Reading List for an Imaginary Class on Sex Work and Sex Workers

Note: This class does not actually exist. I made the syllabus as a sample for a job application (for a job I am not at all qualified for and am unlikely to actually get), and now I’m just showing it off, in “here’s what I would teach” fashion. I cut the boring stuff about assignments and class policies and why you can’t hand your essays in late, so it’s mostly just a reading list. The imaginary class is a third year university labour studies class.

Where the readings are available for free online, I’ve posted links to them. A great many of them are available online, for folks who like to read. I have now found and linked either the original or a very similar replacement for every reading except “The Lone Streetwalker” by Shawna Ferris, which stinks because that’s actually one of my favourite things I’ve read about sex work ever, and “Is Sex Work Queer?” by Corinna McKay. I’ve briefly summarized those two articles.

Of course I am quite open to hearing from other sex workers on what I’ve decided should go into a class like this. One thing I regret — and which I want to think more about how to include — is that there is nothing really practical for sex workers in here. E.g., nothing on how people get into the sex industry, operate various sex businesses, or move on to other jobs.

The textbook for the imaginary class, in which about half of the readings can be found, is Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy and Research on Sex Work in Canada.

Course Description

Whether we know it or not, each of our lives is intertwined with the lives of sex workers. This course looks at how that happens, by situating sex work in the broader contexts of culture and society. The course offers an overview of the sex industry in a variety of theoretical and material contexts, as well as an in-depth focus on prostitution in the Canadian context—a timely issue, considering the recent appearance of three Canadian sex workers at the Supreme Court of Canada to argue for the decriminalization of prostitution.

Taking “The Prostitute” as the tropic image through which all sex workers are regulated, this course examines conflicting images of who prostitutes and other sex workers are, and how those images developed. In addition to reading key texts by scholarly experts on the sex industry, we will hear from sex workers themselves about their jobs and about their guidelines for students and scholars researching the sex industry.

Students will learn to analyze sex work as work through a variety of theoretical lenses, and to identify similarities and differences in legal and policy positions that respond to feminism, queer theory, critiques of neoliberalism and globalization, postcolonial praxis, and progressive legalism. In the final third of the course, we will look more closely at the areas in which labour policies affect sex workers, including occupational health and safety, the roles of clients and third parties in the sex industry, and sex workers’ labour organizing.

Learning Objectives

On successful completion of this course, students will:

  • be familiar with the scope and modern history of the sex industry
  • understand critical and participatory approaches to research ethics, and be able to apply them to study of marginalized workers
  • be able to identify sex workers’ labour conditions, including areas for improvement in safety, income and stability
  • be able to identify key mainstream, feminist, queer, postcolonial, anticapitalist and labour positions on the sex industry
  • be able to identify the aims and structure of the sex workers’ rights movement
  • be able to discuss and debate the roles of clients and third parties in the sex industry
  • be able to discuss and debate how questions and problems of class, race, gender, sexuality, nation, and belonging are combined and expressed in policy related to sex work

Schedule of Readings and Lectures

          I. Introduction and Overview

 1. Introduction: Sex? Work? Critical Discourses on Sexuality and Labour

  • Anonymous, PhD (1999). I’d Rather be a Whore than an Academic. Bad Subjects, 46.
  • Franke, K. M. (2002). Putting Sex to Work. In W. Brown & J. Halley (Eds.), Left Legalism / Left Critique (pp. 299-336). Durham, NC: Duke University Press. (So sad that I can’t find this online. But you can read most of it in the Google book here, or you can read it in Spanish, here.)
  • Wolkowitz, C. (2002). The social relations of body work. Work, employment & society, 16(3), 497-510. (Not online, but there is a good summary at pp. 14-15 here)
  • 2. Varieties of Sex Work: Phone Sex, Cam Sex, Pornography, Stripping, BDSM, Prostitution
  • Fairfax, J. (2004, 18 Apr.). More pain, more gain. The Observer.
  • Ferris, S. (2007). The Lone Streetwalker: Missing Women and Sex Work‐related News in Mainstream Canadian Media. West Coast Line 53: Representations of Murdered and Missing Women, 41(1),14‐24. (Ferris argues that images of sex workers overwhelmingly show street workers as white women working alone and “flaunting their safety.” The women’s faces are blacked out or they are shot from behind, and their voices are truncated or left out entirely. In images of missing women, they are shown alone, often in mug shots. For Ferris, this contributes to a culture of violence against sex workers by imagining them as both disposable and always-already disposed by society.)
  • JJ (2010, 5 Aug.). An Open Letter from a Stripper. Jezebel.
  • Shane, C. (2010, 22 Nov.). Why I’m Happy I Became a Prostitute. Alternet.
  • Wakeman, J. (2012, Sept. 6). Frisky Q&A: Phone Sex Operator Sabrina Morgan Talks Kinky Sex, Dirty Talk Tips & Melon Humpers. The Frisky.

