$pread Magazine is a new U.S. based publication which claims to be "by and for sex workers of all genders, sexualities and backgrounds" and aims to provide a forum for "marginalised voices" and a "balanced and honest view of the sex industry". Lorraine Smith and Ms Razorblade, feminists with different views of sex work, review the first issue and come to very different conclusions.
When I was first asked to review $pread for this site, I had no idea what to expect from it. A magazine by and for sex workers in the US? I could see how a review would be useful for F-Word readers all over the world but just couldn’t begin to imagine what they’d put in it such a publication, so I didn’t even try and simply forgot all about it until the day a mysterious envelope dropped through my letterbox, which contained issue one. My first impressions of the magazine were good. It adopts a format a bit like a newsletter, rather than a glossy magazine, and I think this suits the subject matter more. It may have been a choice made for cost reasons alone, but a full colour glossy approach would perhaps have detracted from the serious and informative nature of the content. Skimming the list of highlights on the cover before I headed off to my rather more traditional office job, I noted that retiring strippers, black women in porn, academia and activism were all awaiting me on my return home. Clearly, this was a magazine aiming to cover some real issues for a change.
After the usual contents page and editor’s piece, the first ‘article’ that the reader comes to is actually a letter and editorial response. Interestingly, the team behind the magazine have chosen to begin issue one with an attack on their feminist values so that they can use a reply to really define their aim for the fledgling publication. Someone called Cindy, outraged at the NYC Radical Cheerleeders choice to perform at a benefit for $pread, had written to express her views on the subject and certainly did not mince her words. “I very much hope that the Radical Cheerleeders will do more investigation into this subject before again agreeing to donate their talents to sexual capitalists, whether male or female, who are trading in women and children’s flesh for profit”, she wrote, only to receive a fierce response from the editors who were concerned that she had misunderstood $pread and what it stands for. “Our aim is not to promote or profit off the sex industry but to provide a much needed forum for people whose problems with discrimination go unaddressed all of the time.” A thoroughly feminist sentiment in my book, and a very engaging start to the first issue.
Having gained a better understanding of the purpose of the publication I was reading, I wasn’t surprised to find this followed by a selection of short news stories from around the world and then a piece on the situation of sex workers in South Thailand since last December’s terrible Tsunami. After reading every word of these, and then the article on a community-based health project in France, I began to discover the scope of $pread. Most industries that you can think of will have a union with a newsletter, so workers will be able to use these channels to become better informed about their job and to speak out when things are going wrong. It’s a shame that an industry which seems most in need of this representation, this ‘voice’, has waited so long for a magazine like this one. The publication is both helpful (see escorting etiquette, safety tips for street prostitutes, a sex workers rights to-do list, and an ‘ask the expert’ page), and insightful (check out the articles by a former sex worker facing discrimination, a best selling author, an ex-escort, and a retired stripper).
Anyone who does not think that Spread is an extremely positive voice for a much maligned and predominantly female industry, could surely get no further than page 35 without changing their mind. This is the start of a well-written, feminist-focussed interview with Dr Carol Queen who is the Executive Director for the newly opened Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco. The centre is amassing information about sex that will be available to the public, it aims to provide non-judgmental sexuality education, and is organising many events to raise both awareness and money for sex-related charities. I can’t see our friend Cindy having got this far without perhaps thinking she may have been a tad hasty when penning her letter of disgust before even reading a copy.
Finishing off with a smattering of relevant reviews and a page of useful global resources, I have to say that reading through one issue of this magazine has given me more of an insight into the sex industry than six months of reading Belle de Jour’s blog ever did. These are real people doing real jobs and no amount of shouting about the evils of porn and prostitution will actually help the ones in need, who are only still in the industry out of financial necessity. I have no doubt that $pread will be able to provide that help and support, whilst also educating those who are happy in their career choice, and perhaps creating a few new activists along the way.
Does $pread fulfil its own mission statement?
“$pread Magazine: Illuminating the sex industry”
Illuminating the entire sex industry really would be impressive, especially since qualitative research on prostitution is extremely rare and quantitative research almost non-existent. Wisely, $pread has focussed on “personal experiences and political insights”, e.g. stories, polemic and academic analysis. This seems particularly advisable since the editors are so poor at citing references: where facts are provided (in the news and sexual health pages) they are mostly both surprising and completely unsupported. I was extremely interested to learn that things are more “satisfactory” in New Zealand now that prostitution is legal there, and that tampons are safer than sanitary towels, and would have liked to have seen some evidence.
