Mapping sex work in ChicagoSam Stroozason August 24, 2022 at 11:01 pm

Rebelle Cunt, a writer, activist, and self-proclaimed Chicago “heaux-storian,” is the founder and director of Heaux History, a multimedia archive that explores the history of Black, Brown, and Indigenous sex workers and erotic labor. 

When Cunt began to search for research on sex worker history in Chicago, she struggled to find any literature written through the lens of BIPOC sex workers. She knew this wasn’t the truth of the past—like sex work everywhere, sex work in Chicago was built on the backs of Black and Brown sex workers who fought for fair wages, recognition, and safety. Cunt decided that to honor those before her, and to guide those after, she would create Heaux History. While Heaux History is rooted in Chicago, it’s also a project with a larger focus: documenting and archiving the history of sex workers across the country to ensure their place in history.

The Heaux History ProjectOn Twitter and Instagram @heauxhistory

“I started doing more research around sex work history and I realized that I was looking for my [Black and Brown] elders and ancestors, Black and Brown sex workers, because I feel like by this point, a lot of work you can find on sex work is so white-centered,” Cunt said. “But I know we were there.”

At the end of the 19th century, the Levee District in Chicago became the birthplace of sex work in the city. The district encompassed four blocks of the South Loop from 18th to 22nd Streets and hosted a strip of saloons, dance halls, and brothels. Drugs, sex, and alcohol were readily available to visitors.

A 1911 photograph of the Everleigh Club brothel at 2131 S. Dearborn Credit: Photographer unknown; PD-US-EXPIRED

The Everleigh Club, the most well-known brothel from the Levee District, was run by Ada and Minna Everleigh. The club was located on Dearborn Avenue and operated from 1900 to 1911. Ada and Minna were both white, and while their history is vital to understanding the policing of sex work and brothels in the early 20th century, centering their stories clouds the histories of sex workers of color. 

Cunt knew she had to do something to change the narrative. 

After creating Heaux History, she continued the work with the Red MapsProject, which consists of interactive maps detailing the history of erotic labor in both Chicago and San Francisco. The Red MapsProject is a collaboration between Heaux History and the sex worker organization Under the Red Umbrella, hosted as part of a series of projects supported by the media organization and network Old Pros, which itself seeks to destigmatize sex work and change “the status of sex workers in society.” 

Red Maps Projecttheredmaps.com

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Chicago’s Red Map features nearly 100 locations of relevance to past and present-day sex work communities. Among them are historic destinations such as the Black Belt, Bedbug Row, and the State Street Stroll; current spaces such as the Viagra Triangle (a hub since the 80s for middle-aged and older mostly white men who wish to pay for sex work); popular stroll areas; and organizations and businesses that are supportive of sex workers, including the Leather Archives, and Brave Space Alliance.

While Cunt works from Chicago, Heaux History is a national network. In order to conduct the research for the Red Maps project, Cunt called in Heaux History’s editor and director of accessibility and inclusion, Peech, to lead. 

Peech traveled from Kansas to Chicago to work on the project and visit historical sex worker sites as well as current ones and further create community between sex workers and their supporters. They then worked to create the Google maps that take visitors of the Red Maps website on a historic tour.

A recent screen capture of the Chicago Red Map shows neighborhoods of historic significance layered with current hubs of sex work. Credit: Courtesy the artist

Peech, a graduate student in comic studies, said that in their research, Black and Brown sex workers were nowhere to be found, a similar situation that Cunt had faced. Creating Red Maps and being a part of Heaux History helps them change the future by restoring the past. 

“It is important to me to do this because we have been erased, decimated,” Peech said. “We have this idea that Black and Brown sex workers never existed and, if they did, they’ve never done anything positive, helpful, or notable. But they are the ones who built the foundation our cities now rest on, and being able to uncover that and make it very clear, very plain, and loud enough for everyone to see that we have always been here no matter what, it makes sure that those people who came before me don’t disappear either. We find their names, their faces, what they did, and we share it because they matter too.”

Peech visiting Chicago Credit: Courtesy the Red Maps Project

Chicago sex worker history is rife with many of the issues that we still see through redlining and housing discrimination. The district within the historic Black Belt area from roughly 22nd to 31st along State Street was associated with Black sex workers in the late 19th century and continues today to have a large Black population. 

This isn’t by coincidence, as Cunt pointed out. Chicago was designed around the “red-light district” of brothels and saloons and who could afford to live near them—and away from them.

“It’s all racialized,” Cunt said. “For instance, the further south and west you go, the further deep into Black communities, you see more loitering laws that they are bringing back that are aimed at prostitutes and prostitution. This trickles down. Justice lives in certain neighborhoods and particular areas but I want people to see that there is literal terrain, there is a line in the sand.”

I’ve Got To Make My Livin’ was first published in 2010. Credit: Courtesy the University of Chicago Press

While a lot has changed in Chicago since the late 19th century, acceptance and respect for sex workers in the city has arguably not increased. There are multiple memorial sites listed in Red Maps to honor the over 75 women, many of whom were sex workers, who have been found murdered in the last 20 years. The majority of the cases are still open.

And Red Maps is also for them, to remember the missing and murdered sex workers Chicago hasn’t taken the time to get to know and continues to erase.

Peech says this erasure in the past and present is purposeful. While Peech is a feminist themselves, some feminist circles don’t consider sex work a feminist issue due to stigma. 

“Everything begins and ends with the stigma that is around us, its puritanical nonsense about sex. But when I hear people and talk with people about it with this kind of passion that shows the fullness of the situation, that’s a really beautiful thing. We can only hope we continue to normalize erotic labor and talk about it.”

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