Birth of a Movement

In Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk, author Melinda Chateauvert argues that organized resistance by American sex workers can be traced back to the anti-police riots of the 1960s. [2] She argues that the original protests surrounded the routine raids executed by police officers, and that Stonewall is a prime example of one of the first historical anti-police harassment resistances that included sex workers. Police forces in cities such as San Francisco and New York would systematically raid streets and bars where prostitutes were known to gather, leading to humiliation, jail time, and sexual assault at the hands of officers. Early sex worker resistance was sparked by a desire to end these discriminatory and violent practices.

Marsha P. Johnson, pictured at left, and Sylvia Rivera are often remembered as the trans women champions of the Stonewall Riots, an event credited with sparking the queer liberation movement. In this image Johnson stands outside of the Bellevue Hospital to protest their treatment of prostitutes and LGBT people. Her sign reading “Power to the People” points to the original populist message and broad-based nature of the original allyship between sex workers and queer people, as both sought to decriminalize and destigmatize consensual sex between adults and to have lives free of violence and harassment. But it is indicative of the stigma surrounding prostitution that LGBT history does not often mention that Johnson and Rivera were both sex workers, and that police targeted them for their status as “street women” as well as for their queerness.

Despite shared beginnings and goals with queer organizing, the sex worker movement was overall pushed to the side and silenced as lesbian and gay leaders sought to make their movement more appealing to a mainstream audience, suppressing the fact that the Stonewall rioters were also “sex workers, transgender people, hustlers, tricks, drug users, and drug sellers.” [3] Sex workers were also marginalized by the mainstream and even radical feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s, which sometimes viewed prostitution as a unforgivable submission to patriarchy. Despite being pushed out of the loudest political discourse at the time, sex workers carved out their own spaces in order to protect themselves and serve one another.




[2] Chateauvert, M. (2013). Sex workers unite: A history of the movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk. Boston: Beacon Press.

[3] Ibid.