(The purpose of reading these blog posts is to get a sense of where, how, when and with what materials people do sex work. The authors have various positions on whether it’s a good job or a bad job, but they were chosen mostly because they describe, frankly and concisely, what their working conditions are like.)

3. Ethics for Sex Work Research

4. The Recent and Really Recent History of the Sex Industry

            II. Difference and Marginalization

5. Queer(ing) Sex Work

  • Fletcher, T. (2013). Trans Sex Workers: Negotiating Sex, Gender, and Non-Normative Desire. In E. van der Meulen, E. Durisin & V. Love (Eds.), Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy and Research on Sex Work in Canada (pp. 65-73). Vancouver: UBC Press.
  • McKay, C. (1999). Is Sex Work Queer? Social Alternatives, 18(3), 48-53. (McKay argues that sex work can be considered “queer,” even when it involves ostensibly “heterosexual” sex between paying men and working women. In her analysis, sex work intervenes in the heteronormative myth that “boy meets girl,” falls in love and marries her.)
  • Redwood, R. (2013). Myths and Realities of Male Sex Work: A Personal Perspective. In E. van der Meulen, E. Durisin & V. Love (Eds.), Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy and Research on Sex Work in Canada (pp. 45-57). Vancouver: UBC Press.

(Neither of Redwood’s nor Fletcher’s piece is online. Some of Redwood’s other writing on men’s sex work appears on pp. 35-37, and there is a good section on trans people’s sex work at pp. 38-41, here.)

6. Sex Work Under Neoliberalism

            III. Globalized, Postcolonial and Canadian Contexts

7. Sex Work and Globalization

8. Indigenous Perspectives on Sex Work

9. Challenges to Prostitution-Related Law in Canada

            IV. Relationships and Rights in Sex Worksites

10. Health and Safety in the Sex Industry

11. Bosses, Coworkers and Consumers in the Sex Industry

12. Sex Workers Organize

  • Arthur, J., Davis, S., & Shannon, E. (2013). Overcoming Challenges: Vancouver’s Sex Worker Movement. In E. van der Meulen, E. Durisin & V. Love (Eds.), Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy and Research on Sex Work in Canada (pp. 130-146). Vancouver: UBC Press.
  • Clamen, J., Gillies, K., & Salah, T. (2013). Working for Change: Sex Workers in the Union Struggle. In E. van der Meulen, E. Durisin & V. Love (Eds.), Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy and Research on Sex Work in Canada (pp. 113-129). Vancouver: UBC Press.

(Neither of these two are online, but there is a good, if somewhat longer, history of the Canadian sex workers’ rights movement in Sarah Beers’ dissertation here.)

24 comments

  1. Norma Jean Almodovar

    In 1997, when ISWFACE (www.iswface.org) was founded, we wrote up a curriculum for online classes which could be made available to colleges and universities worldwide.That was before the advent of Skype, which would make what you and what we proposed possible now. Lectures could be done via Skype- recorded and made available through an online library to any student who signed up for the course. We had hoped to align with a university- Women’s Studies program or Human Sexuality- through which we could offer the course. Although we have been unable to find funding to make that a reality, there is no reason that it can’t be done if sex worker rights groups want to put it together.

    In addition to presentations by current and former sex workers, the lectures could include allies and advocates of decriminalization- academics, health care professionals, etc. and even pro- decrim politicians.

    With so many sex workers and our organizations being so computer literate, there is no reason that your imaginary course and the ones we envisioned years ago cannot come to fruition.

  2. sarah m

    Thanks Norma Jean. I’ll post an update when I hear about this job, but in the meantime, a sex worker “MOOC” would be totally cool. I would happily contribute a video lecture or lesson plan, if others can be persuaded to put it together.

  3. Norma Jean Almodovar

    There are a number of academic allies we can approach about helping us – and they can assign students to assist in the preparation of such a course. Obviously, we have to wait until the fall when most colleges/ universities start their classes again. This would need at least a year preparation before it could be offered, but if you are serious, I’ll put in some time to investigate our options. I am involved in another project at the moment (research) but as soon as I get to a point where I can add something else to my plate, I’ll send our inquiries. Or you can, if you want. You can reach me through my email address or just put my name in a search engine for phone numbers- I am listed so that anyone can find me.

