Revolting Prostitutes is written by Juno Mac and Molly Smith who build their argument through their direct experiences, as well as sharing and commenting on stories of sex workers around the world. This mode of story telling helps the reader to navigate and build a perspective based on real life circumstance, instead of focusing purely on ‘positive’ liberal views of prostitution or the conservative condemnation of it. Sex work isn’t a binary issue. It embodies a global struggle with a host of oppressions that relate to poverty, racism, homophobia and transphobia.
I started reading this book after I heard a talk by Juno Mac on the laws that sex workers really want. What stood out to me throughout the book was the diversity of the sex worker community. It’s made up of parents, friends and activists, all of whom are working together to ensure the safety of one another. The book quickly dispels any preconceptions that sex workers are a failed aspect of our society, which is an essential first step to really understanding sex work.
The first half of the book relates the history of sex work to policing and borders, and to collective action. Response and action towards sex workers has historically been negative, fuelled by deep-set perceptions of ‘dirty’ and ‘disease spreading’ prostitutes. More often than not policing has actually increased the vulnerability of sex workers who face a dual-threat from law enforcement and from potentially dangerous clients.
An example of this is discussed when the book references the situation regarding brothels. Brothels are somewhere that provide security and safety for sex workers as they can rely on the knowledge that there are always others on hand to help, should a client become violent. However, current laws in places such as the US render brothels illegal, forcing sex workers to work in potentially dangerous environments where they can be robbed, raped and killed.
Revolting Prostitutes goes on to analyse the differing models and attitudes for sex work on a global scale. As mentioned above, some countries such as the US, South Africa and China fully criminalise sex work. However some Nordic countries such as Sweden attempt to reduce prostitution by criminalising the purchase of sex, rather than the of the selling of it.
The authors take this opportunity to highlight that although sex workers are not subject to legal conviction in these models, they do create conditions that put sex workers at risk financially and physically. If the purchase of sex is criminalised, there is an increased danger for workers whose need to sell sex is greater than their clients need to purchase it. This forces sex workers to sell sex at very low costs, or to perform services that can potentially put them at risk, such as clients not having to wear a condom.
Revolting Prostitutes provides a voice to a marginalised community that is asking for greater understanding and compassion. Juno Mac and Molly Smith make the argument that decriminalisation will not end the exploitative nature of waged work, but it will address the most intense manifestation of exploitation by giving sex workers security, safety, greater financial stability and opportunity through access to labour laws. Too often are marginalised communities like this spoken for and misunderstood. Policies need to reflect the actual needs of sex workers, rather than just perpetuating a hostility to their existence.
I had never been exposed to this topic in such depth before, and it has certainly educated me in a topic that many people do not truly understand. I have done my best to include some references to some of the arguments discussed in this book, but you really need to read it to begin to understand the full picture.
Follow the links below to view Juno Mac’s talk and purchase Revolting Prostitutes.