“we want to publish something that gets read by sex workers and the general public… [that] looks like a fashion magazine”
The editors have failed in this objective. $pread certainly does not resemble a fashion magazine: it is black & white, poorly typeset and has a gruesome cartoon on the cover. Most of the content is either political, academic or pretentious, and feminists will no doubt be aware that mainstream glossies are allergic to all three. Of course, all this applies to many other feminist magazines as well, but, given the editors’ commitment to making it user-friendly, I am surprised that $pread is so inaccessible.
“our aim is not to promote or profit off the sex industry” (p.5)
True, $pread is no prostitutes’ directory, but the writers are hardly shy about self-promotion. Veronica Monet writes a short feature followed by a long CV that ends, “Monet’s new book, Sex Secrets of Escorts, will be available August 2005!” Six writers are plugging books; others mention their work in films or graphic design; Carol Leigh’s CV is 77 words long and claims she invented the term “sex work”, and there is a grovelling review of her autobiography. I wasn’t prepared for this barrage of advertising, and several of the writers seem at least as interested in promoting their careers as they are in actually campaigning.
“by and for sex workers…”
I would like to mention COYOTE here. As people who are up on prostitution will probably know, COYOTE is a pro-sex work group that spent the ’70s and ’80s claiming to be “by and for sex workers”. In 1993 its biographer explained that few of its members were prostitutes (3% in 1981), and that the image of COYOTE as a “prostitutes’ trade union” was spin designed to appeal to the media. $pread seems to be au fait with COYOTE (Priscilla Alexander and Carol Leigh are writers) so you’d think they might have avoided making the same mistake. Of the 13 writers with CVs, most are billed as authors, filmmakers or academics. Six do not mention ever having worked in the sex industry, four used to do so but have now left, and only three say they are working prostitutes. This may just be understandable reticence on the writers’ part, but the striking invisibility of prostitutes in a pro-sex work magazine is not encouraging.
“…and their allies”
This part of the mission statement is highly problematic. By “allies” I presume they mean either (a) lefty men, sex-positive feminists and queer groups, or (b) punters. Even the first might be seen as a compromise; the second would hamstring the magazine. Prostitution would be an extremely unusual form of work if the interests of the employees matched those of the employers, and the experiences reported in $pread make it clear that they do not.
Two of the contributors, admittedly, sympathise with their punters: Katherine Frank coos that they “may require a great deal of validation, affirmation and emotional support” (aaahhh, poor things). However, the “Tricks Of The Trade” section is more blunt: “do not wear anything that will slow you down if you have to run, or anything that can be used to hurt you”. This is not an isolated view: many of the writers fear or deride their punters.
One of the few books containing qualitative research on punters and pimps gave an even dimmer view: the johns were a white supremacist, misogynist rabble who considered themselves castrated victims of feminism and were notoriously indifferent to whether the prostitutes they used were over 16. Even the masochists fetishised their “mistress” as a sex object and became hostile when she showed signs of being human, and the female sex tourists objectified their gigolos! I am mystified as to how even the gentlest punters can be considered prostitutes’ allies.
Dictionary definition: “a medium (e.g. a newspaper) through which opposing views on public matters may be aired and debated”. Unfortunately, there is not much “debate” on prostitution in $pread: it is a straightforward pro-sex work magazine and quite hostile towards abolitionists (the childish joke about dressing up a mannequin as “Sheila” [Jeffreys], and laughing at it, is a particularly irritating example.) Certainly, abolitionists are hostile towards pro-sex workers as well, but $pread is extremely biased and I am puzzled that the editors refer to it as a forum.
“…for marginalised voices”
I’m not sure why they regard Carol Leigh, Annie Sprinkle and Priscilla Alexander as marginalised. All have successful careers and have been well known in the pro-sex work movement since the 1970s. The film-making and book-writing contributors seem far from homeless or destitute. There is a big emphasis on “celebrity” prostitutes.
“$pread will also contain practical information, news and resources relevant to those working in the sex industry”
…unless, of course, they wish to leave or campaign against it: the list of resources omits all abolitionist organisations and those which help women to exit prostitution. This is not a magazine for prostitutes per se: it is a pro-sex work magazine. $pread is “relevant” only to those prostitutes who share its views.
In conclusion, reviewing $pread was an exhausting and frustrating experience. It is wholly and uncompromisingly pro-sex work; there is almost no “neutral” content with which abolitionists might agree. I predict it will alienate “ordinary” women, including a lot of prostitutes, but will enjoy a small audience of people who were already pro-sex work. This is fine, but, obviously, it is of no use to feminists who disagree with its philosophy.