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  • Clare Burgess

Finding inspiration in...

"Revolting Prostitutes: the fight for sex workers' rights" by Molly Smith and Juno Mac


I am always honest about my belief that history is never truly finished – its impacts and repercussions are with us every single day, even if we don’t understand them. This is part of what inspires me to study history, as I believe we can only create radical and transformative change in the present if we study and appreciate the past. However, I also think that it can occasionally be beneficial to complete this process in reverse. I can already hear professional historians (my undergraduate tutors among them) gasping in horror, so let me explain. I don’t mean that we should project our anachronistic views onto the past, or that we should assume historical actors had the same responses to events that we do today. What I do mean, is that people are fundamentally the same throughout history: we worry about our loved ones, about our ability to feed our children; we take joy in life’s great and small moments, and mourn our losses; we make jokes, have arguments, fall in love. Throughout all of history, people have always been people. It is because of this that I sometimes look for analogous inspiration when completing research, and this time I am turning to modern-day sex workers to better understand the lives of their counterparts in the sixteenth century.



That is not to say that I think the experiences of these two groups of people are the same – far from it – but I do think there are commonalities and comparisons to be drawn. Reading “Revolting Prostitutes”, I noticed by several facts that I felt applied across the centuries. There was, of course, plenty in the book that forced me out of my narrow historical mindset and into the present: anyone with empathy would be struck by reading about the impacts of criminalisation and stigmatisation, and the book has only reaffirmed my commitment to intersectional, anti-carceral feminism. However, the book offered several insights which I hope to bring to bear in my research into sixteenth century sex workers, and it is these I plan to discuss here.


Above all, the book stressed the way in which marginalisation is intersectional. A sex worker is marginalised because of their profession, but a Black sex worker is further marginalised by the intersectionality of their oppression, and a Black trans sex worker even more so. This is not a new fact for those of us paying attention, but this book forced me to think about the ways in which this applies to my research, for example, my intentions to study the sex workers of Havana, a major locus for the slave trade. I would be neglectful and wilfully obscuring the truth if I failed to consider the ways in which enslaved sex workers experiences differed from those of free women. For me, this was a confirmation of the importance of my work – we must recognise that today’s intersections of oppression stem from historical roots, and we must unpack these roots in order to move beyond oppressive systems today.



One example of the intersectionality of marginalisation, which was repeatedly emphasised in the book, is the use of borders to render a human being “illegal”. Borders are not a timeless natural phenomenon, but a human construct. The period I study was in many ways before the golden age of nation states and firm borders, but that doesn’t mean the lessons are not transferable. Often, in the early modern era, a border is more about a city or town than a country, but that doesn’t make it less important in the lives of people who cross those borders. There are examples of laws and prescriptions in which only “foreigners” can undertake sex work in a city, and campaigns which emerged when “locals” were feared to be performing sex work. These historic fears are echoed in “Revolting Prostitutes”, such as in the accounts of sex workers being “exiled” from jurisdictions, or more strict regulation of those deemed foreign and unwelcome. This consideration of what it means to be foreign, and what it can mean for a sex worker’s visibility and safety, is not something I had devoted much thought to in my initial research proposal. After reading about the experiences of undocumented or immigrant sex workers, it is something I intend to examine more closely in my work.


There were two other important points I felt were highlighted in “Revolting Prostitutes”, which have influenced my thought processes as I embark upon my research. Firstly, the idea of sex work as a survival strategy, a response to poverty. This is something clearly seen in the experiences of sixteenth century sex workers too, with accounts of Florentine women undertaking occasional or part-time sex work in o


rder to make up for a short-fall in their income, but it has certainly prompted me to consider trends over time. I believe that by examining the economic fortunes of a city, I may be able to understand more deeply to daily lives of those who used sex work to escape or fend off poverty. Situating the experiences of sex workers in a wider economic context will allow for a clearer picture of who was involved in sex work, as well as their motivations and daily concerns.




A related concern is the power relationship between the economic and legal status of sex workers and the control exerted by “managers”. For much of history, sex work has been legal and often state run – in the Medieval period, it was widely seen as a necessary service to ensure law and order and to keep young men in line. However, in the early modern period this view shifted towards the criminalisation and marginalisation of sex workers, resulting in increased policing of their movements and activities. “Revolting Prostitutes” underlined the potential consequences of such a shift, in that it could potentially remove power from sex workers and place it squarely in the hands of outwardly legitimate managers, most often men. My project will explore the ways in which social disciplining and the increasingly strict morals of the period impacted upon agency, and I hesitate to draw conclusions before immersing myself in the sources – however, the lessons contained in “Revolting Prostitutes” would suggest that any move towards criminalisation inevitably reduced sex workers’ agency, whilst gifting it instead to a third party. This is something I’m keen to investigate, to determine whether the historical situation echoes the current one.

Reading “Revolting Prostitutes” as a source of inspiration for historical research is obviously not how it was intended: it is first and foremost a call to arms, to demand that society – and in particular feminists – do more to fight for sex workers’ rights. It is certainly a call I will be heeding in my activism and politics, but it is also one I hope to include in my work: by revealing the lived experiences of historic sex workers, I hope to provide a rich and encouraging history from which we can draw, and which will give the sex workers of centuries past a voice they have thus far been denied.

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