Sex Workers Unite
A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk
By Melinda Chateauvert
(Beacon Press, Hardcover, 9780807061398, 272pp.)
Publication Date: January 7, 2014
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A provocative history that reveals how sex workers have been at the vanguard of social justice movements for the past fifty years while building a movement of their own that challenges our ideas about labor, sexuality, feminism, and freedom
Documenting five decades of sex-worker activism, Sex Workers Unite is a fresh history that places prostitutes, hustlers, escorts, call girls, strippers, and porn stars in the center of America’s major civil rights struggles. Although their presence has largely been ignored and obscured, in this provocative history Melinda Chateauvert recasts sex workers as savvy political organizers—not as helpless victims in need of rescue.
Even before transgender sex worker Sylvia Rivera threw a brick and sparked the Stonewall Riot in 1969, these trailblazing activists and allies challenged criminal sex laws and “whorephobia,” and were active in struggles for gay liberation, women’s rights, reproductive justice, union organizing, and prison abolition.
Although the multibillion-dollar international sex industry thrives, the United States remains one of the few industrialized nations that continues to criminalize prostitution, and these discriminatory laws put workers at risk. In response, sex workers have organized to improve their working conditions and to challenge police and structural violence. Through individual confrontations and collective campaigns, they have pushed the boundaries of conventional organizing, called for decriminalization, and have reframed sex workers’ rights as human rights.
Telling stories of sex workers, from the frontlines of the 1970s sex wars to the modern-day streets of SlutWalk, Chateauvert illuminates an underrepresented movement, introducing skilled activists who have organized a global campaign for self-determination and sexual freedom that is as multifaceted as the sex industry and as diverse as human sexuality.
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. As a university professor she has taught courses on social justice organizing, the civil rights movement, and gender and sexuality. She is a fellow at the Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
“[Chateauvert's] portraits of individual activists and advocacy groups are well drawn, proving that humanization through story, not philosophical debates about personhood and privacy, will win this campaign… Chateauvert makes a strong case that 'engaging in sexual commerce should not be grounds for disenfranchisement.'”
“The breadth of the material impressively commemorates the movement’s decades long struggle.”
"Sex Workers Unite is path-breaking in its claims about the expansive legacy of sex worker activism, and one hopes it will serve as a starting point for an even more expansive analysis."
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Chateauvert’s writing is blunt, honest and overwhelmingly liberal. Her dry but positive discussion of sex work and its employees aims to educate the reader. Her mission is to prove that those in the sex work industry are not deviants, addicts or victims. They are people making conscious choices who deserve equal civil rights and legal representation. She wants their stories told, their histories documented, and their allies counted.”
"This is an important book—not only for understanding the history of the movement but also for debunking myths about sex workers."
—Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former US surgeon general
“From the movement's beginning with street-walking cop-fighting trans women at Stonewall at Compton's Cafeteria through feminist betrayal and the AIDs crisis all the way to today's sex work activists and artists who make this labor visible, Sex Workers Unite is a fact-driven, street-smart history. This book is crucial.”
—Michelle Tea, author of Valencia
“In this definitive history, Chateauvert recounts the many challenges and successes of the sex workers’ rights movement, and shows us how much farther we have to go to guarantee everyone’s fundamental rights to sexual privacy and self-determination.”
—Anthony D. Romero, executive director, American Civil Liberties Union
“With a historian’s eye for the illuminating detail and the street fighter’s passion for her cause, Melinda Chateauvert offers a sassy journey through the worlds of 'Working Girls and Boys,' black, brown, and white, trans, gay, and straight. Against rescuers and abolitionists, Sex Workers Unite recovers the collective action and labor organizing of sex workers for better conditions, living wages, cultural freedom, and social justice.”
—Eileen Boris, Hull Professor of Feminist Studies, University of California Santa Barbara and co-editor of Intimate Labors: Cultures, Technologies, and the Politics of Care