Published on February 12th, 2018 | by Rachel Aimee0
The Other Is, My Mother: An Interview with Juniper Fitzgerald, author of HOW MAMAS LOVE THEIR BABIES
Juniper Fitzgerald and I haven’t met in real life (yet), but when she first emailed me in the fall of 2016, we both thought we knew each other. “Did we study in Amsterdam together?” Juniper asked. “At the summer program on sexuality? I was the nerdy vegan interested in Paleolithic art.” I wrote back that I hadn’t studied in Amsterdam, but that I thought we’d met at a SWOP picnic in Central Park: “I had my daughter with me and you had a rabbit.” But it turned out we hadn’t met then either: “As much I’d like to take credit for the bunny identity, that sadly was not me.”
At the time, I was working at the Feminist Press, which was why Juniper reached out to me. She was looking for a publisher for a book about whorephobia, and during our exchange I happened to ask if she had ever thought about writing a children’s book with a sex worker parent in it. “OMG Rachel that has been my dream forever!!” she wrote back. Later that day, she sent me a fully-fledged manuscript that she’d been working on for years. When Elise Peterson came on board as the illustrator, her stunning collage work gave the book a force and vibrancy that neither Juniper nor I could have imagined. The end result, How Mamas Love Their Babies (Feminist Press, February 2018), is beautiful and powerful but also, quite literally, groundbreaking.
In this cultural moment where publishers are finally beginning to realize how urgently We Need Diverse Books, nobody is talking about the lack of representation of sex workers in children’s literature. Meanwhile, millions of sex workers all over the world are going to work to support their children while lying to their children about what they do for work. These children grow up knowing but not knowing, knowing they’re supposed to be ashamed, lacking any external affirmation that their parents are good people who love them, hearing about sex workers only as the brunt of jokes, or as tragic, fallen women. As Meena Seshu, the founder of SANGRAM, writes in the introduction to Brothel Born and Bred: Children of Sex Workers Speak, “The children of female sex workers inhabit two separate worlds. ‘Your mother is bad. The company she keeps is bad. Her behaviour is bad’: this is the child’s first world; while the other is: ‘My Mother.’”
The myth that we can’t humanize sex workers for children without introducing age-inappropriate conversations is no less outrageous and damaging than the idea that LGBTQ people should be kept away from children. Sex workers are people. Sex workers are family. Sex workers are parents.
How Mamas Love Their Babies is the first of its kind, but I hope it won’t be the last. When Heather Has Two Mommies was published in 1989, it was the first children’s book to depict a lesbian family. Twenty-eight years later, LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books are not uncommon (though we still have a long way to go). I hope this book will be a wake-up call for the publishing industry. The children of sex workers deserve to see their families reflected in the books they read. No more excuses.
RACHEL AIMEE: When did you first come up with the idea for this book, and how was the process of writing it?
JUNIPER FITZGERALD: I thought about writing a children’s book about sex work even before I became a mother. I have certainly faced a great deal of stigma as a sex worker, but I was always aware that the stigma I faced paled in comparison to the stigma that sex-working parents, particularly femme parents, face. As a young, naïve sex worker, I remember being in the back room of the strip club where I worked, helping a colleague nurse her fat lip. Her partner was an abusive man and he had punched her right before she got to work. This man had also previously broken her jaw. And they had children together. I will never forget how her one and only reason for not leaving him was her fear that he’d use her sex work against her to take their children away.
And she wasn’t wrong for fearing this—we see repeatedly that violent men are considered within the court system to be more viable parents than current and former sex workers. Of course, this is commentary on heteronormative partnerships, but it’s important to acknowledge the particular ways that non-men in the sex industry are punished by their cis male partners as well as the State; we must acknowledge how the State reinforces the prurient interests of cis white men.
Then, when my partner and I started to struggle in our relationship, I basically never slept from fear and anxiety over his potential to use my sex work against me in custody. While the details are a bit too painful and personal, suffice it to say that writing this book became imperative for me. I never want another sex-working mother to spend one more second fearing the loss of her children.
RACHEL AIMEE: Why do you think it’s important for children to see sex workers represented in the books they read?
JUNIPER FITZGERALD: The book isn’t even out yet and I’ve received emails and messages from sex-working parents expressing their gratitude for a children’s book in which they are finally represented. On a more meta level, I think about the Virgin/Whore dichotomy pretty often. All the time, actually. It is to the great disadvantage of our entire globe that femmes are measured through the lens of sexual currency. And what that means, essentially, is that the more sex we have or the more that we are perceived to be sexual, the less valuable and the less maternal we appear. There is no shortage of “but you’re a mother!” statements about sexual femmes who are also mothers. Kim Kardashian is a great example. When she posts naked photos of herself online, there is a pernicious insistence that she shouldn’t be so sexual because she has children. I have quite a few friends who are sex-working mothers and the sheer amount of vitriol they receive (either via email or on other platforms) would shock even the most uptight conservative. It’s doubly heartbreaking when this vitriol comes from other femmes, other mothers. But of course, that’s what patriarchy does—we internalize horrible ideas about womanhood and shame other women in order to appear more virtuous to the white cis men in charge. I mean, there’s a reason that most religious origin stories begin with the virgin birth of an extraordinary man—in order for men to be extraordinary, they cannot be complicated by the sexuality of women. People of all genders have been trained to hate femmes and our sexual expressions, whether those expressions are for personal sexual pleasure or to put food on the table.
