The Weight of a Magazine for Sex Workers

What a group of workers-rights activists learned from starting a publication to give people in the sex industry a voice

In the waning days of the summer of 2007, a 20-year-old single mother in North Philadelphia agreed to meet with a man named Dominique Gindraw after he responded to her escort agency’s Craigslist ad. The initial deal was $150 for an hour of sex. Gindraw later proposed that his friend join in, and the woman agreed, for an additional $100. He gave her an address that she believed to be his house, but when she showed up, it was an abandoned property. By her account, Gindraw’s friend showed up with three other men, at least one of whom had a gun, and they proceeded to gang rape her.

When the case came to trial the following month, Judge Teresa Carr Deni downgraded the charges of rape and assault to “armed robbery for theft of services.” Deni explained to the Philadelphia Daily News at the time that because the woman worked as a prostitute, trying the case as rape would “minimize true rape cases and demean women who are really raped.”

That interpretation of the law, most pointedly the idea that a person’s profession is relevant to the definition of rape, drew the ire of the sex worker’s rights movement, as well as the Philadelphia Bar Association. Its chancellor, Jane Leslie Dalton, rebuked Deni, saying, “The victim has been brutalized twice in this case, first by the assailants, and now by the court. We cannot imagine any circumstances more violent or coercive than being forced to have sex with four men at gunpoint.” Still, Deni was reelected that same year, and again in 2013.

These events were recounted in the pages of $pread magazine in 2008. Protesting the lack of justice for the victim, writer Catherine Plato also underscored the danger in letting an alleged armed rapist go untried, a gesture that stopped barely short of inviting him to rape again. The entire affair, she argued, was predicated on the marginalization of sex workers. Plato’s story is one of many that appears in an anthology released this month of $pread’s most memorable and important work. The book eulogizes the magazine, which published its final issue in 2011, and was entirely for and by sex workers and “allies.”

Its life was brief but influential, at a particularly volatile time for public perception of the industry. $pread ran stories like Plato’s that highlighted injustices, but it also told stories of the day-to-day, with an eye to building community in an industry where workers are notoriously isolated, misunderstood, and unrepresented in politics and media.

Rachel Aimee, a wide-eyed sex-workers’ rights organizer, met $pread’s other co-founders Rebecca Lynn and Raven Strega through the movement in New York City in the spring of 2004. While organizing an event for Prostitutes of New York, they bonded over their frustration with seeing sex workers stigmatized and stereotyped in media. “In most cases it's sensationalized, and usually extreme,” Aimee told me. “It’s either the high-class call girl making $1,000 an hour, or the drug-addicted victim of trafficking working on the street.”

“Journalists didn't have concern, it seemed to us, to go out and actually ask sex workers for their opinions on anything,” said Eliyanna Kaiser, a former executive editor of $pread. “If there was going to be a story on the 6:00 news about prostitution, there would be some shots of prostitutes, but they weren't going to actually talk to them. They weren't going to ask them a question. And if they were, they weren't going to give the answer weight and credibility in a way that they might if they were asking a question to someone in another sector. In pop culture, they were not people with opinions and ideas and a story of their own to tell. It was less about words or tone and more about just a lack of humanity.”

So Aimee, Lynn, and Strega set out to create a platform where sex workers could speak for themselves. “We'd read some first-hand accounts of sex work by sex workers, but most of it was academic,” said Aimee, who went on to spend four years as $pread’s editor-in-chief. “We wanted to create something more accessible, and that would be available to a wide range of sex workers — not just sex workers who happen to be doing a women's studies degree.”

The first issue came out on March 16, 2005, at a party advertising the first openly lesbian Playboy playmate would be in attendance. She didn’t show up. But press did, eager to find out, it seemed, what a magazine “by and for sex workers” looked like. “We didn’t meet expectations for salacious content,” Aimee and co-editors Kaiser and Audacia Ray recall in the book. They told Time Out New York at the time that $pread was “not intended to arouse, but people are aroused by all kinds of things, so maybe someone will be turned on by sex workers fighting for social justice.’”

$pread covered the business aspects of the industry alongside the mundane — “just like nine-to-fivers, sex workers experience stupid bosses, arbitrary rules, and tricky relationships with coworkers” — not just the politics, or the tragedies that made mainstream news. The first issue featured articles on safe-sex negotiation and an analysis of the representation of black women in pornography. Later issues included reviews of lube and lipstick, health and advice columns, and stories of labor issues. After its first year in existence, $pread won the Utne Reader Independent Press Award for Best New Title. In the book the editors recall that validation: “They think we’re a real magazine!” By their final issue, when the editors eulogized $pread, their tone was more affirmed: “Because so many sex workers shed the bondage of isolation, the world has shifted. We feel no hubris in saying this. We watched it shift.”

