I read Sylvia Rivera’s essay “Queens in Exile: the Forgotten Ones” for the first time in February and I think about it most days since. Reading it is like holding fire in your hands. Rivera’s words blaze off the page as she writes about the violence in her life since childhood, her experiences in street sex work, starting Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries with Marsha P. Johnson, and her life as a revolutionary.
There is so much struggle in this essay, threaded through with brilliant utopian vision. On every page, and in every sentence, Rivera commits her life to other street sex working trans women. There’s a beautiful everydayness in the way she writes about hustling and housing girls and planning demonstrations. To me, the most profound conclusion of this essay is the fact of its existence; structural violence could not ultimately impede Rivera’s words from being heard and mapping out a living blueprint for a new world for younger generations.
We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival is in the lineage of “Queens in Exile,” wherein sex workers speak about their lives, their struggles, their politics in no uncertain terms. In plain and vivid language. In this anthology, edited by Natalie West and Tina Horn, sex workers across the industry write about the violence in their lives — most painfully wielded against them by police and the state. Hookers, hustlers, cam models, porn performers, Dommes, dancers, and activists write about sexual assault, parenting, racial capitalism, consent, and identity with richness and specificity. The writing is stark and honest and poetic and real. I read We Too in just a few sittings, turning the pages with one thought looping in my mind: I feel this. I feel this. I feel this, too.
The foreword by Selena the Stripper frames this anthology as special, complex, and unflinching in its resistance to the categories that mainstream society has constructed for sex workers. Fae writes, “Too often those of us who are advocating for the dignity and rights of sex workers are afraid to voice these less-than-positive experiences… But in this fight, there is room to demand more. Yes, I can say I was raped, but that doesn’t give you license to take away the place where I work, the means by which I support myself, and my financial independence.” Powerful charges like this one, that slice through dangerous rhetoric about sex workers as always-already victimized or – on the other hand – perfectly empowered, show up in every single essay.
I was moved when Ashley Paige wrote about loving a good mindfuck as a Professional Domme in “That Sliver of Light.” This comes after Paige writes about the abuse she faced in her work as a street-based sex worker, and that through-line from coercion and violence to self-empowerment is so brave and tenacious. In “Bifurcating,” Juniper Fitzgerald writes about being “the fucking personification of a cautionary tale” as a drug-using sex worker and mother and their prose is quicksilver, luminous. Sonya Aragon’s “Whores at the End of the World” is a stunning meditation on disease and criminality in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic that deftly skewers the state as the arbiter of violence.
“What I Have to Do” by femi babylon is my favorite piece in the collection, but that might change when I reread this in a few months, or again in the years to come. In this essay, babylon describes their coming into the industry as a Black woman who was obsessed with lounge singers and whores — “Women who were, by my definition, free.” Free. The word shimmers on the page, evoking bodily autonomy and financial stability. At the end of the essay, when babylon troubles the popular sex work organizing talking point that “sex work is work,” it is clear that by ‘freedom’ they mean ‘liberation.’ They write, “I am disempowered, not by my profession or side hustle, but as a victim of structural oppression. To prove that I ‘love’ my (sex) work under these conditions is a pressure I simply cannot, and will not bow to.”
I myself found community with other sex workers because violence entered my life. I’d pieced together a living with survival sex work and straight jobs, and the shame from stigma told me that if I could just keep it all tight, I’d get somewhere respectable without anyone knowing the difference. A threatening client rocked me and my plan, and I reached out to the only out sex worker I knew at the time. Years later, I’m so proud of myself for deciding that my survival and right to safety toppled my shame. The person I reached out to is now one of my best friends, and my world is peopled by whores and homos who drop off homemade meals at my door when it’s -20 outside and pass around the same $100 between us when times are hard. Maybe We, Too can offer a stop gap, a bridge, or a passage for sex workers enduring violence by uplifting both pain and survival with dignity.
At the end of “Queens in Exile,” Sylvia Rivera writes, “It’s a shame that more people in the trans community aren’t opening up their houses like Rusty and Chelsea are doing with Transy House.” Her vision of liberation is something that people do, everyday, by sharing resources and activating change in the world. I see this practice manifesting throughout We Too. To me, this book feels like it’s asking readers to move beyond the near-cliche of simply believing survivors; it’s asking us to do something— often and intentionally enough until our orientation towards the world alters our material conditions.
I read one review of We Too that criticized its lack of “hard data,” and essentially asked for the book to become a different thing — perhaps a primer on the sex worker movement for general audiences. Those books already exist. This book is a rarity. This book is a gem-like tuber, mapping out the underground ecosystems of sex worker survival and self-determination that are literally the building blocks of a new world order. In the piece “Red Flags,” Lauren Kiley writes “[m]y philosophy of activism for the past decade or so has essentially been to get a bunch of sex workers in the room… My focus as an activist is no longer to convince anyone that sex workers are people too.” So, yeah, fuck you, Kirkus.
My last note on We Too is a spoiler of sorts: this book has a happy ending. The happy ending is the fact of its existence, its depth and breadth of voices across sex worker experiences. That I am able to hold this book in my hands. That I am able to call on it to talk with you about my experiences, and to sketch the world we ought to build together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in struggle.