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What was political advocacy like for communities within sex work in the US during the late 20th century?

A primary source letter by PONY (& friends) demonstrates an example of how communities formed around sex work in the late 1900s to promote support and political advocacy.

Published onDec 01, 2022
What was political advocacy like for communities within sex work in the US during the late 20th century?

A letter to Ms. Messinger says,

“We know how hard you have fought against discrimination based on sexual orientation and how often you’ve spoken up for the right of all New Yorkers to freely express their multi-faceted lifestyles. Those who wish to do away with a woman’s right to express her sexuality in a commerical context are usually the same extremists who try to limit a woman’s right to control her own body (and life)... It is easy for extremists to make a target of women working in a marginalized, misunderstood industry. Although ours is a traditionally female one, we are drawn to this industry because it has traditionally offered women an independent lifestyle and higher earning power than many others…”

This letter is facilitated by the Prostitutes of New York, also known as PONY (& friends), a support and advocacy group specific to New York, that brings together people within the sex industry, and also its supporters, to form a community that opens lines of communication and advocacy.1 Sex work is a highly stigmatized and controversial industry, however, PONY seems to perceive it as a set of small businesses.2

This article was written by the PONY community to liberal, New York politician Ruth Messinger asking for assistance against conservative actions, specifically the closure of Channel J on cable television, and also advocating for awareness for the sex work industry. The letter head is a image of a nude woman riding a horse, the insignia of PONY.

Front page of letter from Prostitutes of New York (PONY) to politician Ruth Messinger.

The recipient of this letter, Ms. Ruth Messinger, was a liberal politician in New York City. The letter, written specifically by Vanessa Andrews, T.E. Quan, and Cynthia Wolf, addresses the dissolving of Channel J by the New York State Commission on Cable Television and asks that Messinger consider the economic impact on sex workers in New York from the loss of their main form of open communication and advertisement to the public. It is a plea for an up-and-coming political voice to speak out against “right-wing extremists” and embrace non-traditional lifestyles and equal treatment between the sex industries and other more “traditional” forms of work. In addition, the letter goes on to expand on other struggles of sex work, the impact of feminism and attempts to open up communication and garner an appreciation for sex work awareness and education about the industry

PONY (& friends) is not the only evidence there is to confirm communities of sex workers had formed in the late 1900s. Margo St. James created COYOTE in 1973 on the other side of the United States with the intention of decriminalizing prostitution in San Fransico.3 A key event in her career included her lavish “Hookers Balls” intended to bring together politicians, police, and prostitutes in order to celebrate sex workers and rally support while campaigning to join the San Fransico Board of Supervisors. Unlike PONY (&friends), St. James worked outside of her community in attempts to join the political system and work on decriminalization from within, whereas PONY focused on educating the public in order to destigmatize sex work. It would appear that COYOTE’s work focused on direct connections with politicians, while PONY utilized media and communication efforts to host conversations about all aspects of sex work, this contrast is likely due to their separate goals. However, they both faced conservative backlash due to their prominence during the Reagan administration, and in the letter to Ms. Messinger, the authors appeal to her liberal ideas, asking her to band with them in fighting the conservative radicals that were attempting to disband their industry.4 St. James goes beyond that to expand internationally and form the “First World Whores’ Congress”.5 Regrettably, St. James and COYOTE were unsuccessful in decriminalizing sex work, however, they were successful in forming a community much like PONY (& friends) and empowering sex workers while working against the stigma that overwhelms the industry.

These were two examples of sex-working communities that developed in the late 1900s, likely trending towards national sex workers union in the 2000s.6 Trends in sex work politics have typically focused on a few issues: legalization, criminalization, or decriminalization. The impact of feminism on sex work politics must also be considered. In their letter to Ms. Messinger, the PONY writers acknowledge that the sex industry is not only women but also stereotypically appeals to women because it offers more independence and higher earning power than other industries. Although it is multi-gendered, sex work is societally feminized labor, and therefore, attacks on the industry are indirect attacks on women, hence the feminist perspectives that come to play. There has been historical isolation from the feminist movement that stems from the stigma about the industry and its illegality, this is one of the factors that has promoted unionization. Finally, when looking back at debates over the public policy on sex work and its legality, a professor of sociology, Deborah Brock has commented that the result has “been little more than “a battle of ‘deviance’ and social control, [in which] there have been no winners”.7 Much of this plays into the idea mentioned in the PONY letter that the attempts to eradicate prostitution may stem from the inability to accept the lack of tradition in this form of work and how it does not conform to the typical standards of work in society.

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