Sex workers are the original feminists. In medieval Europe, brothel workers formed guilds and occasionally engaged in strikes or street protests in response to crackdowns, workplace closures or unacceptable working conditions. Fifteenth century prostitutes arraigned before the courts would answer back to their prosecutors’ moralistic language by asserting that rather than a sin, their activities constituted work. In 1917, two hundred prostitutes marched in San Francisco – in what has been called ‘the original Women’s March’ – to demand an end to brothel closures. A speaker at the march declared: “nearly every one of these women is a mother, or has someone depending on her. They are driven into this life by economic conditions … You don’t do any good by attacking us. Why don’t you attack those conditions?”
Caring for each other is political work. In nineteenth century Great Britain and Ireland, sex workers created communities of mutual aid, sharing income and childcare. An observer at the time wrote that “the ruling principle here is to share each other’s fortunes … In hard times one family readily helps another, or several help one … What each company get is thrown into a common purse, and the nest is provisioned out of it”. Sex workers in colonial-era Nairobi formed financial ties to each other, paying each others’ fines or bequeathing assets to one another when they died. Although largely invisible to outsiders, this sharing of resources – including money, workspaces, and even clients – persists as a significant form of sex worker activism in the present day, with workers often collectively pitching in to prevent an eviction, or offer emergency housing. This kind of community resource sharing is often the only kind of safety net or recourse people have if they’re robbed at work, or if an assault means they need time off to heal.
In the 1950s, sex workers were part of the Mau Mau uprising that led to Kenya’s liberation from British colonial rule, and in the 1960s and 1970s LGBTQ liberation movement in the US that began with riots at Compton’s Cafeteria and the Stonewall Inn. In 1974 sex workers in Ethiopia joined the newly formed Confederation of Ethiopian Labour Unions, and engaged in strike action that helped to bring down the government. Within Europe, the modern movement is generally considered to have begun in 1975, when sex workers in France occupied churches to protest criminalisation, poverty, and police violence. This sparked similar sex worker organising in the UK, and the English Collective of Prostitutes occupied churches in King’s Cross, London, in 1980. More recently, sex workers were deeply involved in anti-gentrification protests around Gezi Park in Istanbul, Turkey.
The 1970s and 1980s sex workers’ rights movement in the UK was deeply embedded in the ‘wages for housework’ campaign. This saw Marxist feminists naming the value of women’s unpaid reproductive and domestic labour, and demanding a radical re-organisation of society in a way that placed value on work deemed to be women’s work. Around that time, Wages Due Lesbians linked domestic work, sex work, and the work of sexuality in a solidarity statement against a 1977 vice crackdown: “wherever women succeed in winning some of the wages due us, it is a strength to all of us and proof that women’s services cannot be taken for granted”.
In 2001, twenty-five thousand sex workers came to Kolkata to make their demands known. Their signs proclaimed: “We want bread. We also want roses.”