Every year, sex workers and advocates around the world celebrate March 3rd as International Sex Worker Rights Day. This year, the Safe Harbour Outreach Project in St. John’s (SHOP) have curated a Sex Worker Rights Reading List featuring writing, research, poetry and comic art from sex workers and allies. This list highlights work that we love from sex workers and authors in St. John’s, across Canada, and internationally—and honours the global presence and power of sex workers fighting for their rights.
International Sex Worker Rights Day started in 2001, when over 25,000 sex workers gathered in the streets of India for a sex worker rights festival—despite efforts from prohibitionist groups who tried to prevent it taking place by pressuring the government to revoke their permit. The organizers of the festival, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) based in West Bengal, India, represents 65,000 sex workers and identifies and challenges the underlying socio-structural factors that help perpetuate stigma, material deprivation and social exclusion of sex workers. The DMSC said they felt strongly that there should be a day, observed by the sex workers community globally, to keep focus on the large mobilization of all sex workers around the world (men, women & transgender people). Since then, the day is celebrated globally by sex workers and their supporters.
This reading list is for sex workers and allies alike to recognize the wealth of wisdom and expertise that sex workers across the globe bring to feminism, 2SLGBTQIA activism, the labour movement, and our day-to-day lives.
For sex workers reading along, know that in these books, articles, and resources you’ll find diverse perspectives, humour, frustration, history and community. To allies who are exploring our reading list, remember that learning can be uncomfortable, but working through discomfort and even unlearning stigma is essential work to increasing your ability to be a safer friend, support person, or loved one to sex workers in your life and your community.
Sex workers have always been here contributing to our communities, fighting violence on the frontlines, and helping build and lead our movements. Our history should be known and celebrated.
Below are 17 of our favourite SHOP sex worker rights reads (in no particular order) that challenge, inspire, and inform our work in the sex worker rights movement. Happy reading, and happy #InternationalSexWorkerRightsDay!
Sex Worker Rights Reading List:
1. Playing The Whore: The Work of Sex Work
By Melissa Gira Grant
Melissa Gira Grant grounds this book on ten years of writing and reporting on the sex trade, and most importantly in her experience as an organizer, advocate, and former sex worker. This relatively short book (less than 150 pages) packs a comprehensive punch, powerfully taking on major issues of sex work: the construction of the individual sex worker or ‘prostitute’, the ‘work’ of sex work, the conditions in industry, the ongoing debates on how to understand sex work, the policing of sex workers, the increasingly visible movement for sex workers’ rights, and the stigma sex workers face that is strategically upheld by criminalizing not only their work but too often their lives. Playing The Whore— great for any book club, weekend read or post-secondary class room—centers sex workers’ demands, too long relegated to the margins, by recognizing sex work as work and sex workers’ rights as human rights.
We encourage you to continue following Melissa Gira Grant’s writing and commentary through her Twitter account @melissagira.
2. Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy and Research on Sex Work in Canada
By Emily van der Meulen, Elya M. Durisin & Victoria Love
Published in 2012, Selling Sex is an invaluable anthology on understanding the complexities of the sex trade in Canada. With chapters by many notable sex work researchers in Canada (whose research continues to influence our human-rights based work at SHOP) as well as chapters by sex workers with diverse experiences in the sex industry, this book is engaging and eye-opening as it covers diverse issues including social stigma, labour organizing, the sex workers’ rights movement, harm reduction initiatives, policing, feminism, decolonization, and human trafficking.
3. Red Light Labour: Sex Work, Regulation, Agency and Resistance
By Elya M. Derision, Emily van der Meulen & Chris Bruckert
Red Light Labour is a groundbreaking collection of essays in the wake of Canada’s new ‘Nordic’ legal regime against sex work. Despite the 2013 Supreme Court of Canada ruling, in Canada v. Bedford, that key prostitution laws in Canada were unconstitutional, we’ve seen the implementation of conservative efforts to ‘end prostitution’ through the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), and the harmful impacts on our communities. This book offers striking analysis of policies, laws and policing, diverse experiences of Indigenous, racialized, male, rural, trans and migrant sex workers, and sex workers’ creative and collaborative resistance across Canada. We also want to give this book a shout-out for a chapter addressing sex work stigma in St. John’s by Laura Winters and Gayle MacDonald!
