Remembering '$pread,' the Magazine That Gave Sex Workers a Voice
"The idea of a magazine where sex workers could actually speak instead of being spoken about was really revolutionary."
You might not have heard of $pread, the award–winning magazine by and for sex workers. But for a community that so often feel like pariahs, it was a lifeline.
Independently published between 2005 and 2011, $pread was essentially a community bulletin and lifestyle guide for sex workers in New York and beyond. But although the magazine initially began as a local handbook, of sorts, in its posthumous years $pread featured essays and first-person stories from sex workers around the world, ranging from the hilarious to the traumatic. It started a mini media revolution.
For a community whose specific literature pretty much consisted off the odd pamphlet passed around at activist events or small email listings groups, $pread provided a smart, funny platform for sex workers to make their voices heard in a publication that spoke at, about and for them. Everyone needed it and everyone read it—from sex workers to sex customers, sex readers, to sex writers. It didn't tell readers how to live—it showed them.
Next month, an anthology of $pread's best bits is being published, chronicling the colorful story of how an esoteric trade magazine become a cult international bible. It's hilarious, diverse, intelligent, scary, and completely eye-opening not just for anyone with an interest in sex work, but also independent publishing and civil rights activism.
I spoke to Rachel Aimee and Eliyanna Kaiser, two of the anthology's editors, ahead of its release.
VICE: How did $pread first find life?
Rachel Aimee: In 2004 I met the other co-founders, Rebecca Lynn and Raven Strega, through our activism in the sex worker rights movement in New York. We were talking about how we were all tired of seeing sex workers stigmatized and stereotyped in the media, and how we wished there was a space for sex workers to speak for themselves. Most of the writing that was out there written by sex workers at the time was academic, so we wanted to create something that was accessible to a wider audience, which is why we decided on a magazine format.
Did any of you have any experience in publishing?
No. And we didn't have any money to start a magazine so we taught ourselves as we went along. We sent out a call for submissions and were surprised to receive a bunch of stuff within a few weeks. We threw several benefit parties to raise the money to print the first issue.
Eliyanna Kaiser: I was one of those people who saw that call for submissions. I was on an email list for sex worker rights activists in New York, and when I read that first email the concept just blew my mind. The idea of a magazine where sex workers could actually speak instead of being spoken about was really revolutionary—I knew I had to be a part of making it real. Being a part of $pread, to anyone who was active in the movement for sex worker rights, felt necessary and very, very urgent.
What was the sex worker community like when $pread first formed?
Aimee: It was smaller than it is today and very fragmented—pockets of activism in a few liberal cities, but not much connection between them. The mainstream sex worker rights movement at the time was dominated, for the most part, by a more privileged cross-section of sex workers: white, cisgender women with relative class privilege who mostly came from a "sex-positive feminist" background and understood sex work as "empowering for women"—which is problematic in a number of ways, not least because not all sex workers are women. I think it's fair to say that many of us—$pread's staff and editors—came from that background and so did many of our early contributors. We began to realize as time went on, though, that we needed to make room for a wider range of voices.
Kaiser: The activism I was familiar with was NYC-specific and mostly focused around the annual Vigil for Victims of Violence, which is held around the world by sex worker rights activists on December 17. I also heard about some private email lists where prostitutes shared things like "bad date lists" and tipped each other off about new law enforcement practices and gave peer referrals for health or legal services.
Why was $pread needed so badly? Was the media coverage of sex workers god-awful?
Aimee: Yes. Everyone thinks they know who sex workers are and why they do sex work, but people rarely give sex workers credit for being able to speak for themselves. We felt strongly that sex workers need to be telling their own stories and describing their own experiences—big part of our mission was community building. Many sex workers are isolated because they often have to hide their work from friends and family. $pread helped sex workers to see that there were others out there like them.
Kaiser: I know that I originally thought of it as an organizing tool, a way to bring together all these disparate activists and community members and get them—literally—on the same page. I hoped it would bridge connections and help create a more centralized, vibrant political movement. I didn't really care about the content of the magazine at first, to be honest. I just saw the political potential. $pread was most needed was because it was critical, on a psychological level, for sex workers to practice speaking and making their stories and opinions known.
Having a voice is like a muscle—if you don't exercise it, you lose it. Once that started happening it was contagious. Sex workers around the country started writing in to us about how grateful they were to read something written by other sex workers. And, little by little, we started to see that more and more people were speaking out. The blogging revolution and the growth of social media certainly helped, too.
What was the original content like? Where did submissions come from?
RA: We sent out a call for submissions on various sex worker community email lists and among our friends and coworkers. In the first few issues the content was really slanted towards narratives of sex work as empowering—and we realized we needed to address that bias so started to actively seek out submissions from sex workers writing about negative experiences.
"$pread was never 100 percent sex workers. We were by and for sex workers and those that care about their rights."
We also realized we needed to make the content more like a "real magazine", as we used to say, so we came up with various ideas for regular columns, such as "Positions," where two sex workers with different opinions on a particular topic argued it out. "Indecent Proposals" was an illustrated column where a sex worker answered the question: "What's the strangest thing a client's ever asked you to do?" and "Consumer Report," where sex workers from different sectors of the industry reviewed products that many sex workers use for work, such as lipstick or false eyelashes.
Kaiser: We really embraced the women's magazine format in some funny ways. I think our quizzes and crossword puzzles were fabulous touches. Figuring out the regular departments was really critical because most of the people submitting work didn't have the skills to write long, feature-length pieces. They weren't professional writers, so clear instructions and a format was really helpful to them.
