Usually, when sex work is discussed, the question is always – can it and is it ever truly voluntary? A variety of non-profits, religious organizations, feminist theorists, and even people with no connection to the sex industry, have all sought to answer this question. Yet, what often is missing from the conversation (at least within a larger, non-professional context) is that it is not a vehicle for sensationalized escapist narrative, or a glamorized, rich fantasy. Sex work is a lived reality for many people. Aya de Leon’s Uptown Thief is a welcome alternative that shows the complexity of sex work and the multitude of narratives existent.
Dulce, a sex worker in an abusive relationship with her pimp, struggling to leave him and establish herself outside of sex work. Many of the women she works with are trafficked and are unable to leave because the pimp has their documents. In contrast, there are Kim, Jody, and Serena, who have experienced violence in their past sex work, but now have a stable income through safe sex work through the support of the protagonist Marisol. Marisol herself is an ex-sex worker running a clinic that provides resources to sex workers in New York City (as well as a secret escort service), who turned to sex work due to poverty. No one character’s narrative is the same and all navigate the sex work industry based on their resources and privileges – much like reality.
The plot of the novel, although action packed and intriguing, is slightly less realistic. Struggling to fund her clinic, Marisol, with the help of some of her workers, begins robbing rich men. In a Robin Hood-esque fashion, they purposely target corrupted, rich CEOs, who were involved in the sex trafficking of underage girls, but were never convicted. Except the bills keep piling up and there is never enough money. So, Marisol plans one last heist that may provide them with millions or land them all in jail. All while almost dating an ex-cop.
Interwoven within this heist plot are narratives of abuse and PTSD. Scattered throughout the novel, the memories and images of abuse perfectly highlight how ingrained trauma can become. Although Marisol’s character does heal throughout the novel, the presence of PTSD is undeniable. In particular, the novel does a fantastic job displaying how trauma from childhood abuse can impact an adult. With that being said, survivors of rape and abuse might find this a difficult (if not triggering) read.
Although her portrayal of sex work is already quite revolutionary, Aya de Leon, pushes the boundaries of her novel even farther. Two of the main characters are lesbian and their relationship is portrayed as normal and realistic (including a lesbian sex scene!). Aside from the commentary made by men about the women’s sexuality (fetishizing it, much like in real life), their relationship is viewed as healthy and loving by all.
Similarly, there are several trans people in the novel who are treated as people, not tropes. Even the ex-cop, Raul, has a positive reaction to learning one of the women is trans. He simply remarks that he is still learning and that being around the clinic is a positive place to do so. There is no sensationalism of these women, but there is acknowledgement of the extent of their struggle. One of the women is also undocumented, which prompts everyone in the clinic to hide her when the cops arrive for an investigation.
Perhaps the only critique I have of the novel is that Marisol’s emotional, trauma-informed, healing journey is partially underscored by a man. While in some ways, this may be realistic, I still find this a tiring plot device. A woman, who is independent and often a survivor of trauma, acts in ways that are read as outside the norm of gender roles. Woman meets man. Woman is “fixed” and happy.
It is, however, important to note that Marisol does do a significant amount of healing without the man. Aya de Leon does demonstrate how important femme friendships and sisterhood is in the healing process. Moreover, one of the other characters does seem to find a monogamous, fairy-tale like heterosexual relationship, only to realize that the man was toxic. Thus, even this critique I give with some reservation, since the novel does portray many different avenues to healing for women, with and without men.
Overall, the novel, in my opinion, is definitely worth reading. Like any good action novel, there are suspenseful moments, plot twists, and hero-like stunts. But unlike most action novels, it also has strong women for main characters, the majority of which are sex workers and people of color. It is definitely a step in the right direction of using fiction as a way to destigmatize sex work, while keeping the characters realistic and the narrative entertaining (the heists).