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Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights
Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ RightsCourtesy Verso Books

Why sex workers deserve rights like any other workers

Juno Mac and Molly Smith discuss their radical new book Revolting Prostitutes, and how new laws around the world are hurting prostitutes

Sex workers have been spoken for, over, and down to for too long. Marginalised, patronised, and totally misrepresented in the mainstream media, it’s no wonder that the reality of sex workers’ lives is so poorly understood by the public. One artist, who makes crude sculptures out of prostitutes’ rubbish in Leeds, home to Britain’s first “red light district”, provides just one example of how sex workers are seen by the general public: drugged-up, dirty and enslaved.

Authors and sex workers Juno Mac and Molly Smith are hoping to change that. Their seminal new book, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, is a radical case study of the past, present, and future of prostitution law. It sets the record straight on a lot of mainstream beliefs about the sex industry and those who operate in it, and lays out what workers in the industry need to ensure their safety and human rights.

From the “original Women’s March” in San Francisco in 1917, to how the Nordic model of prostitution has led to homelessness and deportations in some of the countries that have adopted it, the book is a must-read for feminists and non-feminists alike. As the British government pursues new laws like the United States’ FOSTA/SESTA that has driven sex workers underground, it is more crucial than ever to open Revolting Prostitutes’ neon orange pages.

We spoke to Mac and Smith about the stigma of sex work, seeing prostitution as labour, and why supporting sex workers’ rights doesn’t mean being a cheerleader for the industry.

Revolting Prostitutes is a really informative, well-written guide to sex worker movements today, and it seems like it’s been received really well. Why is now such a critical time to talk about these issues?

Juno Mac and Molly Smith: Hopefully our book feels timely in part because the left and movements for social justice are waking up to the extent to which sex worker safety and justice intersects with everything else. If you care about women’s rights, you need to care about sex workers’ rights. If you care about LGBTQ rights, you need to care about sex workers’ rights. If you care about prison abolition, or ending police violence, or drug policy, you need to care about sex workers’ rights.

Sadly, we’re living through a time of emboldened global fascism, and sometimes it can feel strange asking people to care about this “niche” issue when everything else is so terrible in such huge ways. But it’s not actually a contradiction, of course: we fight fascism by fighting the safety for those made most disposable by our current society, and sex workers – especially migrant, trans and drug-using sex workers – are among those who are most marginalised by our existing social order. So fighting for sex worker rights is actually a crucial piece of the puzzle in terms of how we have to work together to defeat fascism everywhere.

The book explains the early days of sex worker revolts, including how in 1917, 200 prostitutes marched in San Francisco. What has changed since the first sex worker movements began to simmer, and how would you compare the growing global sex work movement now to then?

Juno Mac and Molly Smith: One of the most significant shifts for sex workers has been the ability to communicate online. Sex workers in different parts of the world can now discuss how the law impacts their work and this enhanced level of knowledge is really useful in the policy arena. The internet also affords the power of speech where previously this was impossible for many – sex work is not only criminalised but deeply stigmatised and shrouded in mystery. People can now speak frankly and anonymously about the realities of their lives without fear of arrest, loss of children, eviction, or social rejection.

I love how you articulate that supporting sex worker rights isn’t the same as saying the sex work industry is inherently a good thing. What makes this point so important and why do so few people understand this?

Juno Mac and Molly Smith: A commonly heard feminist criticism of the sex industry is that it’s too horrible to be consider work – that it is purely exploitation, bad for society, and therefore ‘not a real job’. This logic implies that ‘real jobs’ should be defined on the basis of how nice or fun they are, when the truth is all kinds of work are unpleasant, with poor conditions that desperately need improving. In this, the sex industry is not unique; one only has to look at the prevalence of violence and exploitation amongst migrant domestic workers to see that it’s in such jobs that workers needs visibility and rights the most.

But if sex work isn’t a job, then sex workers are excluded from the category of worker, and ‘workers’ rights’ slip out of reach. It’s easy to see why in the past, the response has been for sex workers to refute this logic – by saying, ‘Actually sex work is good, and fun! And that therefore we are, in fact, real workers.’ But highlighting the poor conditions and demanding improvements is integral to the sex worker movement, and workers’ movements in general. No worker should have to pander to this notion of ‘nice work’ in order to deserve rights, nor defend the legitimacy of the industry they work in to be regarded as workers.  

In simple terms, as well, it’s hopefully an olive branch to other feminists, who maybe have been thinking that supporting the sex industry is necessary if you want to support sex workers. We want to reassure other feminists that this isn’t the case! You can feel ambivalent about the sex industry or even hate it and still support sex workers’ rights – in fact, to us, these are the politics that most obviously make sense.

“Worker organising is crucial to how we will build a better world, but it’s also necessary to not romanticise it as already perfect” – Juno Mac and Molly Smith

What are the everyday realities of sex work that often get overlooked by mainstream narratives?

Juno Mac and Molly Smith: Sex workers don’t just deal with criminalisation when they get arrested or evicted – the horrors of criminalisation encompass all the things sex workers do to avoid such consequences, and there is an ever-shifting trade-off between their physical safety and their legal safety. For example, many sex workers work isolated and alone, both indoors and outdoors, to avoid the attention of police. This puts them in a vulnerable position for violence.

However, sex workers have innumerable methods for detecting risks of such violence. Things like online background checks, noting down car registration plates, asking to see clients IDs, checking their phone number against community Bad Client databases – even using intuition to pick up on a guy’s mannerisms and demeanour when he rolls down the car window. Is he drunk, sketchy, or nervous?

The resourcefulness of sex workers in doing these things should be discussed more in feminist spaces, not only because it’s a damning indictment of how self-sufficient we have to be about our own wellbeing in criminalised work, but because a feminist curiosity about such things would highlight immediately how dangerous criminalisation is for us – how do we get a legal name from a client if he’s scared of being arrested? How do we check his number if he refused to reveal his caller ID? Sex workers in countries like Sweden and Ireland confirm that the sex buyer law (the Nordic model that criminalises clients) has made this kind of stuff really hard for them.

Critics say FOSTA/SESTA in the US has limited the rights and safety of sex workers. What would happen if the UK adopted similar laws?

Juno Mac and Molly Smith: Were such a law to be implemented here, it would be devastating for the vast majority of sex workers who use the internet to find and screen clients, and the immediate impact would be similar to the US model: a sharp uptick in poverty, a return for many to hustling in bars and streets, and an increase in reliance on third parties to recoup lost business.

The Green Party supports decriminalisation, as do the Liberal Democrats. How do you feel about the fact that the Labour Party, supposedly the party for the working people, has not pledged to decriminalise sex work? What does it say about society’s view of this type of work?

Juno Mac and Molly Smith: It’s really frustrating. But it’s not totally surprising – the Labour movement has often had a slightly uneasy relationship to women and work that is deemed ‘women’s work’. In the 1950s, women had to battle to be part of the Labour movement at all, because they were viewed as “not real workers” – just working for “pin money”. Worker organising is crucial to how we will build a better world, but it’s also necessary to not romanticise it as already perfect – people bring into organising spaces the oppressive structures that exist elsewhere in the world, like patriarchal attitudes towards sex workers.

However, we are hopeful: increasingly, Labour Party activists at the grassroots level are on board with sex worker rights. UK Decrim Now, a coalition we are part of, has had recent successes in passing pro-decrim motions at ward levels, or starting conversations about sex worker rights within local Labour Party branches. When people actually listen to what sex workers are asking, they largely come on board. When we fight, we win!

Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights is out now on Verso.