By Juno Mac and Molly Smith
Sex workers are the original feminists. Often seen as merely subject to others’ whims, in fact, sex workers have shaped and contributed to social movements across the world. In medieval Europe, brothel workers formed guilds and occasionally engaged in strikes or street protests in response to crackdowns, workplace closures, or unacceptable working conditions. Fifteenth-century prostitutes, arraigned before city councils in Bavaria, asserted that their activities constituted work rather than a sin.
One prostitute (under the pseudonym Another Unfortunate) wrote to the The Times of London in 1859 to state, “I conduct myself prudently, and defy you and your policemen too. Why stand you there mouthing with sleek face about morality? What is morality?” In 1917, 200 prostitutes marched in San Francisco—in what has been called the “original Women’s March“—to demand an end to brothel closures. A speaker at the march declared, “Nearly every one of these women is a mother or has someone depending on her. 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?”
Caring for each other is political work. During the second-wave feminist movement, many pioneering radicals raised their children collectively and cared for each other beyond the boundaries of the biological family unit. Much less known, and missing from the usual tellings of feminist history, are the similar and preceding efforts of sex workers. For example, in 19th century Great Britain and Ireland, prostitutes created communities of mutual aid, sharing income and childcare. A journalist observed at the time that “the ruling principle here is to share each other’s fortunes… In hard times one family readily helps another, or several help one… What each company get is thrown into a common purse, and the nest is provisioned out of it.”
Likewise, watembezi [street based] women in colonial-era Nairobi formed financial ties to one another, paying each other’s fines or bequeathing assets to one another when they died. Although largely invisible to outsiders, this sharing of resources—including money, workspaces, and even clients—persists as a significant form of sex worker activism today. Workers often collectively pitch in to prevent an eviction or to offer emergency housing. This kind of community resource-sharing is often the only safety net sex workers have if they’re robbed at work or if an assault means they need time off to heal.
Mutual defence, too, is a site of collective action. When eight sex workers were murdered in the small city of Thika, Kenya, in 2010, others from around the country flocked to support them. Phelister Abdalla, an organiser with the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance, writes that ‘hundreds of sex workers, from different parts of Kenya went to protest in Thika… our fellow sisters had been killed, and enough was enough.” They endured harassment and beatings from the police even as they marched the streets, demanding an end to the violence.
The bravery and resilience of sex workers has played a part in many liberation struggles. In the 1950s, prostitutes were part of the Mau Mau uprising that led to Kenya’s liberation from British colonial rule. In the 1960s and 1970s they were part of the riots at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco and the Stonewall Inn in New York that kickstarted the LGBTQ liberation movement in the United States. In times of rapid social change, working class sex workers are often at the heart of the action. As sex worker activist Margo St. James has put it, “it takes about two minutes to politicize a hooker.”
St James was a fierce defender of the heavily policed “sexual deviants” in her San Francisco community. “It’s well past time for whores to organize,” she said in an interview. “The homosexuals organized and now the cops are afraid to harass them anymore. In the 1970s, an era when sex workers had barely any public platform, she organized for gay liberation alongside Harvey Milk, and identified herself openly as a “whore” when she spoke frankly to Rolling Stone about her vision of liberating female sexuality from the “pussy patrol” of the state. She formed Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE), got the practice of quarantine and forced medication for arrested sex workers overturned in California, and hosted 12,000 attendees at her “Hookers Ball” events, including celebrities and politicians. Connecting prostitution with pro-pleasure, pro-queer politics—in the midst of 1970s counter-culture—proved to be an effective way of getting sex workers’ rights on the radar.
In 1974, sex workers in Ethiopia joined the newly formed Confederation of Ethiopian Labour Unions and engaged in strike action that helped to bring down the government. In Europe the modern movement is generally considered to have begun in 1975, when sex workers in France occupied churches to protest criminalization, poverty, and police violence. This sparked similar sex worker organizing in London, where the English Collective of Prostitutes occupied churches in King’s Cross, London, in 1980. More recently, sex workers were deeply involved in anti-gentrification protests around Gezi Park in Istanbul, Turkey.
In the UK, the 1970s and 1980s sex workers’ rights movement was deeply entwined with the “wages for housework” campaign. Marxist feminists named the value of women’s unpaid reproductive and domestic labour and demanded a radical reorganisation of society to value women’s work. Around that time, the feminist group Wages Due Lesbians linked domestic work, sex work, and the work of heterosexuality in a solidarity statement against a 1977 vice crackdown: “Wherever women succeed in winning some of the wages due us, it is a strength to all of us and proof that women’s services cannot be taken for granted.”
Throughout the 1980s, the sex workers’ rights movement became increasingly international. The First and Second Whores’ Congresses took place in Amsterdam and Brussels, and new sex worker led groups began emerging from Australia, Thailand, Brazil, South Africa, and Uruguay, among other places.
In 1997, 4,000 sex workers made history with the first National Conference of Sex Workers in India, organised by the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC). At a follow-up event in 2001, their number rose to 25,000 who came to Kolkata to make their demands known, with signs proclaiming: “We want bread. We also want roses.” In Bolivia in the mid-2000s, 35,000 sex workers from across the country participated in a huge series of collective actions against police violence and the closure of workplaces. “We are fighting for the right to work and for our families’ survival,” said Lily Cortez, leader of the El Alto Association of Nighttime Workers, surrounded by prostitutes who had sewn their mouths shut in protest. “Tomorrow we will bury ourselves alive if we are not immediately heard.”
Some went on strike by refusing to go for mandatory sexually transmitted disease (STD) testing “until we can work free from harassment.” Others blockaded traffic or went on hunger strike. “We are Bolivia’s unloved,” said Yuly Perez from the sex workers’ union National Organization for the Emancipation of Women in a State of Prostitution. “We are hated by a society that uses us regularly and ignored by institutions obligated to protect us… [We] will fight tooth and nail for the rights we deserve.”
Sex workers sometimes pay a high price for political speech. In 2004, Argentinian trade union activist Sandra Cabrera was shot dead in her home in retribution for her work challenging police corruption and police violence directed at sex workers. Her murder remains officially unsolved. Kabita Roy, an activist with a sex worker trade union in India, was murdered in the union’s office in Kolkata in 2016. In January 2018, three prominent sex worker activists were murdered in Brazil. In 2011, criminal gangs murdered the president of a migrant sex worker trade union in Peru. Sex worker Angela Villón Bustamante, a colleague of the murdered trade unionist, said, “It’s not in the Mafia’s economic interests that sex workers organize.”
Nor is the high cost of political speech evenly distributed among sex workers. Precarious immigration status, fear of eviction and police violence, and potential loss of child custody mean that migrant and indigenous workers, the insecurely housed, and parents (particularly mothers) all face higher stakes when organising or speaking up than sex workers who have secure long-term tenancies, hold a passport or citizenship, or have no children. Cisgender sex workers are safer from these risks than transgender sex workers; white sex workers are safer than sex workers of colour. Even as sex workers with relative power, demonstrating that we can speak for ourselves is often a gruelling task.
The man responsible for the killing spree in Thika, Kenya, was apprehended in 2010. He confessed and claimed that he would have continued killing until he’d reached a hundred prostitutes: “I managed 17 and there were 83 to go.” Aisha, a sex worker in Thika, who with her friends protested in the streets during the frightening time before he was caught, says, “We wanted people to know that we call ourselves sex workers because it is the wheat our families depend on.” Even in the face of such overwhelming vulnerability, they openly identified themselves as sex workers in public for the first time, with bright red T-shirts and loud chanting. As one sex worker at the protest remarked, “The community should know we exist. And there’s no going back.”
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