The LGBTQ community was one of the most consistent allies of the magazine, the editors recall in the book, “partly because both of our communities face stigma because of gender-and-sexuality-based discrimination, and partly because a disproportionately large number of LGBTQ people who have worked in the sex trades.” The magazine’s relationship with feminists, though, was much more complicated.

I talked with Aimee and Kaiser about their experience; what the magazine accomplished; and what it didn’t. Kaiser is currently raising two children in Manhattan. Aimee is also now a parent, and a freelance editor, and she organizes for strippers’ rights with the advocacy group We Are Dancers. The conversation that follows has been condensed and lightly edited.

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Hamblin: The existence of a magazine by and for sex workers (and allies) was predicated on legitimization of the industry, but you were at a national sex-worker rights conference in 2006, and you were asked to sign onto a statement about decriminalization of prostitution, and you said no.

Aimee: And people thought we were crazy.

Kaiser: If we were going to truly be a platform for anyone in the sex industry to speak about their lives and their perspective, we had to make sure we erased any hint of bias from the editors. What we ended up with was definitely leaning on the side of choice and empowerment and labor rights, getting away from the victim frame. But we did publish things we didn't agree with, often.

Aimee: I interviewed Tracy Quan, who's a former call girl and novelist, about her writing. And she's quite outspokenly anti-feminist. She said something about feminists having been raised in the suburbs and having unnatural attachments to their mothers. We got a letter from one of the founders and former editors of Bitch magazine, and she was horrified that I had allowed Tracy to say that. Our response was, well, our magazine is a platform for sex workers regardless of their perspective on anything. Even though I identify as a feminist and many of our staff did, we weren't going to say, “This is a magazine for feminist sex workers.” That was very important to us.

Kaiser: There was a general sense within the sex-workers rights movement around the time that we started publishing that we were, as a movement, in a defensive position. Within the context of the feminist debate around sex work, there is a choice-coercion dichotomy that is still really difficult for sex-workers’ rights activists to navigate.

Erin Siegal/$pread

Looking back on it, a lot of people who were writing for the magazine, regardless of how privileged they were, were defensive in those first few years of publication. Our content was definitely tilting toward choice: letting the feminists who are reading this know that sex workers are autonomous humans who make decisions, who you can’t just dismiss as victims.

Aimee: There was one meeting where we realized, we need to find some people to write about their negative experiences, and why they don't like their work. Because it was just not representative.

Kaiser: I think that contributed to different groups of people who had less empowered experiences reading the magazine and thinking, maybe this isn't a community that's for me. It got more nuanced as time went on.

Hamblin: I should probably ask you to define sex work as you use the term.

Kaiser: Sex work was coined by Carol Leigh in 1978 as an umbrella term that brings together people who in some way exchange labor that is erotic for something of value, whether that's money or something else. So that encompasses strippers, prostitutes, people in the porn industry, phone sex, professional domination — there's a pretty long list. I think a lot of people see that linguistic changes as something that was done to be polite, as a way of coming up with a nicer way of saying prostitute. But it was really a political community-building project. It was a way of saying that these people all have something in common, and there's a shared stigma here.

The word work being part of it got to the heart of a political point that was trying to be made: that people in this industry are laborers, and their issues are labor issues. Now it's almost more common to hear people in media say sex workers than anything else. Usually they just mean it as a synonym for prostitute — they'll specify if it's another type of sex work. Ironically we (in the sex-workers’ rights movement) have started to question in recent years whether or not it's the best term. Because not everyone's comfortable with it. Lots of people don't think of it as work. Others, for reasons of criminality or stigma, don't like being associated with every element of the term. For instance, not every stripper wants people to think they might be a prostitute.

Hamblin: You chose to get into print magazine publishing at an interesting time.

Kaiser: That's putting it mildly. We could never afford to have salaried staff, and we could never afford to make it anything more than this all-volunteer project that threatened to burn us out and take over our lives.

Hamblin: You write about how the inability to pay people influenced who was able to write for the magazine. I think falling pay rates for writers is a problem throughout journalism, in that the voices people hear from are the one who are able to accept meager freelance rates and take unpaid internships to work their way up. A big part of your expenses was that you were tied to costly print magazine publishing, which ultimately limited who you heard from in the pages.

Kaiser: One of the real reasons that we wanted it to be a physical, print magazine was that we thought there was something — this might sound a little strange, but — psychologically important about holding it. For sex workers, it was important that they should be able to walk into a bookstore and see it on a shelf. It should come in the mail, and people should be able to hold onto it and realize that their community produced it. There was some importance to that physical weight.

