In 1990, health researchers estimated that one in one hundred US women has done some form of sex work during her lifetime. And yet, despite sex work being legal in fifty nations including Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Macau, the Netherlands, Austria, New Zealand, Israel, France, Germany, and England, the United States continues to be one of the few industrialized nations to criminalize prostitution. More than that, the US has actively worked to keep sex workers marginalized, and these discriminatory practices have placed them in harm's way.
The dangers, unfortunately, are quite real. As gentrification pushed people in the sex trades and street economy out of city centers, zoning laws and “move along” ordinances have forced sex workers into isolated areas where they—and other marginalized people—are more susceptible to abuse by police and violent criminals. In the last four decades alone, more than 3,000 women who were or were perceived to be sex workers were killed by serial murderers. Criminologist Kenna Quinet identified 502 male serial murderers active in the United States between 1970 and 2009; she also identified 3,228 of their female victims. Nearly one-third (32 percent) had been engaged in sex work or street-based trades.
There are, however, signs that conditions might be improving. In the 1970s, police solved only 16 percent of murder cases involving sex workers; in the last decade, between 2000 and 2009, 69 percent of known cases have been solved. Certainly a part of that difference can be attributed to better technology available to investigators. But no small part of that change is due to the sex workers themselves, who've been steadily campaigning for increased rights in the US since the Stonewall Uprising. Often cited as the beginning of the LGBT movement, Stonewall was also the beginning of the movement for greater rights and protections of sex workers in the US, considered “sex deviants” by police who would frequently target them during nightclub raids. As Melinda Chateauvert asserts in the introduction to her compelling new book Sex Workers Unite, "Sex workers are fighters." In her book, Chateauvert places prostitutes, hustlers, escorts, call girls, strippers, and porn stars in the center of America's major civil rights struggles, recasting sex workers as savvy political organizers, not as helpless victims in need of rescue. The first and most recognized sex workers’ advocacy group, COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), was formed in May 1973 in San Francisco. COYOTE won several public policy victories in the 1970s to protect women and transgender people arrested on prostitution charges, such as the abolition of mandatory venereal disease tests, mandatory penicillin therapy, and multiday jail quarantines.
Now the fight has moved online, with sex workers around the world rallying around Twitter hashtags like #SexWorkIsWork and #NotYourRescueProject that advocate their struggle for legitimacy and safety while casting off the identity of victimhood that continues to plague them. Chateauvert's book is equal parts social history and call to action, illuminating an underrepresented movement and introducing skilled activists who have organized a global campaign for self-determination and sexual freedom that is as multifaceted as the sex industry itself, and as diverse as human sexuality.
More facts about the struggle for sex workers' rights:
- As of 2010, half of all sex workers in the United States were employed, in one way or another, in the commercial sex industry, including: escorts, brothel workers, professional dominants, telephone sex operators, strippers, exotic dancers, sensual massage workers, webcam entertainers, porn models, adult film performers, and specialists of all types, genders, colors, shapes, sexualities, and fetishes.
- In 1949, the United States voted against a United Nations convention calling for the decriminalization of prostitution when 48% of the UN endorsed it.
- In 1967, in an effort to crack down on the drug market in Times Square and to force commercial sex businesses to tone down their advertising and merchandising practices, Governor Nelson Rockefeller issued that the maximum penalty for prostitution in New York State was fifteen days in jail for a two-year period. After loud protests from police and voters, prostitution became a Class B misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of ninety-one days.
- In thirty-four states, prostitution is a felony if the sex worker is HIV-positive, regardless of the type of service performed or whether transmission to the client occurred.
- The 1986 “Prostitute Study” was the first federally funded effort to focus specifically on AIDS among women.
- Nevada was one of the first states to criminalize illegal sex workers with AIDS, and in March 1986, it was also the first state to adopt mandatory AIDS tests for brothel workers.
- In 2005, President Lula da Silva rejected $40 million from the United States to fight AIDS because it came with the stipulation that Brazil’s government take a pledge against prostitution.
- In 1999, the St. James Infirmary in San Francisco became the first occupational health clinic for sex workers.
- In 2011, two billboard companies refused to accept public awareness ads for the St. James Infirmary created by Rachel Schreiber because by including the term “sex worker” St. James had failed to meet “community standards.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Melinda Chateauvert is an activist who has been involved in many grassroots campaigns to change policies and attitudes about sex and sexuality, gender and antiviolence, and race and rights, and as a professor has taught courses on social justice organizing, the civil rights movement, and gender and sexuality. She is currently a research fellow at the Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.