Prostitution and other forms of sexual exchange have been part of human culture for a very long time. Over the course of those many millennia, it would be extraordinary if sex workers never complained, never organized, or never fought back. From the colonial days of America, people who perform sexual services in exchange for money or other consideration have resisted oppressive conditions and moral denunciations, using whatever means have been available to them. This is a concise history of the sex workers' rights movement in America, authored by Dr. Mindy Chateauvert, who wrote a book on the subject.
Historians have documented a long tradition of resistance among working women. “Promiscuous” women who mixed with men in public in Virginia's colonial towns did not accept lightly the restrictions placed on them. Many early colonists, like Daniel Defoe’s fictional Moll Flanders, were prostitutes sentenced to serve as indentured servants in an effort to rid London of excess women. As brothel keepers and tavern keepers, widows (and those who passed as such) might earn a better living than seamstresses, domestic servants or field laborers. Women, whether single, married or widowed, had almost no property rights; their wages and lands belonged to their husbands. Enslaved African women had no rights at all. Even so, women could appeal to the courts for justice, and sometimes they won. A few African American concubines successfully sued the estates of their white patrons to enforce the provisions made in their wills.
Though social and religious customs viewed prostitution as morally degrading to women, there were few laws against it in the nineteenth century. Married and unmarried immigrant women often traded “favors” for coin, food and “treats” in New York’s Bowery and Five Corners neighborhoods. During the Civil War, General Joe Hooker’s camp “girls” followed his Union regiment into Washington, D.C. where they claimed several blocks near the White House for themselves. “Lost sisterhoods” like this created a sense of community in urban red light zones, and giving women the emotional strength to dismiss those zealous religious missionaries who attempted to rescue them from ruin.
Racial segregation and class divisions marked prostitution districts everywhere. In the lush “resorts” of New York City, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Chicago and San Francisco, the women might represent every hue and nation, as the bluebooks boasted, but the clientele was exclusively white. In the backstreet cribs of Storyville, African American women catered to working class white and black men, as did Mexican women in San Antonio. In the west, Chinese and Native women lived on the margins near military forts, railroad camps and mining towns while white women might enjoy slightly less rugged accommodations. The color lines of the sex industry reinforced the racial prerogatives and disenfranchisement of larger society. Among themselves, African American women fiercely debated whether prostitution was more or less degrading than Harlem’s infamous “slave market” for domestic workers.
New laws against prostitution, liquor consumption, “white slave” trafficking, foreign immigration, homosexuality as well as new zoning restrictions marked the Progressive period in the first decades of the twentieth century. The US Army and the Navy ordered cities to shut down the red light districts near military bases and ports. New laws required testing any woman arrested for prostitution for venereal disease and mandatory quarantines. Anti-Semitic rhetoric fueled public outrage against the traffic in (white) women; Congress responded with the Mann Act which prohibited the transportation of women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” The US Post Office seized literature and devices promoting birth control and abortion, while federal public health officials advised chastity to prevent the spread of syphilis and gonorrhea. In the bloody race riots of the era, whites in some cities carried their rampages into prostitution and entertainment districts, where they burned, beat, lynched and likely raped African American and immigrant workers and residents.
For women employed in the brothels, “boarding houses” and cribs, these new restrictions and violence removed the little control they once had over their work. Female owners fared only slightly better: many simply moved their businesses to new locations and paid off the police to remain open, enduring the occasional raid for political purposes. Though there is little evidence of collective organizing among women to protest these new restrictions, the letters of Maimie Pinzer, a Jewish prostitute born into a well-off Philadelphia family, written between 1910 and 1922 tell the story of her recovery from a morphine addiction, securing legitimate employment as a secretary, and finally reinventing herself as a social worker who founded a shelter for street workers in Montreal, happily married with two adopted children. She reminds us that then, like now, sex work was a rational employment choice for a temporary period, for which women need not plead forgiveness or moral failure.
The “patriotutes” and victory girls of World War II were patriotic women who answered the call to service by offering companionship to men of the armed forces in dance halls and servicemen’s clubs, with the uneasy approval of the US government. At the same time, officials attempted to suppress prostitution and syphilis, citing the need to keep men “fit” for service, and boasted of closing down 675 sex districts. In Waikiki, prostitutes went on strike during the summer of 1942 to protest new police regulations that interfered with their work; “the revolt of Mamie Stover” may have been based on fact.
It was not long before government expanded its efforts to control women’s sexuality, criminalizing the perceived promiscuity of “non-commercial girls” and amateurs, and forcibly testing all women for venereal disease and imposing quarantines. Some accused women filed writs of habeas corpus and refused to be tested; jail breaks from the VD quarantine camp in Puerto Rico were common. In Peoria, Illinois, “prostitutes and their supporters” picketed the speech of FBI spokesman Eliot Ness, “harassing the audience and displaying signs decrying Ness’s actions as an affront to their personal liberties.” After the war, the government’s campaign against sex was transformed into a propaganda campaign encouraging women to take up their “traditional” roles as housewives and mothers.