People don’t realize how damaging this is for sex-working parents. Current and former femme sex workers with children are believed to be unfit parents. And when children of sex workers hear that cultural message over and over, they too are damaged by the stigma. My hope is that this book can be one small piece of necessary change.
RACHEL AIMEE: Remind me how old your daughter is now? Have you spoken with her about your work in the sex trade? Or how do you plan to talk about it as she gets older?
JUNIPER FITZGERALD: My little one is almost four and they actually use different pronouns interchangeably, so I will honor her by doing the same when referencing them.
I really love this question because actually, the question I get most often is, “Would you want your daughter to be a sex worker?” And that question is inherently stigmatizing. You’d never ask someone working as barista if they’d feel comfortable with their children doing the same labor, because there is an underlying assumption in that question that the labor is unsavory. If my child enters the sex industry, my hope is that they will have all of the same labor and human rights as other culturally legitimized laborers.
But to your question, my kiddo and I love dancing together. And I will often say, as we are dancing, that “mama used to do this for a job… while naked!” I have also read How Mamas Love Their Babies to my little one and they recognize the stiletto shoes in the book as the same ones collecting dust in our basement. They know that these shoes are related to my former labor in some way. She also loves all my old costumes, finds them fun and glittery, and I have no problem incorporating these costumes into our dress-up play. That will probably make a lot of people uncomfortable. But it’s important to acknowledge that discomfort as intimately tied to the idea that I should be so ashamed of my prior labor that I never speak of it, especially around my kid. I mean, no one would feel ashamed to let their little one play dress up in a barista apron. And that’s not to say serving coffee is the same thing as sex work. It’s complicated.
I remember secretly dressing up in my mother’s lingerie as a little kid. I loved the deeply femme parts of lace and silk—I still do. It wasn’t necessarily an erotic act for me, it was a way for me to reaffirm my identity as an uber femme queer. But I always felt ashamed, like these kinds of costumes or clothes were off-limits to me. Or like I was a deviant for wanting to enjoy them. I never want my child to feel ashamed of their identities. And if part of the way that they currently express themselves is to put on a floor length stripper gown covered in sequins and prance around pretending to be a princess unicorn, I’m into it. A really cool thing about my kiddo is that the more femme-presenting they are, the more likely he is to use he/him/his pronouns. So basically, the intersection of queerness and sex work and openness and love is something I am deeply committed to nurturing, and part of that entails being unashamed of my sex work. Every choice I’ve made in my life led me to my child.
RACHEL AIMEE: That is amazing. I hope I get to meet your child one day.
I know we talked at one point about changing the title to “grown up” instead of “mamas” to make the book more inclusive of dads and non-binary parents in the sex trade but in the end, we decided to stick with “mamas.” Can you speak to this decision?
JUNIPER FITZGERALD: That was a super hard call for me to make, particularly in a sociopolitical environment marred by toxic masculinity and violence against all non-men. But in the end, I really wanted to focus on the particular ways that femme people in the sex industry experience discrimination as parents. That’s not to say that dads and non-binary parents in the sex industry do not experience discrimination. But it is to say that more masculine presenting people are already presumed to have sexual agency while femmes aren’t. If we look specifically at the discourse surrounding the sex industry, femmes are always positioned as victims while masculine presenting people are positioned as sexual agents. Even in pop culture, “Magic Mike,” for example, is a fun, funny story about a male sex worker. It would be a different movie entirely if the protagonist were femme.
RACHEL AIMEE: Did the book turn out like you imagined?
JUNIPER FITZGERALD: The book is more gorgeous than I could have ever imagined. Elise Peterson’s work is profoundly emotional. The images are so full of depth that when juxtaposed with what one reviewer called my “simple writing,” I think the book is both accessible and complex.
RACHEL AIMEE: What kind of response have you gotten from the sex worker community about your book?
JUNIPER FITZGERALD: Sex workers have given me so much. When I myself was at risk of losing my child because of my former work, the sex worker community raised funds for me to hire a lawyer. When I was living in a warehouse and showering in a mop sink, other sex workers were my refuge. When I defended my dissertation for my PhD, sex workers were in the audience. I dedicated my dissertation to a long-time sex worker friend who recently lost her son. I owe other sex workers everything. Quite literally. So I hope this book can be one small way that I give back.
Celebrate the launch of How Mamas Love Their Babies at these NYC events:
Illustrator Elise Peterson presents How Mamas Love Their Babies, an interactive story time for children ages 3-8 at Greenlight Bookstore, Fort Greene.
Saturday February 24, 11:30 AM.
Join Zenobia for Drag Queen Story Hour for children ages 3-8 to celebrate the launch of How Mamas Love Their Babies at Greenlight Bookstore, Prospect Lefferts Gardens.
Saturday February 24, 1:30 PM.
Join author Juniper Fitzgerald, illustrator Elise Peterson, and activists Syd, Shy Blunt, and Akynos for a panel discussion on parenting and sex work, moderated by PJ Starr and cosponsored by SOAR Institute, at Bluestockings Bookstore. This event is for adults.
Thursday March 1, 7:00 PM.