By Nicole Witte Solomon
In 2004, Rachel Aimee, Rebecca Lynn and Raven Strega hit upon a radical notion. The media sensationalizes sex work — services such as prostitution, stripping, porn acting and modelling, phone sex, massage or other forms of erotic labor, whether legal or criminalized. But, in the process, it erases the experience of the actual sex workers unless they fit into a narrow, generally titillating or cautionary narrative. Shouldn’t sex workers themselves be creating media?
And, thus, $pread Magazine was born in New York City, using the tag line: “Illuminating the Sex Industry.” Despite their lack of publishing experience, Aimee, Lynn and Strega quickly learned the basics of layout, recruited a volunteer staff, and threw benefit parties to fund the printing of their first issue in March 2005. By the end of the year they had won The Utne Independent Press Award for “Best New Title.” Aimee, who taught English in Bangkok and bored herself silly as a receptionist in New Jersey before moving to Brooklyn and starting $pread, has stayed on as Editor-in-Chief, while Lynn and Strega have moved on.
Learning from Feminist Activism
$pread has face the challenges of all small press publications in an increasingly print-adverse age, with the additional burden of covering consistently controversial subject matter. Despite the lack of major funders and the volunteer status of the staff, $pread has become a crucial resource for an underserved community.
Shakti Ziller, $pread‘s director of communications, says that the magazine is part of a broader movement for sex workers’ rights. Ziller, who works as a rape crisis and domestic violence advocate and volunteers with SWANK (Sex Worker Action New York), explains that this movement owes a debt to the work done by by feminist, LGBTQ and labor activists. “By creating a public forum for sex workers to choose the issues which concern them and then discuss them without the threat of moral backlash, $pread has taken a big step towards destigmatizing sex work and creating a broad sex worker community,” she says.
Collaborating with groups like The Sex Worker’s Outreach Project NYC (SWOP-NYC), 15 percent of an issue’s press run is donated to organizations and workplaces used by sex workers.
Telling Their Own Stories
While sex workers across the globe have been organizing, public forums are often hard to come by.
$pread‘s editorial mission is to provide a forum for the articulation of sex workers’ diverse opinions and experiences, including those with which the editors may personally disagree. Human and labor rights for sex workers are consistantly prioritized in the writing, but the magazine resists taking an editorial position on major issues such as trafficking, effects of pornography or whether prostitution should be decrimnalized or legalized. Similarly, the magazine neither promotes nor condemns any form or sex work, choosing instead to encourage sex workers to “tell their own stories and define their own experiences.”
Sex workers experience different challenges depending on location, sector of the industry that they work in, and background in terms of class, race and gender. All too often, they share an absence from the debates that constantly rage around and about them. But who is better informed than those on the front lines? As Ziller says, “$pread is part of the demand that sex workers are making on the public and the media, saying ’We exist. We are not stereotypes. We deserve justice and fair treatment. And we hold you accountable!’”
Nicole Witte Solomon is a writer and videographer living in Brooklyn. She blogs at constintina.blogspot.com