What We Owe to the Hidden, Groundbreaking Activism of Sex Workers
Without sex workers, our activist landscape would look dramatically different—but don’t expect to read about their contribution in the history books.
Sex workers at a demonstration for the legalization of sex in Rome, Italy. Photo by Marco Ravagli / Barcroft Media via Getty Images
There are no official figures on how many sex workers exist globally, with estimates roughly running between 13.8 and 30 million people. But their labor itself has been well documented throughout the ages, cutting through every class and society—from legal brothels during the Roman Empire to the Japanese oirans (courtesans). It's impossible to imagine a world without sex workers.
And—despite social seclusion—everyday women have much to thank sex workers for. Historically, sex workers have been heavily involved in activism and have pushed hard to progress women's and workers' rights, both within and outside the sex work industry.
You won't read about sex workers' contributions to women's rights in the history books. Most of their efforts have been ridiculed at best, and ignored at worst. Sex worker and activist Juno Mac of the Sex Worker Open University and the English Collective of Prostitutes explains the losses that could have happened without sex workers' help.
BROADLY: Hi Juno, thanks for talking to us. What would a world with no sex workers look like to you?
Juno Mac: For me, there is no doubt about the significant political progress made in society thanks to the invaluable contributions made by sex workers throughout history. More often than not, this has gone unrecognised.
Sex workers' contributions go as far back from the hetaera (courtesans) of ancient Greece looking to promote the education of women, to American rights activist and poet Maya Angelou, who openly wrote about her experiences as a sex worker. Modern sex worker activism started around the same time as the rise of feminist and other social justice movements in the 1970s. Housewives also have sex workers to thank for their progress. The activism by the English Collective of Prostitutes was an essential part of the Wages for Housework campaign. It was launched in Italy in 1972 to raise awareness of how housework and childcare are the base of all industrial work and that women should be paid accordingly. It also wanted to draw attention to the legitimacy and value of emotional labor of women generally, including sex workers.
What else would have been different without sex workers?
Sex workers have also been at the forefront of public health, and were incredibly active in the fight against HIV and AIDS. The California Prostitutes Education Project was founded in 1984 to research AIDS in women, and provide education and condoms. When the International AIDS Conference was held in the US in 2012, an entire satellite event was organized in India so that the many sex workers active in AIDS activism—who were banned from entering the US due to government travel restrictions for sex workers and drug users—could attend.
How does this relate to the current political environment sex workers find themselves in?
When it comes to activist movements nowadays, there is a lot of internal conflict as to whether or not sex workers are welcome at the table. Large parts of the mainstream feminist movement still shun us or actively work against our calls for decriminalization. Even the LGBTQ movement is hesitant to include us. Despite the fact that the Stonewall riots were sparked by Sylvia Rivera, a trans sex worker, the Stonewall organization has yet to come out with a pro-decriminalization policy. This is happening in a climate of increasing criminalization against queer sex workers.
But, as always, we persevere, and all over the world sex workers are fighting against their own criminalization. We are firmly embedded within other movements, weaving our advocacy through resistance to the prison industrial complex, in opposition to police violence and borders, the struggle against austerity, or the fight for drug decriminalization. As you can tell, we will fight for a lot of other causes as well as our own.
What would happen if the women involved in sex work staged a strike or refused to go to work for a while—what would the social implications be?
At the moment, if sex workers were on strike, we'd all be poorer—we don't have union support or a strike fund. Picketing is a highly public way of putting pressure on managers and is only accessible to those who aren't criminalized. We can't hold our bosses accountable until we can step out of the shadows.
So, to find out what a world would look like without prostitution, or what striking could do to create a drastically changed sex industry, we'd have to decriminalize it first. This is also backed by the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, the Lancet Medical Journal, Open Society Foundations, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International.