Remembering Sex Worker Magazine $pread a Decade Later

March 6, 2015 | Karen Gardiner

Ten years ago at a sports bar in the East Village, Rachel Aimee, Rebecca Lynn and Raven Strega threw a party to raise funds for their brand new magazine, $pread. Despite none of them having any prior experience in publishing they launched $pread’s first issue on March 15, 2005. The magazine contained a feature on a community health project in France, a report on Thai sex workers in the aftermath of the tsunami and an interview with Dr. Carol Queen from San Francisco’s Center for Sex and Culture. By the end of that year, the magazine had received the Utne Independent Press Award for Best New Title.

Tired of seeing sex workers spoken for and stigmatized in the media, $pread’s mission, says former executive editor Eliyanna Kaiser, was to create a platform for sex workers to speak for themselves. Alongside dispatches from sex worker communities around the world, $pread published resources for sex workers; consumer reports on everything from flavored condoms and lube to body glitter and red lipsticks; book and film reviews; and personal accounts from people working in the industry. With input from strippers, escorts, porn actors and cam models, the magazine captured the lived experiences and diversity of sex workers without relying on the empowering/exploitative false dichotomy that so many narratives around sex work hinge upon.

Art from Issue 2.1 By Molly CrabappleArt from Issue 2.1 By Molly Crabapple
On Tuesday night at Dixon Place, a decade later, several of the team got back together to launch an anthology containing the best pieces published in $pread between 2005 and 2011, when the magazine ceased publishing due to financial restraints. Leading with a potted history of the sex worker rights movement in the early 2000s and a short history of $pread, the anthology contains a range of essays, reports and interviews including “Stripping While Brown” by Mona Salim, about being one of the few Indian women stripping in New York; “Menstruation: Porn’s Last Taboo” by Trixie Fontaine and a report from Catherine Plato on a 2007 case in Philadelphia where a man arrested for gang-raping a prostitute had his charges reduced to “theft of services.”

Fittingly, the launch was held on International Sex Workers Rights Day, observed annually since 2001 when, in India, 25,000 sex workers came together for a festival organized by Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, one of the largest sex worker collectives in the world.

“I’m very uncomfortable,” said Brendan Conner as he stood up to read a piece about privilege in the sex worker community. “As a former sex worker, I’m more comfortable with my dick out.” Other readings included Syd V. telling her story about growing up with a sex worker mom – “I would probably never do anything more stigmatized than she had done, so I could tell her anything” — Marisa Brigati discussing her visit to Casa Xochiquetzal, a retirement home for elderly prostitutes in Mexico City.; and Rachel Aimee reading a selection of letters received from readers over the years – “reading $pread,” wrote one reader, “is like finding one person who speaks your language in a foreign country.”

Still from Working Girl Blues Short Film by Damien Luxe (photo by Karen Gardiner)
Still from Working Girl Blues by Damien Luxe

Following the readings and a Q&A session, there was a screening of sex worker-made films. The Incredible, Edible, Akynos’s film Whore Logic, which comes from her one woman show of the same name, combined burlesque and archival footage of a car crash caused by public indecency to explore a woman’s journey toward the feeling of joy and power in using her body to earn a living. Damien Luxe’s Working Girl Blues dissected every job she has done, from café server to sex worker, breaking them down into financial compensation, time and perks and calculating a “soul power total” for each (sex work earned the highest points). Morgan M. Page’s Treat You Like a Lady took as its inspiration last year’s senate hearings on Canada’s Bill C-36, which criminalizes the clients of sex workers, and reimagined pro-criminalization politicians as her slaves. The film ended on a chilling note with archival footage of conservative senator Donald Plett saying, “Of course, we don’t want to make life safe for prostitutes. We want to do away with prostitution.”

Art work from $pread is on view in Dixon Place’s Gallery until March 20. Works on view include former $pread Art Director and Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Erin Siegal McIntyre’s “American Brothel” photo essay, portraiture by Molly Crabapple and illustrations by Fly Orr. Orr’s work accompanied every entry in $pread’s “Indecent Proposal” column, in which a sex worker would answer the question, “What’s the strangest thing a client’s ever asked you to do?”


Letter to the editors from a Feminist Distributor

“This magazine is a story of privilege” said Conner at Tuesday’s launch. “There are still lots of voices that are still not heard,” said one of the former editors, Audacia Ray. Luxe, the show’s curator and a former $pread art director, told me more about the challenges in creating a diverse space. “$pread was an all-volunteer project staffed by sex workers and allies who had the capacity and time to work on a major project without being paid for it.” So, she said, “while there was totally class, race, gender, sexuality and sex work industry diversity among our staff, there was a lean towards privileged identities (white, cis, middle-class or class-passing), which did not serve our politics or goals. At the same time, this is a complex issue precisely because it was the intersection of some privileges which allowed $pread staffers as a whole to have the time, money, and marginalized experiences from which to create this feminist media project.”

Amongst the artwork is a particularly enlightening display that captures some of the sex worker community’s fraught relationship with feminists, and the difficulty of publishing sex worker media in a hostile environment. Aimee explained during the reading that in 2005, after the editors had sent the second issue of $pread to a so-called “feminist” distributor, she responded with a “not-so-feminist letter” — along with the magazine they’d sent her — which she had taken the time to carefully shred. The letter is on view in the gallery, accompanied by the shredded magazine, which is now carefully placed in a potpourri bowl.

(Images: Karen Gardiner)