Finally, a book that features sex workers as main characters, not as main victims or main outcasts! The reviewers talk about the amazing revelation that sex workers are real people, thanks to this story. The author thanks $pread Magazine, the St. James Infirmary, Bay Area SWOP, and The Harm Reduction Coalition and Training Institute in her long list of acknowledgements. Uptown Thief by Aya de Leon is the first in a series featuring the sex workers introduced in this story.
I wanted to really like the story but I kept putting it aside even though it’s an easy read. Perhaps a little too easy? The writing wasn’t always perfectly clear. For instance, I had to reread the opening scene three times because I was really confused about where everyone was. In the hall? The elevator? On a different floor? Until I finally figured out that the main character Marisol had just tossed her disguise on the elevator and stayed on the floor with her friend, letting her stuff go to another floor. (At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what happened.)
The heart of the story read like a lot of sex work activist wish fulfillment. The drop-in clinic got huge donations, an endowment, and grants. Marisol, the founder, had a certain amount of social status due to her work with the clinic. She was able to present courses on money management and other life skills that were eagerly attended. A well-known financial wizard admired her so much that he spent $250,000 for one evening with her.
She also ran an escort agency that was literally connected to the clinic through a hidden door and allowed clients to write tax deductible checks to the clinic for their escort costs. I found that to be enormously problematic on both an ethical and financial level. No way in hell would the IRS or any conservative watchdog group let that slide. It was an open secret and since Marisol went around pissing off a lot of people, I can’t imagine how she’d gotten away with it for this long. Nevermind that one or two of the escorts working for her were clinic “rescues” as well. That raises ethical issues that were never addressed.
The other major problem I had with the story was the whole plot itself: the clinic’s current budget is strained so Marisol and her top three agency girls start stealing from clients/friends of clients. They decide their thievery is ethical as they only steal from known sex traffickers. (Until they decide to clean out the safe of Marisol’s one-time big money client, who just happens to be filthy rich and not a trafficker.) They never stop to think how the traffickers are going to replace that stolen money. That’s right, the sex trafficking victims are going to have to work that much harder to replace the lost cash. Way to really help sex workers, Marisol.
While the stealing is described as a Robin Hood thing, I never stopped thinking of the victims who earned the cash that Marisol stole. Sex traffickers are not know for their good humor and I can only imagine that somehow the victims would be punished for the lost money just because. I also never stopped thinking about how this could be a breakout book for sex work fiction…and here we are portrayed as a bunch of thieves who can’t control ourselves around piles of cash. It was clever that Marisol managed to pin the thefts on a bothersome and violent pimp, but still not without some dangling threads.
While the thieving ended with that last big score, my feeling is that there will be more thievery in upcoming books. At some point, the ethical issues need to be addressed. And though Marisol is laundering money with the best of them, someone will eventually clue in the IRS.
Sure, it’s total fiction. And I’m also sure there are some safe-cracking sex workers out there. I just wish that this wasn’t portrayed as the go-to option for raising funds for a clinic. Even running the escort agency is a more organic option that becoming Ocean’s Four.
Now that I think about it, kind of strange the agency didn’t have a website and instead risked the clinic’s physical safety (and that of its often-fragile clients) by having the male clients of the escort agency visit in person to make appointments (sometimes even offering a lineup to clients).
Another bit I remember…Marisol is induced to sign a disclosure agreement for $75,000. Money isn’t often mentioned in hard numbers (we never find out the agency’s hourly rate), but when it is, those numbers are firmly in fantasyland. I never knew whether to laugh or consider these to be aspirational amounts.
On the side of keeping it real, one of the subplots revolved around the adage that you can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. A lot of space was also devoted to Marisol’s trust and intimacy issues. While I never felt like the author presented the issues as well as she could, Marisol’s state of mind was usually clearly illustrated in a relatable way. Dating as a sex worker was also part of two subplots and was covered as realistically as anything I’ve heard or experienced in real life. And, there was a bit of discussion between different characters and how sex work was like other jobs. Again, this was very realistic.
At one point, Marisol’s love interest finds out that she was formerly a sex worker because police out her in front of him, so he later insults her then runs away. The author raised the entire issue of a woman’s past very well: should he have assumed she was a sex worker because she worked with them? But then why would he do so unless he stigmatized sex workers? Why would it matter either way? Why does any woman owe anyone complete and instant disclosure about her life history?
The police in the story are regarded a bit less warily than police generally are among sex workers. Even so, one of the cops in the story is known for using his badge to rape sex workers. I was very glad that was put into the story.
It even manages to touch on the class issues of sex tourism when Marisol takes a vacation and meets the beach boys available to her and learns of their expectations.
I’ve been wanting to read a regular book, like a murder mystery or thriller, that features sex workers as characters and this sort of delivered. I guess it’s an erotic thriller? Not sure what genre it falls under, but it’s an easy read with relatable characters and it’s notable for being pure fiction as opposed to someone’s memoir disguised as fiction. I am looking forward to the next installments in the series.