Photo via Flickr user LynRDavis
Maya Angelou was a prostitute, and no one talks about it. Angelou, who died Wednesday at age 86, is most famous for her memoirs, poetry, and contributions to the Civil Rights movement. She was also a Tony-nominated stage actor, San Francisco’s first black female streetcar conductor, and, in her younger days, a prostitute and brothel manager.
Angelou was always forthcoming about her sex work, both in interviews and in her second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name. Media outlets who reported on her- both during her life and after her death- were not as candid about the subject. The articles that mention Angelou’s sex work make a point to describe it as “brief” or a “short-lived stint.” Many other articles omit it completely.
It’s true that Angelou’s sex work days were fairly short, and it’s easy to argue that her sex work was far outshone by her many accomplishments in literature, theater progressive politics, and, pretty much every other category in the entire world. I’m willing to bet she was an astronaut at some point. But no one is arguing that “Maya Angelou Was a Prostitute” should be the headline of her every obituary- just that her sex work should be acknowledged in a less perfunctory way.
Some sex work activists argue that the media’s evasiveness of the subject contributes to the stigma around sex work. To gloss over a part of her life that Angelou spoke openly about suggests that the subject is too shameful to speak about, which is, of course, a commonly held belief. People don’t like to utter the words “beloved author” and “sex worker” in the same sentence. Angelou’s sex work, when it’s acknowledged at all, is framed as a piece of juicy gossip.
“Why are you still talking about recently deceased author Maya Angelou? Isn’t this article about International Whores’ Day?” Yes, it is. This article is so topical it is borderline illegal.
Prostitutes in Barcelona. Photo via Flickr user Sergio Uceda
International Whores’ Day, also known as International Sex Workers’ Day, is the most necessary holiday you’ve never heard of. It aims to remove the stigma around sex work, and to promote the basic rights of sex workers. Those goals sound simple enough, but sex work activists are up against centuries of stigma, which has a habit of sticking around.
Celebrated on June 2nd, International Whores’ Day began in France in 1975, the result of French sex workers’ anger at a government that at best failed to protect them and at worst actively worked to oppress them. For centuries, prostitution itself was not illegal in France, but “surrounding activities,” like pimping or owning a brothel, were. (This is the case once again in present-day France, though politicians take steps toward abolishing prostitution altogether every so often.)
Officially, France became an “abolitionist” state in 1960, when it ratified the UN Convention on the Suppression of Trafficking and the Exploitation of Prostitution. Though enforcement was spotty, abolitionism brought harsher police crackdowns upon French sex workers and left them with no government protections, metaphorically or literally. In 1975, after two prostitutes were murdered in Lyon and the French government did virtually nothing about it, sex workers staged a protest, occupying the Saint-Nizier church for eight days. The banner they hung on the church’s door read “nos enfants ne veulent pas leur mère en prison”—“our children do not want their mothers in prison.”
International Whores’ Day soon spread, well, internationally, although the United States is doing a crappy job of even knowing it exists. To the great surprise of everyone, France wasn’t the only country that could stand to learn how to respect its sex workers. (A “sex worker,” by the way, isn’t necessarily a prostitute—“sex workers” is a broader category that includes prostitutes, exotic dancers, porn actors, and many other professions.)
A Syrian Brothel. Photo by Falko Siewert
But most importantly, why does this holiday have the word “whore” in it? Is it too offensive to be put in the same headline as "Maya Angelou," or is it badass?
Jessie Nicole has worked in the sex industries for roughly seven years, is the former director of the LA chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, and considers herself an active member of sex work communities. “In most sex work communities,” Nicole says, “‘whore’ or ‘hooker’ are used as terms we're reclaiming for ourselves, but are still derogatory when used by people outside of that reclamation project.” Think of it like the word “queer,” which was originally a derogatory term (and still can be), but has been reclaimed by people in LGBT communities and now has an entirely different meaning. In other words, don’t go shouting it from your car, but know that it has a different meaning when used by someone in within the community in question.
As I mentioned before, International Whores’ Day is not well-known in the United States. Even sex workers who are aware of the holiday, Jessie Nicole says, “tend to be already connected to activist communities.” It’s something of a chicken-and-egg problem: the goal of holidays like this is to change cultural values, but it’s difficult to get a culture to accept such a holiday in the first place. Also, I’ve never successfully explained the concept of word reclamation to anyone over age 30. But that’s exactly why we need holidays like International Whores’ Day: to humanize a group who have had the word “whore” spat at them for centuries.
It’s a day to listen to the needs of people who are denied the privilege of speaking about their work without shame. And to accept that “beloved author” and “sex worker” are not mutually exclusive.
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