Is Sex Work Work?

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TRNN explores the tension between the sex worker rights movement and labor movement

Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: The social and legal stigma associated with sex work often silences the voices of those who perform it. To combat this a decade ago, a group of sex workers and allies rolled out $pread. This award-winning magazine, published from 2005-2011, was largely written by and for these workers.

Recently, The Real News spoke with Rachel Aimee and Eliyanna Kaiser, two co-editors of the new anthology $pread: The Best of the Magazine that illuminated the sex industry and started a media revolution. Many in the book resist the idea that no erotic laborers have agency.

RACHEL AIMEE, CO-EDITOR, $PREAD ANTHOLOGY: The sex worker rights movement responded, understandably defensibly, to that characterization by often coming out kind of strongly on the idea of sex work being empowering. Which was also a problem in itself, because that alienated many sex workers who had a more complicated relationship with their work.

NOOR: In the magazine, many expressed that they don’t just want to be seen as victims. And of course, lots of people don’t freely choose these forms of labor. The anthology admits that at least initially, $pread made itself available mostly to workers of relative privilege. And even many of those workers recount horrific exploitation.

For this, we asked Aimee if their movement had ever found support in the labor organizing movement.

AIMEE: There isn’t really a relationship between the labor movement and the sex worker rights movement, partly because many kinds of sex work are illegal and it’s kind of impossible to do traditional labor organizing in an industry that’s illegal. The labor rights movement often doesn’t really know how to think about sex worker rights.

NOOR: In legal forms of sex work such as pornography and stripping, there is potential to use traditional organizing tactics. And $pread tried to engage the labor movement.

In 2006, Kaiser even interviewed Bill Fletcher Jr., a veteran of the labor movement.

ELIYANNA KAISER, CO-EDITOR, $PREAD ANTHOLOGY: We were hoping to have this conversation about how these two movements can work together, and he made a couple things clear. First, that he certainly hadn’t thought about it. And he didn’t mean this in a bad way. He just had honestly not thought about it before. But that his gut–and you know, he says this in the interview, is that there, just like Americans in general are kind of suspicious of people that work in sex work and have these stigmas attached to them, so would be union members.

NOOR: I reached out to Bill Fletcher, who found his $pread interview eye-opening. He believes these workers should not be ignored.

BILL FLETCHER, JR.: I’ve started to think about the issue as part of a larger challenge facing the trade union movement. This is something that the union movement really needs to address.

NOOR: He noted that the challenges faced by many sex workers are faced in other fields, too.

FLETCHER: Some of the strategic issues that they face are, they face in common with other workers that are temp, contract, part-time.

NOOR: The vast majority of attempts to unionize U.S. sex workers in recent years have failed. And stigma is not the only obstacle.

FLETCHER: Part of it has to do with the general defensive stage that the trade union movement is in. Much of the experimentation that was going on in terms of organizing in the ’90s and early 2000 started to evaporate.

NOOR: Both Kaiser and Fletcher could only think of one recent success.

FLETCHER: The Local of the Service Employees International Union in California, what used to be Local 790, had organized a strip club, I believe.

NOOR: Actually, it was a peep show called The Lusty Lady.

SPEAKER: I am a dancer and a co-owner of The Lusty Lady.

SPEAKER: My name’s Tanya, and that’s my dancer name. And I’ve worked here for two years and three months.

NOOR: There workers even succeeded in turning the show into a worker cooperative. But soon after in 2013, it closed its doors for good.

KAISER: You know, that existed for a little while. And then the peep show closed and the union went away. That’s really the only example in the United States that is of any recent memory.

NOOR: Many kinds of sex work, like prostitution, illegal across most of the United States. For these sex workers, organizing has not been an option.

AIMEE: You have a criminal record, it makes it a lot harder to get a job. At least, a job that’s not sex work. It’s a lot harder to get housing, and you can be evicted from public housing for having a criminal record. Sex workers are also disproportionately victims of violence.

NOOR: But decriminalization alone won’t solve these problems.

ERIN SIEGAL MCINTYRE: In the U.S. prostitution is only legal in parts of Nevada, and those workers aren’t unionized.

NOOR: Prostitutes in Nevada are required to pay for their own weekly STD tests and monthly blood tests, as noted by Erin Siegal.

Fletcher says that sex workers should not wait for union recognition, that they should organize themselves.

FLETCHER: To begin a project within the industry and then upon reaching a certain critical mass, then reach out.

NOOR: This action, Fletcher said, could make an impact on the labor movement. Like $pread, this could help amplify the voices of sex workers.

For The Real News, Dharna Noor, Baltimore.

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DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.