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History, politics, activism, and humanity: 4 must-read books about sex work.

History, politics, activism, and humanity: 4 must-read books about sex work.

. 6 min read

Want to find out more about sex workers? Unfortunately, mainstream media will only get you so far.

We’ve all seen the worst examples, of course - cop dramas, murder mysteries, and improbable, ‘Pretty Woman’-esque romantic comedies. Then there’s the ‘dramatised but agreeable’ category - movies and TV shows that capture the feel of the industry, if not the details. Perhaps you’ve watched some documentaries, such as ‘Scarlet Road’ or ‘Meet the Fokkens’ (if you watched Louis Theroux’s take on sex work, I’m truly sorry).

As we discussed on the blog last month, there are also plenty of memoirs written by sex workers, and they’re well worth your time.

But what if you want to go deeper?

Perhaps you’re ready to tackle law, politics, and history? Sex work tells us a lot about gender, sexuality, and society in general. And through the philosophies of our fellow workers, we can understand our place in the industry better.

Or perhaps you need ammunition to defend yourself from SWERFs and sex work abolitionists? Often, the worst part of our job is the constant criticism. When emotional appeals fail, it’s helpful to have a grasp on the politics, and a few useful lines to use when we argue back.

When reruns of ‘Secret Diary of a Call Girl’ no longer cut it...when you need facts and figures...I recommend a nonfiction book about the sex industry.

Here are some excellent texts to choose from. They’re authored by sex workers and passionate activists. They’re thoughtful, well-researched and persuasive. They educate us about the history of sex work, the sex worker rights movement, feminism and gender, and why decriminalisation is the best option.

Before we start, a warning: Although the commonly accepted term for what we do is ‘sex work’, the word ‘prostitute’ is still used in the USA by some activists to describe full-service work. You’ll see it in many of the books below, especially those that were published in the 90s and noughties. There are also a couple of books that use outdated terms for trans folk. I know some people find this stuff triggering, so please keep it in mind as you’re considering what to read next!

Whores and Other Feminists’, Jill Nagle (Editor), 1997

What’s it all about? A manifesto of feminist politics from the perspective of sex workers.

Who’s it for? Readers who already have a grasp on feminism and want to deepen their understanding.

I’m sorry to admit that I put off reading ‘Whores and Other Feminists’ for way too long. Partly because of the purchase price - at a whopping sixty-six Australian dollars on Amazon, it’s a big investment! I’m also ashamed to admit that I prejudged it - I assumed it would be too wordy and complicated for me.

Well, I was wrong. ‘Whores and other Feminists’ is very readable, and it’s packed full of useful perspectives. Each essay is penned by a different American sex worker - and a wide range of experiences are shared and dissected, from a diverse range of sex industry professions. The book was a pioneer, published in an era where most people assumed that sex work and feminism were incompatible. But page by page, story by story, each writer lays bare the truth of their experience, and makes a case for their place in (and value to) the feminist movement.

There are some intellectual and political arguments that might be tricky to get your head around if you’re not already familiar with the basics of feminism. But once you’ve done your homework on that stuff, I’d encourage you to dive right in. We all need to know why sex work matters, and this knowledge really comes in handy when you’re dealing with SWERFS.

My recommendation: Get it now! (Or borrow it from your local library.)

‘Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work’, Melissa Gira Grant, 2014

What’s it about? A thorough exploration of sex worker rights.

Who’s it for? If you’re ready to deep dive into the injustices levelled against sex workers, and explore the complicated motivations behind stigma, this is the book for you.

‘Playing the Whore’ is at once a detailed look into the state of sex work worldwide, and impassioned plea for recognition of our rights. It dismantles myths about sex work and explains why decriminalisation is essential.

The book delves into the history of sex work, feminism, and our culture’s obsession with policing the sex lives of others. It puts everything into perspective, giving a sense of how sex work fits in society and why current attitudes and legal approaches simply don’t work. It also gives a lot of background on the Sex Worker rights movement in the USA - referencing significant events and activists that have shaped the author’s perspective.

The book is strong on facts and figures, and quite wordy - but it carries a lot of punch. I really enjoyed both the anecdotes and ‘big picture’ philosophy. It makes for a very good read...although you might finish up feeling angry about the way sexy workers are treated globally, you’ll also have an excellent understanding of what needs to change.

Coming Out Like a Porn Star, Jiz Lee (Editor), 2018

What’s it about? A collection of essays from sex industry heavyweights sharing their ‘coming out’ stories.

Who’s it for? If you want an insight into the sexual frontiers of porn, or you’re grappling with your own place in the industry, you’ll get something out of this book.

‘Coming out’ stories never get old for me. A someone who is bisexual, kinky, polyamorous, and a sex worker, I feel as though I’ve been explaining myself over and over for my entire adult life. In ‘Coming Out Like a Porn Star’, a range of industry voices tell their stories about disclosing their sex work to families and communities.

One of the best things about the book is that it’s incredibly diverse. You’ll read pieces by huge sex industry names, including my fave porn star Christopher Zeischegg (aka Danny Wylde) and our very own Gala Vanting, Aussie porn producer and activist. Many genders, ages, and sexualities are represented. And, of course, everyone does things their own way.

‘Coming Out Like a Porn Star’ encourages us to see the people who work in porn realistically. It may help you feel less alone if you choose to be ‘out’. It might also increase your empathy for those who bravely make themselves visible in sex work activism, despite all the drawbacks. As Jiz Lee writes: “Sharing our coming out stories might not only help other performers like myself, but may also help people outside the industry relate to us, humanizing our experiences.”

Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, Molly Smith and Juno Mac, 2020

What’s it about? A fresh, updated perspective on the sex worker rights movement.

Who’s it for? Anyone who wants a firm grasp on what’s happening with sex workers around the world, and what needs to change to make things better for us.

Despite the fact that I have two degrees, I’m still sometimes a little bit shy about reading academic books about sex work. I guess I’m afraid of feeling like the dumbest person in the room; that if there’s something I don’t already understand, it means I’m failing. But the truth is, we all need to start somewhere. If you want a thorough understanding of sex worker rights, Revolting Prostitutes definitely does the job.

By asking, ‘What do Sex Workers want?’ the book unpacks how laws around the world affect us, and makes a strong case for decriminalisation. It’s not a memoir - the arguments are based on evidence, not anecdotes. Molly Smith and Juno Mac specifically address the queer community, migrants, drug users, and people with a disability...those who are often pushed to the sidelines during this kind of debate. The discussion draws from feminism and marxism, and focuses on workers’ rights.

‘Revolting Prostitutes’ is densely written. It might not be your first stop, unless you’re accustomed to academic language. But if you already have a couple of nonfiction books under your belt and you’re looking for something up-to-date, Revolting Prostitutes is excellent.

No matter your level of experience, these books will add to your knowledge.

I might not be the smartest or most experienced activist, but every little fact and philosophy I’ve picked up from these works has helped me understand the bigger picture around sex work.

So even if you’re just getting started on your educational journey into sex work politics, I’d encourage you to dip your toe in the water as soon as you can. Choose one of these books. Read it. Think about it. Talk it over with your friends, family, or workmates down at the brothel.

Together, our shared understanding can only validate our humanity, and advance the cause of sex worker rights.