‘Men Who Exploit Women are the Ones Who Need Comeuppance’: An Interview with Aya De León

The author of Uptown Thief on sex work myths, fetishizing cash and the new golden age of television. 

Tina Horn produces and hosts the sexuality podcast Why Are People Into That...

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Sex work is defined by isolation. American sex workers, particularly women of color who work as prostitutes, are criminalized, stigmatized, moralized, stereotyped, and misunderstood. It’s hard to find community, and it’s even harder to find complex representations of your life that aren’t played-out metaphors for victimization (first person shooter games like Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption), luxurious transgression (The Girlfriend Experience) or redemption (Pretty Woman).

Genre fiction is like sex work in this way. Crime, romance, erotica, and thriller books are not seen as “real art” in much the same way that sex work is not seen as a “real job.”

Aya de León’s novel Uptown Thief is a savvy marriage of this form and function; she uses socially denigrated genres to tell the story of a socially denigrated profession. De León directs the Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley, and has been published widely in print and online. Uptown Thief’s protagonist is Marisol Rivera, who funds her Lower East Side women’s clinic with a series of tightly executed heists, stealing the wealth of corrupt businessmen. Her diverse team of women robbers also hustle an escort agency for rich clients, offering the option of making tax-deductible “donations” to the clinic. It’s a frothy page-turner that contains a topical subtext about wealth distribution, urban health services, and the ways disenfranchised women support one another. The patriarchal revenge allegory feels all the more satisfying for the book’s tastier pleasures. I recognized parts of my life as a sex worker—such as the way women fight double standards of whorephobia with humor and care—that I never expected to find in a book that was also so much fun.

Uptown Thief is about the power of sex worker solidarity, and it’s also a tool for the same thing. It’s not a book full of cheap thrills. Like its characters, it knows what it’s worth.

Tina Horn: In advance of the release of Uptown Thief you wrote an essay for Bitch about feminist heists in popular culture. What inspired you to use genre fiction to explore those social and critical themes?

Aya De León: The thing that many feminists get wrong about sex work is that they aren’t looking at the big picture. The problem isn’t sex workers or their clients. The problem is men’s financial domination of the world. Men have nearly all the resources and women need to find ways to access those resources. The only ways women can access them are to earn money as salaried or wage workers. A miniscule portion can inherit wealth, if their family has money and is willing to give it to a daughter. We can marry men who have money. Or we can exchange sexual services for money.

Sexual labor for cash is stigmatized and criminalized. So part of the heist for me was starting with a group of women who are already criminalized. I wouldn’t say they had nothing to lose, but they haven’t had the luxury of operating inside the law. I could easily imagine them losing their patience of going the good girl route—begging foundations and submitting grant proposals—to just decide, “fuck it. We ‘bout to get this money.” Character-wise, it felt really true to me. Also having worked in many non-profits, there comes a time when you’re tired of begging for money to pay you to work too hard.

One of the things about the heist genre is that it’s about individuals becoming wealthy. That was another thing that I wanted to interrupt and have a Robin Hood heist. So it wasn’t an individual or a group of people getting money, but about a group of people radically redistributing wealth to a community of women—so the heist becomes about getting justice. Hence the series name: Justice Hustlers. Money is moved from people who have acquired wealth by immoral and illegal means. So we see this group of women robbing wealthy corrupt men in New York City who have exploited other people. And it was also important for me that they not only use the money to support their own community in New York, but that they send some of the money to Mexico as direct reparations for the Mexican women they had exploited.

Uptown Thief demonstrates a highly nuanced understanding of the emotional lives of sex workers in contemporary NYC. What were your resources in portraying a community that so many people get so wrong?

Although I’m neither a current nor a former sex worker, there were sex workers in my family. They had different relationships to being out and proud about it. But what that meant is that, throughout my life when I would see depictions of sex work in media or meet sex workers, I never had the perspective that this is separate from me. So it sets up a really different filter for all the distortions I’ve seen about sex work over the years. I always had real people to compare it to. Plus I’ve had friends who were sex workers and spent many years working in the Harm Reduction community, and met lots of powerful sex worker activists.

