostitutes’ refusal to pretend that sex work itself is never exploitative or harmful. “We aren’t asking you to love the sex industry,” write Smith and Mac. “We certainly don’t. We are asking that your disgust with the sex industry and with the men—the punters—doesn’t overtake your ability to empathise with people who sell sex. A key struggle that sex workers face in feminist spaces is trying to move people past their sense of what prostitution symbolises, to grapple with what the criminalisation of prostitution materially does to people who sell sex.”

Revolting Prostitutes asks you not to lose sight of who benefits when we talk about prostitution only in broad tropes; the evil pimp, the trafficker. It makes the case that, far from being some underworld aberration, prostitution cannot be discussed in isolation from austerity-fuelled poverty, a broken immigration system, harmful drugs policy and gaps in healthcare. “If a politician downplays the extent to which sex work is about generating a decent income and instead emphasises the extent to which it is driven by a ‘criminal underworld’, they can sidestep awkward questions about the connections between prostitution, poverty, and government policy,” the authors write.

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Critiquing the sex industry is nonsensical outside a wider analysis of wage labour. “Sex work is work,” has become a well-worn refrain of the sex worker rights movement. For the authors, it’s an invitation to question our attachment to the hallowed concept of ‘work’ itself. As Mac and Smith observe:

As a society, we obsessively valorise work as a key locus of meaning, status, and identity. At the same time, we struggle with shit jobs, falling wages, and the correct suspicion that what many of us do for money all day contributes nothing of real value to our lives or communities. Instead, we mostly just make profits for people further up the chain. In this confused and confusing context, to do what you love is deeply aspirational, a lean-in fantasy that gives an individual the illusion of control, a daydream of power in the office—and, in reality, a significant class marker.

Who really benefits when we say that sex alone is too special to be commodified? Pro-criminalisation lobbyists Nordic Model Now claim that sex should be “its own sweet reward”. But money can be a sweet reward. Or is the argument that sex should always be free (and freely available)? Because no one has a right to sex with another person. Only incels believe this.

On sex work Twitter, a “will there be sex work after the revolution?” debate surfaces with regularity. For some, the answer is an enthusiastic yes. Many sex workers believe that sex work has a place in society. “Our services are useful,” is the message, or “why should I give away these skills for free?” Others disagree. If we can imagine the overthrow of capitalism, surely we can imagine too a transformation in gender and sexual relations and a meeting of needs such that the sex industry would all but disappear. Myself, I’m a pessimist. I forsee no social utopia. For better or worse, sex will continue to be sold and the focus must remain on reduction of harm.

For me, Revolting Prostitutes’ dismissal of sex positivity as the framework on which to build a movement feels vital. As the authors stress, those doing sex work out of financial precarity, illness or lack of documenation must be the centre, not the periphery, of the movement. It’s possible to support sex workers without validating men’s belief that financial power rightfully guarantees you access to other people’s bodies. It’s possible to support us without demanding our positivity. Recently, a sex working friend of mine, on her anonymous Twitter account, was called a SWERF (sex worker exclusionary radical femnist; an acronym which has now come to mean anti-decriminalision bigot) by a disgruntled client after she posted about hating her job. Something has gone wrong when the message of the sex worker rights movement has, in some people’s minds, seamlessly merged with “LOVE MY JOB” marketing patter.

These days, I have lots of clients I like and I genuinely enjoy some parts of my job. I’m grateful to have found a way to survive (thrive!) alongside illness and ongoing addictions. I was a waitress and worked in bars for six years; I worked in journalism for five. Sex work is infinitely easier to manage. But still, my analysis of the industry has become steadily less palatable to clients. I imagine if nannying, another form of highly feminised labour, were criminalised. Were there to be an uprising of nannies, the families who employ them would have no rightful part in the movement. Honest statements such as “I do a great job and your kids will feel loved but, often, I’m indifferent to children, and some of them I loathe” would fill those parents with horror. For work in which “authenticity” is deemed vital, we must be allowed to step outside our work personas when we’re calling for rights.

The publication of Revolting Prostitutes meant a lot to many sex workers. For me, it joined Laura Agustin’s Sex at The Margins, Selma James’s Hookers in the House of the Lord, Chi Adanna Mgbako’s To Live Freely in the World, Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore, Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, and, of course, Michelle Tea’s Rent Girl, as texts which changed the way I think about sex work, about the world. I hope there will be many more such books—particularly by sex workers of colour, migrant sex workers, trans sex workers, disabled sex workers, outdoor sex workers—tools not just for challenging stigma and (let us hope) influencing policy, but for making sense of our own lives.

The second edition of Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s Revolting Prostitutes’ is out on March 3rd 2020, published by Verso


author

Frankie Miren (@FrankieMiren)

Frankie Miren is a journalist and a sex worker activist. She is part of the Sex Worker Advocacy and resistance Movement (SWARM) and the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP).

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