    • sarah m

      I don’t think I have the time or energy to take on making the contacts right now, but I will certainly help as much as I can if you want to send out inquiries once you have some time.

  4. Pingback: Same Sex Work Class, Different Course Design | autocannibal
  5. eithnecrow

    If you were amenable to the idea, I think it would be really interesting to test-run it maybe as something offered by a collective like Sex Worker Open University in London? I am involved also with the Feminist Library in London, and a collaborative thing might be possible.

    Amazing work, by the way.

  6. kg

    except in canadian perspectives on sex work, sherene razack is an abolitionist/prohibitionist settler so maybe not her, k. there are many sex working/trading Indigenous folks who’ve written about their experiences. like Indigenous Peoples in the Sex Trade Speaking for Ourselves at: http://inciteblog.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/indigenous-peoples-in-the-sex-trade-%E2%80%93-speaking-for-ourselves/ and there are lots of Indigenous and non-Indigenous sex worker allies whose work centers around murders, disappearances, deaths of sex working/trading folks. even though its an imaginary class, i still need to critique it! thanks :)

    • sarah m

      I should add that piece from the group at Maggie’s. On the Sex Work Research blog, I linked it when I posted the Razack article. I disagree with her analysis of sex work as uncomplicated violence, but the reason I included her article is that it includes an analysis of racialization and whiteness that specifically implicates white university-going youth in their connection to and exploitation of the “underworlds” where sex work occurs. I don’t think I would remove it simply because she is an abolitionist (any more than I would remove pro-decriminalization sources that I disagree with about the nature of “work” as empowerment*), but I hope students would be similarly critical and seek out dissenting and divergent voices — I’ll add some readings, including the one you suggest, to do more to help that process. The other readings for that week, especially Sarah Hunt’s work, are fantastic.

      Thanks for the feedback!

      (* not to do with sex work in particular. I don’t think work in general, even when it’s decent work, can be called empowering)

  7. bornwhore

    great work! thank you for this. I could easily see this becoming an online course. I would also add that I’d love to see more resources by sex workers themselves, especially Indigenous, POC, youth and trans sex workers. Not sure if you’ve seen this brilliant piece by Kwe Today which re-centers an Indigenous sex working voice in debates about trafficking and colonialism
    . http://kwetoday.com/2013/07/30/exploration-on-indigenous-lands-and-exploitation-of-indigenous-bodies/

    • sarah m

      Thanks for this link. I haven’t read it, but I’ll read it tomorrow afternoon, and I’ll add it to the section here and to the online folder for students actually taking this class (a different version, taught by someone else).

    • sarah m

      I’ve still only had time to skim this, but it looks like solid writing and I’m looking forward to reading it in more detail. Beyond its content, it will be a handy teaching tool to return to as an example of what an “A” paper on sex work looks like. Thanks again for the suggestion! :)

  8. kg

    totes agree with what bornwhore said! we need to be prioritizing/centering work by sex working/trading folks first and foremost. i think if the razack article is used it needs to be contextualized vis a vis her own work as an abolitionist. again there is lots of stuff by Indigenous, twospirit, sex working/trading folks that highlight whiteness and colonialism (most of them do, actually) really needs to get out there. the film Survival, Strength, Sisterhood: Power of Women in the Downtown Eastside is highly recommended! http://vimeo.com/19877895
    love Sarah Hunt and Kwetoday too :)

    • sarah m

      TL;DR: in a different environment, many of the problems with this design could be solved. The version of this class that will actually run tries some strategies in assignments to address the imbalance of sex worker self-representation. Sometimes things that would otherwise be less than ideal reading make unexpectedly good teaching tools, especially for meeting students where they’re at.

      ***

      Oh, I saw that movie years ago and totally forgot about it. Thanks so much for suggesting it. I’m going to have another look at it and see if it can replace “Finding Dawn” (which is also an excellent film, but only hints at decriminalization politics, without explicating them).

