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Reviewed by:
  • Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk by Melindaa Chateauvert
  • Becki L. Ross
Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk. By Melindaa Chateauvert. Boston: Beacon Press, 2013. Pp. 263. $26.95 (cloth).

Sex workers in the United States and in many other places around the world have been fighting against stigmatization and criminalization for a very long time. In her timely, brave book, Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk, Melinda Chateauvert chronicles stories about grassroots organizing by sex work activists over the past five decades. Training her lens on the United States and its long, ugly history of whorephobia and slut shaming, Chateauvert punctures the one-dimensional caricature of sex workers as victims and objects of men’s lust; instead, she reframes “working girls and boys” as fierce fighters and scrappers for sexual freedom and human rights in the absence of sustained solidarity or resources from feminist, gay rights, labor, or African American movements.

Throughout her brilliantly titled chapters—“Those Few Came on like Gangbusters,” “My Ass Is Mine,” “Resisting the Virus of Repression,” “Assembly-Line Orgasms,” and “Fuck the Pigs”—Chateauvert impressively analyzes the stratifications internal to the sex industry along the lines of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and citizenship. Making the case that participation in commercial sex may be the result of choice, circumstance, or coercion, she notes how homeless folks, trans people of color, and undocumented [End Page 516] migrants have hustled sex—“the one form of labor capital they possess”—to secure housing, clothes, medical supplies, and physical safety “in a nation that does not affirm a human right to shelter, food, or healthcare” (4). For many, sex work has meant high-risk activity, especially for street-involved participants. Chateauvert sensitively excavates the “civil deaths” of “hos and hustlers” via street sweeps, arrests, police violence, censorship laws, and discrimination in “square” employment and housing (18). She notes that more than three thousand women have died in the last four decades, including the murders of sixty-five mostly Indigenous women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I commend the delicate balance struck between recounting heinous histories of violence alongside the efforts of plucky sex traders to create twenty-four-hour emergency phone lines, outreach, rap sessions, social welfare assistance, referrals, and bail funds (from the proceeds of hookers’ balls) in the 1970s and 1980s.

Focusing on histories of New York and San Francisco, Chateauvert makes the convincing case for lauding street-based sex workers as activists: “In the praxis of street corners, the reception rooms of massage parlors, and the living rooms of brothels, consciousness-raising among sex workers about working conditions, tricks, cops, lovers, and families had been going on longer than the women’s movement” (40). For these freedom fighters, “straight” women were the victims, tethered to the “tyranny of heterosexual monogamy” (41). Chateauvert emphasizes the pivotal involvement of sex workers in revolutionary uprisings at San Francisco’s Compton Cafeteria (1966) and New York’s Stonewall Inn (1969). Much of her “storytelling” is enthrallingly culled from largely forgotten sex workers’ newsletters, conference notes, films, news articles, and personal papers. A highlight for me was reading about the unrelenting activism of Margo St. James, the founder of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in 1973 and a cofounder of the St. James Infirmary, the first occupational health clinic for sex workers, which opened in San Francisco in 1999. At the same time, I yearned for oral histories conducted with ciswomen, trans women, and male hustlers who negotiated sexual commerce in less familiar locations such as Anchorage, Alaska; Louisville, Kentucky; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Tacoma, Washington.

In chapter 7 Chateauvert offers compelling evidence of sex workers’ performance art, filmmaking, ’zines, and graphic novels together with their more traditional tactics of filing petitions and lawsuits, lobbying, mounting ballot initiatives, and providing health care, especially during the HIV/AIDS crisis. On the union front, she laments the stumbling blocks similar to those in other sectors dependent on contingent labor, independent contractors, poor wages, and high employee turnover (121). Like her, I remain optimistic that sex workers will build upon...


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pp. 516-518
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