Meandering through the chapters of Melinda “Mindy” Chateauvert’s new publication Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk (Beacon Press, 2014) makes us wish for a television network—the Whorestory Channel perhaps—dedicated to documentaries about the myriad of revolutionary acts of resistance she has uncovered.SexWorkersUnite

Patrons at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco—many of them sex workers and transgender folk unwinding after the night’s work—fend off a police raid using their high-heeled shoes, plates and anything else they can lay their hands on… three years before Stonewall.

A group of “harlots bearing signs that said, ‘Whore Power’ and ‘Sluts Unite’” parade back and forth in a courtyard in full view of conservative law professors at the University of Chicago… its 1993 and Scarlot Harlot and the Sex Worker Action Coalition are challenging being banned from a conference organized by Catherine MacKinnon and co.

Audrey, Becca, Carla, Diane, Eve, Fiona, Georgia, Hikoke, and Ian—African American women and transgender people forced to register as “sex offenders” after being convicted for “crimes against nature by solicitation” in New Orleans— sue the Louisiana Governor and quickly win their case to have their names removed from the list and have their records expunged. Over 500 of their colleagues are also freed from the registry requirement because of their resistance.

Readers will learn a great deal about contemporary sex workers rights organizing in the United States (and a little bit about Canada) by exploring this book. Dr Mindy Chateauvert hopes that the stories in this volume, “lay to rest the old tired stereotypes about prostitutes, and [cause readers to] recognize sex workers’ long fight for rights, respect and justice.”

Dr Chateauvert writes from a feminist perspective, the kind of feminism that unflinchingly documents the collusion of “straight” women (that is women who are—or hope to portray themselves as—“good women” without histories in the sex trade) with agents of oppression. “’Straight women’ participated in the policing of streetwalkers, aggressively displaying their disapproval, at least when in the company of a man… some intolerant women would comment loudly, ‘How disgusting’ or ‘dirty bitch’ when walking past,” notes Dr Chateauvert as she analyzes crack downs on street work in NYC in the early 1970s. Sex workers–always resisting–were reported to respond with cries of, “At least I don’t give it away!” and “Where do you think he goes after he takes you home?” Chateauvert’s work blasts away at the notion that “sisterhood”, alliances between women simply because they are women, easily emerges because of presumed “shared” experiences of gender-based oppression. Rather, if there are any alliances to be forged at all, these must be earned through a thorough and critical examination of the intersectionality of race, class, whorephobia and xenophobia, and its impact on whose voices are considered legitimate and whose voices are stigmatized and silenced.

To this end Chateauvert follows the historical trial back to a 1971 feminist “Conference on Prostitution” in NYC organized by Kate Millet, where participants “confused sexual coercion with sex work because they knew only the metaphor of prostitution.” The conference plenary entitled “The Elimination of Prostitution”, dissolved into chaos when a small contingent of actual prostitutes voiced their opinions, rejecting the feminists’ plans to rehabilitate them. This recollection reminds us that middle class, privileged women had long before 1971 felt that they know best for their “sisters” (the “fallen women”) and that many continue to believe this until today. Chateauvert sums it up writing, “it was one of those moments that would happen again (and again) in the feminist movement.” This story sets in train an important theme in the book to which Chateauvert returns frequently with good effect.

Sex Workers Unite is strongest when uncovering the history of women and transgender women in pursuit of sex workers rights, and includes new material about the history of COYOTE and updates our understanding of sex worker rights organizing with materials from New Orleans and other parts of the US. The history of men and transmen in sex work is not elucidated in much detail, and some areas of sex worker rights organizing such as the emergence of groups like the Desiree Alliance and the role of immigrant sex worker rights organizers also await deeper coverage.

A conversation with @whorestorian Mindy Chateauvert will be hosted by the ALCU in Washington DC, Wednesday, March 12, 2014 (Noon – 1:30 pm at the ACLU Legislative Office. 915 15th Street, NW, 8th Floor). RSVP required.