"Scene Report" was one of our most useful columns for people who wanted to write for the magazine but didn't have a specific pitch. The writer simply described what it was like to work wherever they worked. "Cunning Linguist" was another good one—sex workers listed some of the more unusual terms or slang used in their specific corner of the sex industry and provided definitions. "Double Take" was another favorite. It was a split-frame photoshoot of a sex worker juxtaposing their regular look with their at-work look. It was fun for sex workers to participate in and was humanizing for our other readers to see sex workers dressed down and looking like their neighbors.
We also gave sex workers an opportunity to point the camera in the other direction with our Onion-esque "Man on the Street" column. It featured sex workers and other $pread staff asking random civilians questions about the sex industry, like, "How much do you think an hour of professional sex is worth on the open market?" It yielded hilarious results without any satire required.
What is your favorite part of the anthology?
Aimee: Lynne Tansey's piece "I Have Nothing to Say" is a really powerful and raw description of her experience of killing a client in self-defense. Mona Salim's "Stripping While Brown," a hilarious and disturbing account of the ways that narratives of race inform her experiences of stripping as a South Asian woman is fantastic. "Hell's Kitchen" by Syd V is a touching depiction of her experiences of growing up loving a mother who was a sex worker. Now that I'm a parent I wish we'd done a better job of covering parenting and sex work in $pread, because so many sex workers have kids and it's still something people are really afraid to talk about. Oh, also, for comic relief, Eve Ryder's Indecent Proposals story "Fucking the Movement," about a client who asked her to dress up as an anarchist protester, is hilarious.
Kaiser: I lived in Vancouver during some of the time that over 60 women—mostly Aboriginal street-involved sex workers—disappeared from an area known as the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. A serial killer eventually confessed to 49 murders. So the Aboriginal folktale-inspired photo story, "The Unicorn and the Crow," is very special to me. I also can't help but mention "Menstruation: Porn's Last Taboo" by Trixie Fontaine, because it taught me something I didn't know anything about, all the while featuring a picture of a bloody tampon nailed to a wall.
Amazing. Did $pread have a wider audience outside the sex worker community?
Aimee: Yes, about 60 percent of our readers were sex workers but many other people read the magazine. Gender studies professors often assigned $pread as required reading for their students. We were popular among social justice activists of both radical and liberal persuasions. And, when we conducted our first reader survey, we were surprised to discover that many clients of the sex industry enjoyed reading $pread, too.
Kaiser: $pread was never 100 percent sex workers. We were by and for sex workers and those that care about their rights. Some of the staff and writers weren't sex workers at all, but rather the friends and family of sex workers. Even clients of sex workers helped out sometimes.
Is it important for you to tie feminism with what you do?
Aimee: Feminism and sex worker rights should go hand in hand because both movements are about body autonomy and self-determination. But that's not to say that all sex workers do or should identify as feminists. The mainstream feminist movement has traditionally been hostile and patronizing towards sex workers, preferring to talk about sex work rather than listening to what sex workers have to say, so it's not surprising that many sex workers feel alienated by feminism. But that is changing and many younger factions of feminists these days are strong allies of sex workers and realize that any discussion of sex work must be led by sex workers.
Kaiser: One of the few rules we developed for $pread was that we didn't have an editorial position on anything beyond our basic mission statement. What's the point of being a platform for sex workers to speak for themselves if you only have one set of perspectives that are welcomed?
What writers would you commission in an issue of $pread today?
Aimee: Kate Zen, Monica Jones, Janet Mock, Melissa Gira Grant, Abigail Booties. Many of the writers who regularly contribute to Prose and Lore, the literary journal published by $pread editor Audacia Ray's nonprofit Red Umbrella Project, including Barbara R. Lee and Rachel Therein. And many of the contributors to Red Umbrella Babies, a forthcoming anthology about parenting and sex work.
Kaiser: Rachel already mentioned Melissa Gira Grant, but she's worth mentioning twice. She's really emerging as one of the most important voices of this movement. I've always deeply regretted not getting a meaty feature piece out of Caty Simon, who now blogs at Tits and Sass. I can't think of who is better at writing about drug use and sex work, which is such an important topic.
I'd want to get writing from the youth leadership at Streetwise and Safe, which is a group for LGBTQ youth of color in New York City. Every time I interact with the activists there, I'm really impressed with how they support each other, understand and articulate their experience with police and the criminal justice system, and engage in strategic activism. I mean, what was I doing at 16 or 17? Nothing that important.
Why did the zine format work for you?
RA: I'm not sure if it did really. We got into publishing right on the cusp of the shift from print to digital. We modeled $pread on independent print magazines that we loved, such as Bitch and Bust, but we got into the industry too late to secure the kinds of bookstore distribution deals that would have allowed us to achieve their kind of sustainability. So what we ended up with were hundreds of boxes of magazines that were expensive to print and mail, heavy to cart around from printer to office to post office, and took up all the space in our closet-sized office. Things probably would've been a lot easier if we'd created an online magazine.
Kaiser: We knew that sex workers read magazines, that those were the things most commonly strewn throughout their workplaces. So even though it made almost no business sense to start an independent, print-only glossy magazine in 2005, this was exactly what we committed to doing. It felt important to create something tangible and in a "legitimate" format, and maybe this was fed by the general anxiety that people had in the mid 2000s about the digital shift coupled with the sense we had that the 90s-style zines were too alternative to be taken seriously by most sex workers who weren't alternative or activist-y at all—just normal people who read US Weekly or Cosmo. It was important to us that sex workers could actually hold something in their hands, something that seemed familiar.
$pread: The Best of a Magazine That Illuminated the Sex Industry and Started a Media Revolution is published by Feminist Press
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