Juniper Fitzgerald as told to Noah Berlatsky
Juniper Fitzgerald is a sociology professor and former sex worker who writes about sex worker rights. Her new children’s book, How Mamas Love Their Babies (out Feb. 13. 2018), illustrated by Elise Peterson and published by the Feminist Press, celebrates the many jobs mothers do and the many ways they care for their children. She talks about mothers who work in offices, mothers who work on farms, mothers who stay at home, and mothers who do sex work. “Some mamas dance all night long in special shoes. It’s hard work!” she writes. “Mamas who dance, just like mamas who clean and think and farm and fly, use their whole bodies to care for their babies.” She uses a pseudonym because sex workers are stigmatized, she said, and publishing under her real name could lead to harassment online and at her job.
I have been thinking about writing a children’s book about sex work ever since I started working in the sex industry myself, 14 years ago. I got a job working as a stripper, which I did full time, and dabbled in several other aspects of the sex industry, too. I worked as a stripper as well as an occasional escort, porn producer and peep show performer through the duration of my PhD. And one thing I was always keenly aware of was that many of the people I worked with were mothers.
As I started pursuing courses in sociology and anthropology, I started thinking more about representation, and how I knew all these women who were sex workers and mothers, but they were hardly ever represented in popular culture. This was really driven home for me one day when I was listening to Terri Gross on NPR. I used to be a huge fan of hers. She was interviewing a sex worker on her show, and she gave a listener warning for people with young children.
“I worked as a stripper as well as an occasional escort, porn producer and peep show performer through the duration of my PhD.”
I guess that was kind of a kicker for me. It really showed me that even intellectuals, even self- proclaimed progressive people think that sex work is antithetical to having children. Or that if we do have children, our work is so reprehensible that we should protect our children from knowledge of it. And this has really harmful consequences for sex workers and for their kids. There was a famous case involving a woman named Petite Jasmine in Sweden who lost her children because she was working in the sex industry, which happens more than most people know. Because she was a sex worker, the court gave her children to her former partner, who was a violent man. He ended up killing her. And it made me wonder, why are even violent men considered better parents than sex-working parents? Why is it so terrible for a mother to be a sex worker?
So, I wanted to provide better images of sex workers who are also mamas. That was the main inspiration behind How Mamas Love Their Babies. I could have written a book specifically about a mama who is a sex worker, I suppose. But instead, I decided to show sex working mothers as one of the many kinds of working mothers. In the book there are mothers who work in offices, there are mothers who work on farms, there are mothers who fly planes or work at fast food restaurants. And there are mothers who do sex work, too.
The illustrator of How Mamas Love Their Babies is Elise Peterson. She’s a former sex worker, too, and she’s amazing. Her art is especially great for showing this wide range of women and this wide range of jobs because she uses photographs, mostly from the ’70s, and creates these beautiful collages. She actually became pregnant as we were working on it, and I had a hysterectomy. So I lost my womb and she created life as we birthed this book.
I thought it was important to show sex work as one type of work among many because that’s really the message of a lot of sex worker activism—that sex work is just another type of work. That’s why Carol Lee, the Scarlot Harlot, coined the term sex work—to emphasize that sex work is a form of labor.
I wanted to talk about all of the different ways that all of us use our bodies for work. There’s one part of the book where I talk about mommas who stay at home and care for their children. I think it’s important to think of that as bodily labor in the same way that we should be thinking of sex work as bodily labor. And that’s not to say that all work is the same. Selling sex and staying home with your kids are two different forms of labor that require different skills and take different tolls on a person’s body. But both are labor nonetheless and deserve the same rights and compensation as any other laborious job.
That aspect of the book is personal, too, because I come from a single-mother household, and my mother worked extremely hard to provide for her two children all on her own. For me, when I was a sex worker, sex work wasn’t always a glamorous profession. It was hard bodily labor for less pay than I would have liked. I’m sure my mother feels similarly about her labor in the corporate world.
“[W]orking in the corporate world I think resembles sex work more than most people want to admit.”
I wouldn’t say my own childhood is directly referenced in the book, but my own mother certainly used her whole body to care for her children. My mom, goddess bless her, has difficulty with my prior work. So there isn’t a particular tribute to her or mention of her. Still, my mom has worked in the blood-sucking corporate world for almost four decades. She raised two kids all on her own, which was very hard work. Plus working in the corporate world I think resembles sex work more than most people want to admit. I remember even as a little kid my mother would talk about the sexual harassment and general bullshit she endured as femme laborer.
In some sense, and of course it’s much more complicated than this, sex work acts as a form of reparations for me for this reason. All those things we are asked to do for free as women—like provide sexual and emotional labor for men—are commodified in the sex industry. They are valued in the way that other forms of labor are. And this is not to glorify capitalism, but it is to say that I’d rather be doing something for money than doing it for free, especially if it involves eroticism with men. But again, it’s complicated. I stayed home with my own child for almost two years and no one paid me to do so (although I do believe that stay-at-home parents should be given a basic income). That’s a very different relationship to labor than my relationship with erotic labor. At this point in my life, there’s very little chance I’d perform erotic labor for a cis man for free. All this to say, consent, labor, sex and care are all extremely complicated and the way all of us experience the intersection of those four things is subjective and valid.
I wanted to introduce the idea of bodily labor to kids without the stigma that often comes with certain kinds of bodily labor. And that’s not just sex work. Sex work is certainly stigmatized, but I think that other lower-wage laborious jobs are also often stigmatized and rarely spoken about in children’s books. Feminized labor is devalued, whether you’re staying at home caring for your kids or getting naked for people. We live in a society that really devalues women’s work—particularly lower-wage work. So How Mamas Love Their Babies is about trying to change that by showing children that what their mothers do is valuable, and that work, whatever it is, is part of how mother’s love their kids.