This book and Selling Sex make an excellent duo of powerhouse anthologies of writing on sex work in Canada.
4.Striptastic! A Celebration of Dope-Ass Cunts Who Like Money
By Jacqueline Frances (a.k.a. Jacq the Stripper)
This collection of illustrations, excerpts and info-graphic art by Jacq the Stripper during her time working as a stripper is a favourite among people working in the adult industry. It will make you laugh, think critically about capitalism, and encourage you to tip all people doing customer service work.
Several Jacq the Stripper comics adorn our confidential SHOP space walls, reflecting the humour, critical analysis, and experiences of sex workers we serve.
5. Rock, Paper, Sex: The Oldest Profession in Canada’s Oldest City
By Kerri Cull (published by NL’s Breakwater Books)
“There is no one truth about sex work or the people that do it in St. John’s.”
This first-of-its-kind book out of Newfoundland & Labrador shares real stories by real people with experience in the sex trade who are rarely given a public voice. Kerri Cull’s debut book, Rock, Paper, Sex offers unique chapters—each collaboratively developed over time with the person telling their story—on some of the experiences of individuals who make up our city’s diverse sex industry. With an engaging story-telling journalistic style, this book challenges uninformed stereotypes that plague public opinion, and uplifts the diverse voices of lived experience to counter the silencing effects of stigma.
People in our province, from government reps to local journalists, frontline community activists to law enforcement, often tell us at SHOP that this local book was their first (and sometimes only) in-depth exposure to the experiences of people in the sex trade. We welcome this news but want to push you to keep reading! This book is the tip of the iceberg. Being an ally to sex workers means the work doesn’t end with one book.
6. Black and Brown Sex Workers Keep Getting Pushed to the Margins
In this article published in 2018 by Wear Your Voice, author Suprhimbe (also known as @thotscholar on Twitter) brings an essential critical lens to the ways race and class shape who is centered in conversations about sex workers. The author highlights how language and power uphold real world hierarchies—including amongst sex workers themselves— that continue to erase the voices and needs of poor sex workers of colour.
“Poor sex workers of color have our own voices but we hardly get heard in the mainstream once these conversations are at the forefront. Yet we are usually the ones targeted or affected by these fear mongering, anti-whore crusades… Anti-whore sentiments will not be fully addressed or dismantled until we are able to center Black and Brown Q/T sex workers.”
7. To Live Freely In This World: Sex Worker Activism in Africa
By Chi Adanna Mgbako
To Live Freely In This World is the first book to fully tell the story of the brave activists at the beating heart of the sex workers’ rights movement in Africa. African sex worker activists, from Nigeria to Kenya to South Africa, are challenging anti-prostitution advocates, confronting the multiple stigmas that affect the diverse members of their communities of transgender, queer, migrant and HIV-positive sex workers, and engaging in intersectional movement building. Author Chi Adanna Mgbako has helped “fill a large void in both sex work studies and African feminist scholarship” by documenting hundreds of sex workers in Africa participating in the larger global sex workers’ rights struggle to determine their own fates through strategic, informed choices.
“An essential contribution to our understanding of how sex workers resist and make change. The stories Mgbako has gathered… highlight sex workers’ own analysis—of their work, the inequality they face, and their commitment to justice. Journalists, human rights advocates, and feminists will find a wealth of inspiration here for further study and solidarity.” – Melissa Gira Grant
8.Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight For Sex Workers’ Rights
By Juno Mac & Molly Smith (@fornicatrix and @pastachips on Twitter)
Revolting Prostitutes is the long-anticipated book by two highly respected and followed sex workers and activists, and has been getting incredible reviews from sex workers for good reason! This incredibly well-researched book offers comprehensive and nuanced perspectives on the long history of sex workers’ political activism, the overlapping harmful impacts of policing, the prison system, and anti-migrant border control, and makes clear that sex workers’ rights must undeniably be a central part of greater movements for justice and freedom.