The male hustlers, trade, hoodlums, “mad Negro queers,” seamen and soldiers, junkies, femme queens, cowboys, scoring or making or taking “sexmoney” in Times Square and ratty downtown Los Angeles, described by Jack Kerouac and John Rechy were well-institutionalized in the urban culture of midcentury America. In this world, “masculine” men who traded sex for money were considered heterosexual and “normal”; “effeminate” men who defied their gender, sometimes wearing in female clothing and trading sex for money, were “deviant.” Frequent vice raids of the bars and movie theaters where they congregated rarely resulted in arrests for prostitution; instead, the charges tended towards “female impersonation,” suspected “sex deviate,” or simply patronizing a “known homosexual hangout.”
In August 1966, the hustlers, queens and street kids who gathered at Compton’s Cafeteria for an afterhours meal in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, revolted when the vice squad tried to arrest one of them. Throwing dinner plates at the police, smashing windows, burning down a newsstand and later picketing against management’s decision to refuse service to drag queens, this first “gay” riot was launched by sex workers. Three years later Puerto Rican transgender sex worker Sylvia Rivera threw bricks at the police during the Stonewall Inn Riot of June 1969, rejoicing “the revolution is here!”
In San Francisco, the social revolution of the gay rights, women’s rights and sexual freedom movements inspired Margo St James to announce the formation of COYOTE on Mother's Day 1973. “Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics” demanded decriminalization of prostitution, recognition that women had the right to pursue sexual pleasure without shame, and society’s acceptance of prostitution as a rational job choice for women. Using the tactics of other ’60s movements, St James launched a national media campaign, and locally organized pickets of hotels that cooperated with the vice squad to entrap women, persuaded the San Francisco jail to stop testing and quarantining women charged with prostitution, set up a hotline and bail fund for sex workers, and assisted women whose legal cases might chip away at prostitution laws. Hookers’ Conventions where everyone was invited to come and the Hooker Balls that drew in Hollywood celebrities, high profile politicians, judges, law enforcement officers, and every fabulous drag queen and her leather daddy were cultural “happenings” drawing on the free sexual spirit of 1970s.
COYOTE and the women who founded affiliate prostitutes’ rights groups (PUMA, PONY, ASP, SPARROW, HIRE, LOTE and others) elsewhere in the US believed that women’s sexual freedom and the right to control her body were central to feminism. Other feminists were not so sure about sex. Though the “sex wars” marked the Reagan years, sex workers argued vociferously with “straight” women from the start of the radical feminist movement. In the 1980s, women organized against violence in the media and pornography endorsed legal measures proposed by conservative Christian Republicans to censor “obscenity” and shut down the commercial sex industry. The alliance between “anti-porn” feminists and fundamentalist Christians continues; more recently, they have joined to abolish sex trafficking and to sponsor missions to rescue brothel workers (sometimes against the wishes of the “rescued”) in developing Asian nations.
The AIDS epidemic profoundly changed the sex workers’ movement. Before scientists identified HIV and its infection routes, people struggled with the disease and government efforts to control it, recommending condoms and teaching safer sex techniques years before public health officials affirmed their efficacy. Legislatures in 34 states criminalized HIV exposure without requiring either proof of intent or actual transmission, with long prison sentences; sex workers were among the first to be targeted for prosecution. Meanwhile, sex worker health groups organized harm reduction outreach efforts to street workers, providing HIV testing, counseling, supplies (including sterile needles), and support for anyone without judgment. The international campaign to stop AIDS/HIV has brought together sex workers’ organizations around the globe to share experiences and to strategize for political action and social justice.
Violence against sex workers remains the most persistent human rights concern. Historically, the law reflects one aspect of the civil discourse on whores, fags, addicts, vagrants, runaways, deviants and other lifestyle “criminals.” But the unpunished crimes of murder, rape, assault, battery, robbery, coercion and harassment perpetrated against sex workers reveals law enforcement’s apathy and society’s hatred. Street workers are most vulnerable to violence and arrest. For protection there is a long tradition of teaming up and watching each other’s backs; this has become more sophisticated with “bad date” sheets, emergency text alert systems, and community-wide cop watches to defend against corrupt police officers. Indoor workers are not immune to violence, especially if their jobs (or their immigration status) are not completely legitimate. Exotic dancers and workers in commercial sex clubs routinely endure unlawful sexual harassment from management as well as from customers and police inspectors; they may also confront discrimination from landlords, school officials, banks and medical practitioners, despite the legality of their jobs. Unionization campaigns, formal complaints to state labor officials, human rights agencies and public health officers have mitigated some situations, but government agents are often reluctant to help politically unpalatable populations. Sex worker-organized actions against violence have grown over the past decade, drawing tens of thousands of women, men, and transgender people around the world to remember the lives lost and to recognize sex workers rights are human rights.