“Working It”: A Review in Affilia

By Doris Murphy
Affilia: Feminist Inquiry in Social Work

With the current interest in peer-led and community-engaged research and writing, Bickers,
Breshears, and Luna’s (2023) edited collection of sex workers’ writing and images is an important
and timely anthology. Working It: Sex Workers on the Work of Sex is an edited collection of creative
writing and artwork by sex workers, which is thoughtfully arranged to convey a broad range of expe-
riences amongst people who trade sex. This book challenges easy stereotypes of sex workers as a
homogenous group of victims and/or “happy hookers” and moves beyond these binaries to
provide a more nuanced portrayal of sex work. Working It problematizes easy tropes of empower-
ment or exploitation, which are often attributed to people who trade sex. Within the 30 chapters
of this book, authors discuss their own personal experiences of sex work, which resist easy catego-
rization. With humor and searing honesty, simplistic ideas about sex work are torn up, and a messier,
more representative collage is co-constructed. Images and visual art created by sex workers are inter-
spersed throughout the book, adding another level of meaning-making to this rich anthology.

Throughout this book, the editors and writers challenge readers to support sex workers, for
example: Bickers (p. 193) says: “Defend sex workers and our rights? Yes. The industry? Never.”
Consent is discussed in clear terms by sex-working writer Phoenix Calida (p. 153), who refutes
the idea that consent in sex work is compromised, observing “my consent counts even if it
doesn’t meet an arbitrary standard set by liberal feminists.” This is a clear reminder that social
workers and other feminists cannot speak for sex workers; we must listen to them and follow
their lead when it comes to creating policies and laws that affect them.

One of the many stereotypes that abound about sex workers is that they have all experienced child
sexual abuse. The editors and authors do not shy away from this difficult topic, and Naomi (p. 79)
writes about “finding men who would pay me for something that I didn’t take seriously, because I’d
been robbed of the chance to do so.” This chapter makes for uncomfortable reading and again chal-
lenges us to complicate our ideas about trauma, child sexual abuse, and sex work.

Hope and humor are also present in this book, and sex worker and author Dee Lucas looks to the
future and what she describes as a metatopia rather than a utopia or dystopia: “Imagination is a realm
of endless possibility that offers one the ability to see past the conditions of the present into the bigger
picture of probable outcomes” (p. 209). She elucidates further “when you apply intent to fantasy, it
becomes a seed of radical creativity” (p. 210). This whole book radiates “radical creativity” and is a
must-read for anyone who works with people who trade sex. Interestingly, the only chapter in this
book that is not written by someone with experience in sex work is written by Aubrey, a social
worker. Aubrey relates her experience with a teenager who is close to aging out of her care home,
and who is talking about running away to become a stripper. Aubrey explains some real-life skills that a stripper would require to make a decent living—financial skills, self-protection and defense,
the ability to recognize and avoid scammers—and the teenager finally begins to consider this deci-
sion in a more realistic manner. Aubrey notes that her colleagues “thought I was coming at it from a
harm reduction standpoint or using it as a ‘cool worker’ technique” (p. 177), but that she was in fact
helping the teenager to weigh up the pros and cons of this choice. This is a perfect example of what
Working It can offer—a complication of sex work, showing the many faces of it, the trauma and tri-
umphs, and the messiness of sex work as experienced by many different people. Working It should be
on the reading list of every social worker, allied health professional, medic, as well as the police, and
wider society. It provides a multi-faceted, feminist, polyphonic account of sex work which values the
voices of sex workers and gives social work and caring professionals a glimpse into the contradictory
and complex world of trading sex.