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The World's Oldest Profession: Labor Organizing in Prostitution

Since the second half of the 20th century, the topic of the sex industry has never ceased to profoundly divide the feminist left. Prostitution, often termed the world’s oldest profession, has a nuanced place in both the feminist framework and that of women and labor.¹ The topic is ripe with tensions: tensions between a woman’s autonomy and her gender-based subordination, between the embrace of her own sexuality and the commodification of the female body. Some view it as empowerment that defies outdated Victorian morality, while others see it as enslavement that disproportionately affects the lower class. I was intrigued by the unique position that prostitution occupies in feminist labor history: Its very categorization as work is ambiguous, and its illegal nature adds a further layer of complication. Foucauldian biopower and state surveillance come into play with the monitoring of bodies and day-to-day private life. Did prostitutes have unions? How did they organize? I touch upon discourses in the suffrage era and in Chicago in the early 20th century, before embarking on a journey into COYOTE, the first prostitutes’ rights group in the nation founded in 1973, to discover their goals, missions, organizing and advocacy activities and their vision of the profession. 

-Elaine Zhong 

Duke University, Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Class of 2019

1. The vocabulary "prostitution" is used in this exhibit with the consideration that "sex work" is a more modern term and encompasses a wider range of professions.