“A book so deeply gratifying and validating, like a soapy cloth wiping away some of the classist sex positive nonsense fugues that obstruct progress and necessary development in sex work activism. – Tits and Sass
“Fresh thinking on feminism, deep analysis of policing and the law, and a critical examination of sex work itself. Smith and Mac have drawn together a radically inclusive map for liberation” – Melissa Gira Grant
“[Juno Mac and Molly Smith] make it clear that anyone committed to working towards justice and freedom should be in support of the sex worker rights movement.” – www.RedLightReader.org
“Revolting Prostitutes really sets the standard for critical analysis of sex work, and I will be recommending it and referring to it constantly in my sex worker rights advocacy work.” – Audacia Ray
9. Abolition of sex work won’t end violence against native women
By Naomi Sayers & Sarah Hunt
Naomi Sayers and Sarah Hunt are two highly-respected Indigenous women, advocates, and writers on issues of sex work, violence, laws and justice in Indigenous communities, and write together in this Globe and Mail article about how efforts to abolish the sex trade are harming Indigenous women. Sayers and Hunt underscore the need to address systemic racism, sexism, poverty, and the over-criminalization of Indigenous women, but also to recognize the resilience of Indigenous sex workers who speak up and find the best ways to support themselves.
“In the end, rather than seeing increased policing and legal intervention as the pathway to solve these conditions, we see the importance of supporting indigenous women where they’re at today regardless of the choices they make and the utility of community-based initiatives to increase safety and wellness for all. We see that even in the midst of poverty, abuse, and marginalization, native women’s daily decisions need to be respected, and the lives of those women choosing to sell sex are as valuable as those choosing to work for government agencies. Violence against all native women needs to be made unacceptable, including against those who work in the sex trade.”
10. Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sex Workers’ Poetry
By Amber Dawn & Justin Ducharme
We really can’t say it better than this description of the book itself: “In this trailblazing anthology, more than fifty self-identified sex workers from all walks of the industry (survival and trade, past and present) explore their lived experience through the expressive nuance and beauty of poetry. In a variety of forms ranging from lyrics to list poems to found poetry to hybrid works, these authors express themselves with the complexity, agency, and honesty that sex workers are rarely afforded.”
“Hustling Verse grabs poetry by the collar and drags it through the street, leaving its head pounding and exhilarated. From the stroll, the dungeon, the luxury in-call, and behind the webcam, the poets in Hustling Verse issue a thrilling and relentless response to hundreds of male poets who’ve earned their laurels writing about them, without them.” – Morgan M. Page
We are excited about contributions from St. John’s sex workers in this anthology!
11. Black Sex Workers’ Lives Matter: Appropriation of Black Suffering
By Robyn Maynard
This crucial and critical essay challenges institutionalized anti-Black racism in the mainstream anti-trafficking movement. Describing herself as “a black woman with experience in the sex industry and as a long-time outreach worker with both street-based and indoor sex workers in Montreal”, Robyn Maynard reminds us that fighting anti-Black racism must be central to the sex workers’ rights movement.
“But by hijacking the terminology of slavery, even widely referring to themselves as ‘abolitionists’, anti-sex work campaigners have not only (successfully) campaigned for funding and legal reform; but they do so without any tangible connections to historical or current Black political movements against state violence. Indeed in pushing for criminalization, they are often undermining those most harmed by the legacy of slavery.”
12. Sex Workers in the Maritimes Talk Back
By Leslie Ann Jeffrey & Gayle MacDonald
An oldie but a goodie. As the oldest book on our list, published in 2006, Sex Workers in the Maritimes Talk Back continues to be an important culmination and documentation of three years of research formulated from interviews with 60 sex workers in the Maritimes (side-note: Newfoundland & Labrador is not part of the Canadian Maritimes). Themes of the interviews range from what was good and bad about their experience doing sex work, and what issues and concerns were in their own lives, to what they wanted to say to society at large.
“[In this book] the workers emerge as neither victims nor heroes, but as engaged and insightful social actors.” – Christine Bruckert
13. The Toolkit: Ottawa Area Sex Workers Speak Out
By Lara Purvis, Christ Bracket and Frédérique Chabot in collaboration with POWER & the AIDS Committee of Ottawa
“Nothing about us, without us!”
Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work, Educate and Resist (known as POWER) is an Ottawa-based organization created by and for sex workers to further the rights of sex workers as workers and as human beings. This online resource published by POWER in 2011 is a user-friendly collection of knowledge and information from sex workers in Ottawa compiled to challenge myths, depict real experiences and working conditions, and to inform frontline healthcare providers, social workers, community spaces, police, media, and the general public.
14. Street Sex Work and Canadian Cities: Resisting A Dangerous Order
By Shawna Ferris
In Street Sex Work and Canadian Cities author Shawna Ferris asks: “Why did the murder of 14 white, educated women at École Polytechnique in 1989 inspire parliamentary outrage and a legislative response from the Department of Justice, while the ‘disappearance’ of 65 poor, mainly Aboriginal women in Vancouver was treated as simply a police matter?” Whether working indoors (like the majority of sex workers in Canada) or working outside on the street, all sex workers want to live and work in safe environments. However, ongoing political efforts to eliminate crime, ‘clean up’ cities and neighbourhoods, and make issues of poverty, racism, and inequality invisible in the name of safety and orderliness have devastating consequences for sex workers on the street. This incisive book gives a voice to sex workers who are often pushed to the background, even by those who fight for them.
“Sex workers are savvy, knowledgeable, and wonderful human beings, who work and live within a system and society that has, at every turn, not only violated our rights as human beings, but enacted laws that validate the stigma and violence we experience. Shawna builds on the strong evidence of these connections in this book, seeing us as full human beings who face stigma and human rights violations here in Canada today.” – Amy Lebovitch
15. Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk
By Melinda Chateauvert
Sex Workers Unite opens with the line “Sex workers are fighters” and sets the tone for a look at over fifty years of sex workers fighting for their right to work, for respect and justice for a very long time. Acknowledging that sex workers have the forefront of many social justice movements, from the riots at the Stonewall Inn and Compton’s Cafeteria in the 1960s until the contemporary SlutWalk protests, this book a great deal of information about an often overlooked movement.
16. Safety, Dignity, Equality: Recommendations for Sex Work Law Reform in Canada (Executive Summary)
By the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform
The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform is made up of over 25 sex worker rights groups across Canada working to create a unified and cohesive response to law reform, and to strengthen the capacity of our communities to engage with legislative processes. As a proud member of the Canadian Alliance, SHOP can’t help but include this 12-page user-friendly resource for truly understanding what many sex workers in Canada are asking for around laws impacting our lives.
17. Responding to Human Trafficking: Dispossession, Colonial Violence, and Resistance among Indigenous and Racialized Women
By Julie Kaye
Published in 2017, Responding to Human Traffickingis a leading critical examination of responses to the growing issue of human trafficking in Canada. Author, professor and researcher Julie Kaye draws on feminist, anti-colonial and Indigenous frameworks to unpack narratives of human trafficking including the misrepresentations of human trafficking victims and perpetrators, the conflation of human trafficking and sex work, and the utility of human trafficking laws, policies and practices underscored by settler colonialism. This book may make your head-spin, but it’s a powerful, necessary read.
“Placing anti-trafficking discussions in the context of settler colonialism reveals the role of structural and material violence, the inequalities sharing the nature of dominant discourses, and the ability of such discourses to function in a hegemonic way to silence complex narratives.”
Photo by SHOP.
The Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP) is the first and only sex worker advocacy program in Newfoundland & Labrador, operated by the St. John’s Status of Women Council/Women’s Centre. SHOP’s mandate is to advocate for the human rights of sex workers across our city and province, both on an individual and collective level. In just a 6 short years, our small SHOP staff team of two people have connected with over 500 current and former sex workers, and in practice our work involves a great deal of individual support, outreach, and advocacy. This unique program was developed in partnership with cisgender and transgender women who engage in sex work, and everything they do is informed by the real experts – sex workers themselves.
For more information and to support sex workers’ human rights follow SHOP on Facebook or Twitter, visit our website at sjwomenscentre.ca/programs/SHOP or contact our two SHOP staff.
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