In Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, Juno Mac and Molly Smith, in deft prose and with razor-sharp clarity and focus, dispel one by one many of the assumptions non-sex workers have about the industry. The authors give clichés, anecdotes, and memoir-style writing a wide berth in order to focus on the labour and rights issues that beset modern sex work. This is all to reinforce the idea that sex work is work, and like any form of work, there is room for change, improvement and solidarity.
Spanning the globe, Mac and Smith take a lens to the sex industries in Great Britain, America, South Africa, Kenya, Sweden, Norway, Ireland, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and New Zealand. They consider which models work and what we can learn from their successes, which the authors find are those that have completely de-criminalized prostitution. They bring to the fore miscarriages of justice suffered by sex workers that have been ignored, obfuscated or distorted by the press, and the reader slowly yet forcefully begins to understand the catch-22 situation many prostitutes face. This situation particularly arises within a partially criminalized system (such as in the UK), where prostitutes are technically legally allowed to work, but it is made unbearably difficult for them to safely do so.
In reading this book, you will find yourself questioning assumptions you may have had about sex work, you will learn about how vast and varied this industry is, and about how different legal precedents and policies have an all-encompassing effect on the material conditions and day-to-day practices of sex workers. Revolting Prostitutes has been a watershed in giving actual sex workers a voice in print, and has been extremely successful in shifting the focus of the layman’s interest away from the salacious and imaginary and towards the material and political. Its publication has, in many ways, re-defined and expanded the perimeters of our debates surrounding sex work.
In Mac and Smith’s writing, we sense two minds at odds with the system, balancing audiences like scales. They need to do justice to the progressivism, debates and priorities of their own community whilst also making these concerns legible and understood by a broader segment of the population. It is that very invitation to listen, to enter into a conversation where we may not be the experts and are in a position to learn, which humbles the reader.
The sex workers’ strike in London has just passed, and even just for a day, powerful images of sex workers’ solidarity and resistance limned the front pages of our papers. We are reminded of the constant struggle for visibility and recognition sex workers fight for, and this book gives readers an exciting opportunity to hear from those voices. Just like those powerful 8th of March images, the authors’ Marxist-feminist, labour-centered analysis reminds us that sex workers are real people locked in a political struggle, agitating to re-inscribe themselves in a system that would rather erase them through hostile policy-making or relegate them to the realm of the imaginary and literary.
If you like this book and are looking for further reading, I recommend Melissa Gira-Grant’s Playing the Whore, also published by Verso.
“Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights” is published by Verso. To order a copy, click here.
Words, Josie Bird