In their powerful and eye-opening manifesto Revolting Prostitutes, Juno Mac and Molly Smith make the point for sex workers’ rights loud and clear. While feminists, politicians across the spectrum and religious campaigners argue about whether sex and sex work are degrading or empowering and lose themselves in ever more abstract theorising, Smith and Mac start their radical investigation from sex workers’ material reality. While the public discourse ranges between criminalising the selling of sex or criminalising the buyer, Mac and Smith say it clearly: the only way to protect sex workers is full decriminalisation – and no, that is not the same as legalisation.
In eight chapters, the authors introduce and analyse all prominent models of regulating sex work – from full criminalisation over the “Nordic Model” to decriminalisation. In the process they highlight the hypocrisies of politics and the wider society around the topic of sex and the way we view and regulate women’s bodies, and in particular those from ethnic minorities. Mac and Smith uncover the near-sightedness of carceral solutions, using statistics and personal experience to support the point that more rules, more laws, more police cannot solve issues – or “clean up our streets” – if the underlying social structures are ignored. People will not be stopped from selling sex if their alternative is dying of poverty.
The chapter on borders policies and the ideological way in which human trafficking (commonly understood to be equivalent with sex trafficking) is conflated with migration should be read by everyone, in my opinion. The depth of analysis of social and political power structures is inspiring. The authors question what we hold to be “natural” or necessary – from states and borders to police and prisons – and uncover the false dichotomies presented to us in order to force us to make simple yes-or-no decisions on issues that are much wider and far more nuanced than the question of whether you are a sex positive or sex negative feminist (“we assert the right for all women to be sex-ambivalent.”)
The most important part of this very thoroughly researched and well-written book is that it presents sex workers as workers with workers’ rights and above all as humans who deserve, but are routinely denied, human rights. Revolting Prostitutes should remind every politician, every feminist, every citizen, that we need to listen to the people we make laws about. Discussions need to be had with and lead by sex workers on how to assure their safety. They are the experts, but are constantly excluded from the conversation. And when efforts are made to put the safety of the most marginalised members of our communities first, then we can go on to find solutions to the social issues leading people into sex work – solutions that steer clear of carceral solutions, of fines and arrests and instead strive to assure shelter and food for everyone.