So when I went to write the book, I was aware of the movement for justice for sex workers and committed to honoring that community and movement. I wanted to do the work to get the sex worker politics right. And that meant consulting with sex worker activists. I couldn’t count on my family’s history in the sex industries from the 1960s to inform my sex worker characters in 2016. So I did my research. I read $pread magazine (RIP—but buy the book!), and researched online by reading the work of sex worker activists. I also had both paid and unpaid sex worker activists read my work and give me lots of critical feedback about what needed to be changed—from plotlines to prices to industry logistics—so it would ring true. I had a mostly West Coast network, but I got consultants from NYC as well. I was also very intentional about presenting a spectrum of attitudes toward sex work, from “this is a great job” to the brutality of trafficking and being pimped.

Speaking of pimping…I think most non-sex workers who write about sex work are exploiting people’s fascination with sex work and women and sex without honoring the women who do the work. I was determined to do my homework and support the movement.

Many literary institutions have, traditionally, such classist, sexist, racist notions of what constitutes high literature and what kinds of books are trash. How are perceptions of genre and pulp changing?

I enthusiastically blame television. We are in a golden age of TV, where powerful complex and flawed women are increasingly taking center stage, with high-drama and pulpy shows that are also smart and politically nuanced. Before Scandal, Orange Is the New Black, and Empire, there wasn’t even a context to explain a book like Uptown Thief to an editor. Now they understand the brand. So there’s more room for this kind of story now that, through the magic of television, it’s proven that it can attract a large audience. And for me, this breaking down of class barriers in literature is also part of a strategy to dismantle classism.

Often these kinds of thriller/romance/erotica/crime novels are treated more like products than literature. There’s less critical focus on the author’s craft and more of a commercial drive to crank ‘em out as long as people are buying them. I’m thinking about my mom’s endless mystery paperbacks checked out from the public library, or the much (probably unfairly) maligned “mommy porn” boom. Are there women besides yourself bringing depth to these genres (without sacrificing fun!) who people should know about?

One writer I would shout-out here is Sofia Quintero, who also writes under the pen name Black Artemis. She’s been in the game a long time, and always had an explicit political agenda.

Uptown Thief has such a rich and dynamic ensemble of characters. Do you have any dream casting in mind for a movie adaptation?

I would LOVE to see it hit the screen, although more likely the small screen as that’s the place where complex female characters live these days. Andrea Navedo from Jane the Virgin would be great as Marisol. My current choice for Tyesha is Meagan Tandy. Maybe Song Hye-Kyo as Kim. Margot Robbie as Jody. Possibly Adam Rodriguez as Raul. Michael B. Jordan as Woof. Eva is really hard to cast because well-known Jewish actresses in her age group are all too thin…

Sex workers struggle to tell their full stories, because when we include sometimes ugly truths of abusive backgrounds, cycles of violence, boyfriends who become pimps, the humiliations of stigma and so on, these dimension are instantly weaponized against us. Uptown Thief includes all of those violent elements and more, including classic john types like the billionaire who wants what’s “not on the menu,” and the rap star who’s so impressed with his own masculine myth that he gets drunk and passes out. Yet none of the negative things that have happened to these women are used as cautionary tales to redeem them or punish them. How careful were you about that?

I was very careful to present a spectrum of relationships to sex work. And ultimately, how well sex work was going would be directly proportional to three things: The level of choice and agency the women had in entering the sex industries, the quality of the working conditions they encounter in the industries and the level of trauma they encounter before and during their work in the industries.

Some stories offer characters a comeuppance for moral trespasses. But my value system sees men who exploit women as the ones who need to get the comeuppance, which is why I write heist.

All of the protagonists are female, with male characters is supporting roles. Can you describe how you mapped out some of the male characters in terms of your political allegory?

