I first came across $pread Magazine at the Worlds AIDS Conference in Montreal in 2006, two years after they launched their first issue of what remains the only print magazine by and for sex workers. After only three issues $pread was named “Best New Title” by the Utne Independent Press and despite the expected (and at times unexpected) financial trials of publishing an independent magazine, they continue to preserve, highlighting funny, smart, controversial, and thoughtful writings by a range of sex workers.
In a culture where sex work is presented as either endlessly titillating or irretrievably horrifying the editors and contributors of $pread offer a much needed dose of reality. Two of $pread’s editors, Rachel Aimee and Audacia Ray took the time to virtually sit down with me and explain where the magazine came from, and where it’s going.
For the uninitiated, can you describe $pread Magazine? What can readers expect to find when they open up $pread?
Rachel Aimee: $pread Magazine explores the sex industry from the diverse perspectives of workers in all areas of the sex industry: strippers, escorts, streetwalkers, phone sex operators, pro dommes, porn actors, etc. Our mission is to provide a forum for sex workers to speak for themselves, to build community among sex workers, and to educate the public about the realities of working in the industry.
Rebecca and I (along with Raven Strega, another founder who no longer works on the magazine) started working on $pread in the Spring of 2004. None of us had any experience in editing or publishing, or any money to fund the magazine, so we just taught ourselves as we went along, and raised the money to print the first issue through having benefit parties. The first issue was launched in March 2005, and since then we’ve published an issue every quarter, so we’re currently working on our 8th issue which will be out this Winter.
Audacia Ray: One of the most popular recurring features in $pread is Indecent Proposals, in which sex workers tell stories about weird or ridiculous sessions they've done with clients - the kind of stuff that is too strange to be fiction. It’s always comically illustrated by East Village artist Fly, who gives a lot of life to the already colorful stories. We always have interviews with a sex worker, creative writing pieces, a style column, news pieces, reviews of books and movies from sex workers' perspectives, and occasionally fun stuff like quizzes and tongue-in-cheek awards.
As a magazine “by and for sex workers” I’m wondering who gets in and whose left out of the magazine, in other words, how do you define sex work editorially speaking?
Audacia Ray: We define sex work as the explicit exchange of erotic labor for a mutually agreed upon amount of money, goods or services. We interpret the phrase pretty broadly - "erotic labor" can be anything from prostitution (most commonly written about in the press) to phone sex, erotic wrestling, sensual massage and domination. We pretty much let people identify themselves because people in the industry have a range of words for who they are and what they do. It’s tricky because some people who do sex work don't think of it as part of their identity - and we have to respect that.
Some people might wonder why sex workers need a magazine of their own in the first place.
Rachel Aimee: People are always talking about sex workers, but sex workers rarely get a chance to talk about themselves. Mainstream media coverage of the sex industry tends to be sensationalized and often judgmental, focusing either on trafficking and victim stories, or else on the glamorous high-end call girls who make thousands a week, rather than focusing on the vast majority of sex workers whose experiences are somewhere in between. We feel it’s really important for sex workers to be able to talk about the diverse realities of the industry, from the good to the bad and everything in between.
We also feel that $pread is important because there’s so little community among sex workers. The sex industry can be very isolating, particularly for those who work privately (as opposed to with other sex workers in clubs, massage parlors, etc.). Many sex workers don’t feel as if they can tell their friends and families about their work, because of the stigma, so often they have no-one to talk to about their work. Reading a magazine about other people who are doing the same thing can make you realize that you’re not the only one and encourage people to reach out to each other.
One of our goals is to raise awareness of the legal and political issues that affect sex workers, and that can only happen when sex workers feel enough of a sense of solidarity and support to collectively speak out about the problems of our industry, from exploitative management to violence from police and clients.
What kind of feedback have you had on the magazine both from sex workers and people who pay for sex work? Do you know who is reading $pread?
Audacia Ray: We did a reader's survey last spring because we were curious about this - the vast majority of our readers are sex workers, though we also have readers who are clients, as well as allies and curiosity-seekers. One of the most striking things we discovered is that more than half of our readers identify as queer. The sex workers who write to us are really grateful that the magazine exists, and some say that reading it is like talking to their sex worker friends, while others who don't have that kind of support are relieved to learn that other people have experiences like theirs.