Writer Aya de León Tells A Different Story About Sex Work

The ‘Justice Hustlers’ series is turning tired tropes about sex work on their head.

M y miseducation about sex work began early on. In my childhood neighborhood in Oakland, California, young women of color worked the corners, and at least one pimp lived on my block. But while adults called the women stupid for giving their hard-earned money to pimps, they praised the pimps for their “hustle.”

Portrayals in the media didn’t help either. As a Xennial growing up in the ’90s, I noticed that sex workers on crime dramas like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, NYPD Blue, and Silk Stalkings usually became murder victims. These characters tended to be uneducated and hopeless and only spoke a few lines, if any at all.

In the news, sex workers only made headlines if politicians or married celebrities were caught with them. A woman had to be Julia Roberts in a blonde bob wig strutting down Hollywood Blvd. to get a fairytale ending and the privilege of basic humanization.

In her new book The Boss, the second novel from her “Justice Hustlers” series, author Aya de León ventures away from these tired tropes to explore sex work with the exceedingly rare qualities of nuance and depth. These Set It Off meets Ocean’s 11 books are about a multicultural group of former sex workers who run a New York clinic for women, funding their operations by breaking into the safes of wealthy men who exploit women and girls. Their Robin Hood method is illegal — and I don’t personally condone it — but during these hostile times, there’s also something distinctly refreshing about the storyline. How often do we get to read about the oppressed retaliating against their oppressors?

‘Uptown Thief’ and ‘The Boss,’ from Aya de León’s ‘Justice Hustlers’ series

De León is the director of Poetry for the People, an arts/activism program at UC Berkeley founded by the late June Jordan, the acclaimed Black poet and racial-justice activist. She researched and consulted with real sex workers to address the complexity of the industry and humanize the women who do this work. Her heroines are smart and brave. They provide emotional support to family members. At night they wear disguises, hot-wire cars, break into estates, steal millions, and kick ass. During the day, they’re teaching safe-sex workshops and giving press conferences. They care about the community, but they’re not perfect. Who is? All of the women became sex workers for different reasons. No one has the same story.

There’s action, romance, titillating sex scenes, and keep-it-real humor. More importantly, there’s also a deeper message that resonates today.

“Sex work sits at the intersection of gender, commerce, race, nationality, and socioeconomic class,” de León says. “By creating this sex work community, it became a way to comment on all of that — to comment on sex trafficking, the collusion between corporations and sex trafficking.”

In The Boss, another key plotline focuses on clinic workers helping the dancers to become unionized. De León says she wants her readers to see work as labor, and to understand how much labor organizing there is in the industry. Her inspiration for The Boss was the now-defunct Lusty Lady in San Francisco, one of the only unionized peep shows in the country during the ’90s before it closed in 2013.

The now-defunct Lust Lady in San Francisco

The Boss was written long before the recent strike by New York City strippers, but that incident has brought the book’s themes into sharp focus. According the Washington Post, dancers went on strike because they’re losing money to new “bartenders” — actually women with significant social media followings being contracted by clubs. They serve drinks behind the bars nearly naked, and draw in their followers. The practice, it’s been noted, is steeped in racism, as the aggrieved strippers tend to be Black, and the bartenders white or Latina.

Another crucial element of the book is, perhaps, more subtle: a focus on these women’s rich lives outside work, including their complex romantic and platonic relationships. These storylines show readers that sex workers have love and are worthy of being loved; that there’s more to their lives than the work they do, and to which they are so often confined in popular culture.

De León’s books are published by Dafina, which is known for its catalogue of urban lit, or street lit, books — a genre defined by an inner-city setting, Black main characters, and themes like drugs, violence, sex, gangs, and poverty. Sista Souljah, Zane, and Vickie Stringer are successful authors in the genre, which started with Black writers but now includes Latino authors as well. The books — which de León points out have a high readership of young women of color — are sold in Walmart and major bookstores, and can be found in libraries in Black and brown communities.

The genre thrives in the book industry, but is not without criticisms. While fans say the books reflect real life and are entertaining, some Black readers have criticized urban lit for playing on racial stereotypes about Black people. Even de León finds some components of urban lit troubling:

“I take issue with certain things about urban lit. It is full of sexual exploitation and sexism. In many stories, not only is there a lot of violence, but also a lack of empathy for the characters in response to violence — both the perpetrators and the victims.
I don’t choose to portray characters who are desensitized to violence. As an author, I try to create a more rich and nuanced emotional life for my characters. At the same time, I do choose to normalize realities like sex work and other illegal activities because in low-income urban communities, people do what they have to do to survive.”

De León says she sees the bright side to the gritty genre too.

“Urban lit speaks to the erasure of the realities of low-income urban people of color, and the lack of representation of our folks as fully realized characters in the rest of literature. Which is why I’m proud to write urban lit. I want young, urban, brown women to have feminist characters they can identify with, who are sexy and dealing with hella drama, but also taking charge and changing the world.”

Most writers dream of their books landing on the shelves of big-box bookstores. De León’s problem is different. Despite the social justice themes woven throughout her stories, she’s having a hard time getting her books into feminist and social justice bookstores. Sellers can’t get past the series’ covers, she says, which feature a young woman of color in sexy club attire.

Still, she’s excited that her social justice messages are reaching audiences outside of academia.

‘Urban lit speaks to the erasure of the realities of low-income urban people of color.’

“I’d much rather have young women in the community reading the book. I just have to [enlighten] those people who have stigma and prejudice against urban lit and romance, but who actually share my political values.”

De León’s work is reaching readers like who I once was — those not already in the choir, who can learn a lot from the literature they pick up. Gender wealth disparity, sex workers’ rights, racist stereotypes about Black sexuality and bodies — I didn’t learn about these issues until college, when studying race and gender helped me analyze and challenge the ideas I learned about sex work growing up.

There will be four books in the “Justice Hustlers” series, and though I’m not a thief, I plan to steal time away for myself when the third book drops in 2018. I need that literary mental escape where oppressed women bring down wealthy misogynists, take back their power, and share it with the community.

It’s on.

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