I wanted a spectrum of men, as well. Raul, the love interest, was originally too much of a boy scout, and my editor made me dirty him up a bit. So now he has a really shady moment that feels more authentic. On the other end are Jerry, a sociopathic misogynist pimp, and Marisol’s uncle. It was also important to me that these were all Puerto Rican men. So if I showed Puerto Rican male monstrosity, I was also showing male heroism in the same community. There are several white male characters, and none of them are particularly heroic, but I do attempt to paint them as having redeeming moments. As someone who has written a lot about hip hop, I am particularly attached to my rapper character, Thug Woofer. Just a heads up, he appears in Book #2 of the series, The Boss, and we get to see his character develop a bit more. With both Raul and Thug Woofer, I am really interested in making men of color love interest characters who are more than yes-men to strong women of color. I try to strike a balance between letting them struggle in the ways men need to struggle when caught between their conditioning to always be in control and the joy of loving a strong woman. Part of the fun of writing these guys in the romance genre is knowing that their love for these strong women is gonna win.

Marisol commits some acts of violence, some in self defense, some more on the premeditated side. And her relationship to sex is mercenary at times. How did you decide what kind of moral compass to give her?

Marisol’s character is forged by her need to protect her sister through a brutal childhood. She doesn’t seek out violence, but will strike when cornered. Her original heist MO is not to use guns. In part because it’s more of a legal risk but also because she doesn’t want to hurt the burglary victims. She just wants to take their money. But as the economy pushes her closer to the edge, she gets more ruthless. Once she no longer needs to protect her little sister, she proceeds to use her powers to protect her community. She is a badass because she’s the one who’s willing to stand up to the schoolyard bully, in this case, these corrupt corporate CEOs and billionaires, and take back what’s been stolen from her community.

In bed, however, she’s a bit less heroic. She has serious control issues in her sex life. In that arena, she’s a bit of an unreliable narrator. Her PTSD is making her sexual choices in the earlier part of the book. And in that arena, Eva becomes her moral compass. In her sexual history, Marisol has been deeply wounded and disempowered. And I believe that when we are injured early on in life in ways that disempower us, we act that out until we heal. Marisol is acting it out here. I thought it was really important to give Marisol—a woman of color raised poor in the US—an arena in which she was able to identify a small instance of power and misuse it. It’s funny because I don’t see her thieving as dishonorable at all. I see it as noble. But I see some of her sexual choices as shady because of how she leverages power dynamics with immigrant men.

You relish the finer details of business and financial theory. It’s not something you see in a pulp novel very often. Was this something you knew a lot about, or decided to research? Why are these details important?

I am playing with the cliché of the “Puerto Rican hooker.” What if she was really a financial genius? And how might that play out if she was pressured into sex work and later grew into the financial genius part? I liked the idea that early on, when she had a pimp, she would have ideas about how to improve the business, but he didn’t respect her business potential. But later on, working in the non-profit sector, her hustling and business ideas could be put to work. I did have to do some research, because I don’t have a strong business or economic background.

A sex worker friend of mine was recently telling me how much cash, physical cash, turns her on. There are as many scenes of cash fetishism as actual sex in this book. What is so exciting about cash? As Bey says, is paper the best revenge for women of color?

I think in this book, the cash that’s fetishized is generally stolen, which makes it secret. Therefore, the moments where anyone is looking at that cash are really intimate. I went back and re-read the scene from the gala fundraiser where there’s a bunch of cash. It doesn’t have the same flavor, because there’s no intimacy. They’re just openly counting money at the end of an event.

In capitalist imagery, cash is often featured alongside other luxury items like expensive cars, houses, yachts, alcohol, designer clothes, shoes, and jewelry. But in this book, the cash represents survival—for the characters and the clinic. So in that way it’s different. This crew isn’t going on a shopping spree. They’re not interested in the lush life, they’re down for their people. I think Marisol would say that her best revenge is the fact that gentrification can’t move her from her home spot—the Lower East Side. Because as long as New York City continues to be an epicenter of capitalism, it will always attract people of color and need service workers. But very few of us can afford any of the real estate. Marisol has that one building and is fighting to keep it. It’s her home, and the clinic makes it a home for the sex work community, as well. If she can get the cash, it can be home to another generation.

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