We also wanted it to be something that people could pass around and share with their coworkers. When we thought about the types of magazines that sex workers had, at strip clubs or brothels, the thing that kept coming up was, mostly, women's magazines. And of course not all sex workers are women or read Cosmo, but that's what was kicking around sex workplaces. A reader survey found that people were passing $pread between each other at an unusually high rate. Lots of magazines have, as part of their circulation numbers, a pass-through data point of how many people touch a given issue. Ours was at five or six people per copy. So that part really did work for us.

Hamblin: You write, too, about how because you only heard from people who were financially secure enough to write for free, you only reached readers of certain privilege, at least initially. It seems like you set out to build a community but ended up in some ways highlighting the diversity within that community — people of all permutations of sex and gender identity, economic and educational strata, types of sex work, et cetera. How were you able to get to a more multidimensional editorial voice?

Aimee: The magazine was founded by three white, cisgender, college-educated women. We mostly recruited through our own social networks. So that perpetuated that bias in our leadership. In a way, what I loved about the magazine was that we jumped in not knowing what we were doing at all and not having any money. But at the same time, if we had planned out what we were doing in advance and secured some funding to enable us to pay staff, we might have been able to do a better job at reaching beyond our own networks.

When we sent boxes of magazines to outreach organizations for low-income sex workers, we would include fliers encouraging people to contribute to the magazine. We wanted them to be able to contribute even if they didn't really have experience writing magazine pieces. So we set up a bunch of columns that we thought would help make the magazine more accessible for people to contribute to. We had a column called Double Take, which was basically a style column where people took pictures of themselves in their work outfits and in their regular clothes and then answered short questions, like how would you describe your personality and your professional persona. Another one was Scene Report, which was just a place for day-to-day stories about where people work. And then we had Indecent Proposal, which was a regular illustrated column where sex workers would write about the weirdest thing a client ever asked them to do.

Hamblin: How has media around the sex-workers’ rights movement changed since your first issue in 2005?

Aimee: Now there is a lot more out there, because of the Internet. Tits and Sass, a website by and for sex workers that has regular columns (Furballs and Fun, Stripper Music Monday, Quote of the Week) which kind of follows on from $pread in a way, and actually was started by some of the former editors of $pread. And then there's Hook Online, which is by and for men in the sex industry, and that's run by one of $pread's former art directors, and then there's also a print (and ebook) literary journal of memoirs called Prose & Lore.

Hamblin: What’s one piece you're especially proud of having published?

Kaiser: I lived in Vancouver for a long time before I moved to New York City, and during the time that I lived there, there was a serial killer who was killing a lot of sex workers. Even though it was many years later when we published [a story about] it, and Robert Pickton had already been arrested on accusations of killing almost 50 women [he was later convicted in the cases of six], most of whom were First Nations. [Editor’s note: More than 1,200 First-Nations women have been recorded as murdered or missing in Canada in the past 30 years.]

We got a piece called “The Unicorn and the Crow,” and it was a photo-based story based on a First Nations folkloric fairytale, and it was just about taking care of each other in communities. I felt that it really got away from the sensationalist serial-killer news media stuff around this case and brought it to a human level, and spoke about it in a way that was culturally related to the people who had died. I was extremely proud to publish that.

Aimee: I was going to say Lynn Tansey’s piece "I Have Nothing to Say" about her experience of having to kill a john in self-defense. But since Eliyanna's was about violence, I'm thinking I should pick a piece that isn't. Otherwise people are going to think the whole book is about violence.

Kaiser: It's just one chapter.

Aimee: Okay, I'm going to go with a piece called "Stripping While Brown," by Mona Salim, which is basically her experience being one of the few South Asian women working in the strip clubs in New York City. She just has a lot of quotes and anecdotes about the things that customers, other strippers, and managers have said about issues of race, and she has a lot of funny anecdotes. Or, anecdotes that come across as funny, even if they might not have been funny in the moment.

Hamblin: Is mainstream media improving in representing perspectives?

Kaiser: There are annoyances like watching Katha Pollitt decide to diss Melissa Gira Grant's Playing the Whore in The Nation. Or Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times getting to sidestep valid critiques of his patronizing rescue narrative. There's a lot of stuff that maybe doesn't really, really matter in terms of people's everyday lives that I find incredibly frustrating.

In terms of policy, right now the problems that the sex-worker rights movement is having with engaging people on trafficking keep me up at night. There's complete conflation of prostitution and trafficking policy. They're inseparable legally in a number of ways, and there's no capacity amongst elected officials and most feminist advocacy groups to absorb any criticism on bills and proposals that are labeled as trafficking bills even if they also impact non-coercive prostitution.

Hamblin: Which some people argue is not a thing.

Kaiser: Some, and a lot of the time that lack of nuance really negatively impacts people's lives. Certainly no one's asking sex workers if the policies are a good idea.