      There are some problems with addressing sex work in a university environment, which I think could be solved by moving somewhere like the Sex Work Open University. Undergraduate students who aren’t studying sex work or social justice issues beyond one passing elective course often can’t competently discuss feminism, never mind diverse feminismS, racialization, colonization, queer issues, etc. They also tend to Other and exoticize sex workers, and if a few of them have made a bit of progress towards a more solid concept of solidarity by the end of the course, then that’s a huge success. So their existing knowledge, time limits, limits to what and how much they will read, and the need to teach larger concepts (about labour studies, research methods, writing skills, reading skills) means that any 12-week course will be imperfect. I would have loved, for example, to have weeks on rural and remote sex workers, youth sex workers, porn, stripping, technological change, and a much bigger discussion of global issues and how different the sex worker movement looks in regions where its primary organizing happens through poor peoples’ movements and not feminism. Since somewhere like the Sex Worker Open University would have a different audience and different requirements, and could draw on expertise other than my own (which is necessarily limited by my own training and experience), I think adaptations could be made to improve it substantially according to your suggestions.

      Have you seen the version of the class (authored by a different instructor) that will actually run? https://autocannibalism.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/same-sex-work-class-different-course-design/ It makes more use of the sex worker writings in “Selling Sex” and it includes two assignments that require students to read and discuss sex workers’ writing, beyond the readings assigned each week. The first is an analysis of the significance of sex worker self-representation using Red UP’s Prose and Lore series, and the second is a research essay, for which they must cite sex workers in addition to scholarly sources (we’ve added a folder to the course website with sex worker writings and participatory action research reports, and I’ll add all the links you suggest here).

      In lecture, I would discuss Razack’s politics, how they developed, and how they differ from other Indigenous and feminist analyses of sex work, including (and especially) those expressed by Indigenous sex workers active in the rights movement. In this article in particular, she mentions her abolitionist politics only in passing, and presents an excellent, extended case study of a particular trial. While more general and brief analyses of colonization and whiteness are useful, the specificity of this one — and it’s topic that focuses directly on university students (since students around here like to go to the stroll and throw things at workers) — makes it pedagogically very useful. Even “teaching the conflict” (explaining to students why people disagree with Razack and modelling a careful, honest evaluation of work I disagree with) is a useful tool.

      • kg

        just know that sex workers will be in your class and its important not to present them with material ‘for dialogue’ which is by folks who don’t really acknowledge our/their existence, erases agency, thinks clients are monsters, etc. etc. for me this is actually pretty triggering and if there aren’t proper supports in place it could be problematic for some (not all tho). sex working/trading folks who are students in the class will want to/need to feel safe in that space. i still think having non-sex working folks ‘leading’ this discussion (as per original) is still pretty iffy. needless to say, i’d sign up for this course in a heart beat, although i’d give the instructor heat for all the above reasons. can’t wait for my copy of selling sex to arrive! prose is great too!

      • sarah m

        kg, you know I’m a sex worker, right?

        Your points about how sex worker students in the class feel about the material are really important, though. Academic environments can easily range from uncomfortable to straight up bullying, and it can be tough, as a student and as an instructor, to find the right balance between insisting that students be open to studying material they disagree with or even find reprehensible and insisting that the space be safe for everyone’s learning, which means free of oppressive materials that make some students, including sex workers, unwelcome. There are also workers or former workers who consider themselves prostitution survivors taking these classes, and they are expected to read the pieces by sex workers with similarly open minds.

        I can’t make any claims to having a perfect take on that balance, but I do think about it a lot (I did some roundtable discussions with sex worker students earlier this year on the topic, and I hope to continue to discuss access to education issues with workers — if you are interested, I’d love to talk more with you about a group-authored project).

        I think the design of the page might not be helping, though. In the copy I submitted with my job app, the readings were sorted based on whether they were in the textbook, the course pack, or online. Without those headings, since most of the sex worker-written sources are online, they do look a bit like supplements instead of substance. When I get a second, I’ll put them in alphabetical order, so the sex worker authors are clearly required, and not supplementary, readings — about 40% of the assigned readings were written by sex workers, so they are definitely not an afterthought!

      • sarah m

        This blog design is weird and stops threading replies after a few layers. But you can still reply if you want to talk more. I am loving all the feedback. To get it to thread, you just have to hit reply to my super-long comment above.

      • sarah m

        Super! I’ve been struggling with depression over the summer and am getting hammered with beginning-of-term stuff right now, but I’ll send you a message from my email, just so you have it, and I will follow up in a week or two about the sex worker students work. :)

    • sarah m

      Hi Luca, I think we’re Facebook friends, aren’t we? Yes, I’d be very open to discussing this, but will need a few weeks to get settled into my teaching for this semester first. As discussed above, I think SWOU’s environment would be a great space to resolve some of the problems that come up with talking about sex work in a traditional university environment.

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