The Shelves of a Feeble-Minded Book Slut: Part One

It’s obvious I’m a total hussy for these little bound beauts, but in writing this, I found myself digressing into a discussion about the descriptor, which I excised into a separate post you can read (in a few days from now) here.

Photo by @EmiliaMyrosPics

My Top-Shelf Picks

Anyway… Welcome to the premiere installment of “Shelves of a Feeble-Minded Book Slut,” where we discuss writing about sex work! I recently asked Twitter: What is your favorite book about SW, and why? To my delight, I found both several new recommendations and the motivation to finally get this blog post put together.

I have dozens of titles on my shelf, but these are some of my first choices for someone starting to build a collection of texts about (mostly full-service) sex work. If you want to read some articles now, you can check out my fledgling archive or follow either of these two Twitter pages.

Reputable Reportage & SW-Friendly Editorial

Comprehensive yet efficient, self-aware and sharp as hell, Revolting Prostitutes (d’ya get it?) by Juno Mac & Molly Smith cuts deep with its global, current, and revolutionary insights. “I was a baby SW when I read it and it transformed how I thought about the industry,” companion Kate Hart of Indianapolis commented on my post. “I recommend it to everyone I know and have a second copy just to lend out.” This one is the creme-de-la-creme, leaving no stone unturned. If you read one book about contemporary FSSW, make it this.

Playing The Whore: The Work of Sex Work, Melissa Gira Grant‘s 2014 gem, clocks in at a slender 132 pages and packs punches all the way through. It is deeply-researched, well-organized, and to-the-point. (Read one of MGG’s articles about the history of sex work here.)

Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Industry edited by Frederique Delacoste & Priscilla Alexander. The original title was released in 1987, and I firmly believe most of the best things in existence came from this particular year (wink). I own the 2nd edition, which was released in 1998, and while parts of it can feel now like peering into a time capsule, its perennial value remains indisputable.

“Still so rare to find books written by us, not simply about is,” commented NYC’s Laurel Allison. Part One, In The Life, is a collection of firsthand accounts written by sex workers, with many stories from Carol Leigh (famously known as the Scarlet Harlot). Parts Two and Three are comprised of academic articles. Part Two is titled Feminism and the Whore Stigma; Part Three is United We Stand, Divided We Die: Sex Workers Organized.

Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry by Laura Maria Agustin, published in 2007, surely informed the “borders are bullshit” sentiment held by Mac & Smith in Revolting Prostitutes. Sex at the Margins “rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labor and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry.”

A Handful of Historical Texts

Ruth Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918 was a seminal academic text for me as I began studying Madeleine Blair’s 1919 memoir. This time period is a particularly interesting one in North America, because it was when previously-tolerated Red Light Districts were officially shuttered (the last of which being New Orleans’ Storyville in 1917). You can read my highlighted passages here.

Harlots, Whores & Hookers: A History of Prostitution by Hilary Evans, released in 1979, is a fascinating and fun look at sex work and brothel life over the last…oh…handful of millennia. A good balance of solid information and entertaining stories.

Very few pieces of book-length creative nonfiction have I enjoyed as much as Karen Abbott’s Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul. Deeply researched and beautifully constructed, Abbott’s sharp, visceral prose drops the reader into the whirlwind of the notorious Everleigh Club, packaging troves of information into breezy, page-turning chapters.

(So, I have a thing about Chicago history.) Got To Make My Livin’: Black Women’s Sex Work in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago by Cynthia Blair supplements Abbott’s account with information from outside the glossy world of the Everleigh. Specifically, it explores the experience of women of color in Chicago’s infamous Levee District, “expanding our view not just of prostitution but also of [B]lack women’s labor, the Great Migration, [B]lack and white reform movements, and the emergence of modern sexuality.”

Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush by Lael Morgan, commented Scarlet Sunset, an FBSM practitioner in Toronto, is “a fascinating history with a lot of stories of individual women. A lot of them were celebrities in the boomtown times!” This particular title is one I’ve had on my shelf for a while but have not yet dug into. Now I have even more reason to do so!

Contemporary Personal Narratives & Advice

Thriving In Sex Work by Lola Davina (2017) is presently the single best resource out there for anyone interested in starting a career in the industry, and those who are trying to—as the title suggests—do more than “just survive.” Thriving In Sex Work: Money (2020) considers financial well-being in two distinct parts: emotional and practical. Davina guides her readers through more philosophical questions about the cash we earn, then offers actionable advice about budgeting, saving, and investing.

We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival is a 2021 anthology of nonfiction by people in all areas of the sex trade. The essays are organized by topic: Stigma, The State, The Workplace, Family, Survival, and Healing. Brilliant memoirist (and former dominatrix) Melissa Febos applauds We Too for “honor[ing] the humanity, diversity, and depth of insight within the field.” I must say, I agree (and wonder if there are plans for a second volume)!

Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex by David Henry Sterry was published in 2009. It offers plenty (333 pages!) of variety and representation of many facets of the sex trade, making it an important anthology today despite its pre-SESTA/FOSTA point-of-view.

I choose to include The Essential Maggie McNeill, Volume 1: Collected Essays from the Honest Courtesan because, while McNeill’s perspective of her experience in sex work is one of a “happy hooker”—which is to say, privileged and positive—I especially appreciated some of her unabashed insights early in my career as I deconstructed some of my own internalized stigma. However, it would be wrong of me to omit that, for many, her takes often feel reductive and tone-deaf. When consumed (as anything else) with the care of a critic, there is space for voices like McNeill’s in the chorus of those working to demystify, destigmatize, and decriminalize erotic labor. (But really, I’m just waiting for the “loud-mouthed whore” who introduced me to McNeill, the irreplicable Kaytlin Bailey, to drop a goddamn book on us!)

(Not a book, but, on this same note, a journalist whose work I find worth following is Elizabeth Nolan Brown. Much like McNeill, ENB holds libertarian perspectives, with which I both selectively agree and also find deeply problematic and cold-hearted. I follow her because she consistently rallies against the sensationalism of “The Rescue Industry” and advocates for Sex Workers’ right to earn money the way we choose without government intervention.)

New-To-Me Recommendations from Twitter

Whores in History by Nickie Roberts

Pretty Baby by Chris Belcher

Chicken: Self Portrait of a Young Man for Rent by David Henry Sterry

Too Pretty To Be Good by Lindsay Byron

Philosophy, Pussycats, and Porn by Stoya

N.B. by Charlotte Shane

Coming Out Like A Pornstar: Essays on Pornography, Protection, and Privacy edited by Jiz Lee

Stripped by Bernadette Barton

Porn Studies by Linda Williams

Spent by Antonia Crane

Working by Dolores French

Tiny Pieces of Skull by Roz Kaveney

Nothing But My Body by Tilly Lawless

(Yes, admirers, these titles are now all on my Wishtender.)

When you’d like to read about the term “feeble-minded,” click here for The Shelves of a Feeble-Minded Book Slut: Part Two.

And while I’ve got your attention…

What do you think?

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Madeleine Blair is an editor, memoirist, sex workers’ rights activist & professional companion based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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