Sex, Crime, and Justice

How one author is bringing social justice to the romance genre.

Uptown Thief cover art.

Everywhere I went, people would look at my book, with a buxom, provocatively dressed woman on its cover, and ask, “What are you reading?”

“An important work of social justice,” I would answer.

The response wasn’t in jest: in her debut novel Uptown Thief, Aya De Leon squares a seemingly un-squarable circle, melding romance novel with social critique.

At first glance, Uptown Thief has all the trappings of its ostensible genre. Protagonist Marisol Rivera is a voluptuous Puerto Rican madam who manages a crew of gorgeous escorts on New York City’s Lower East Side. Not satisfied with their profits, Marisol and her team begin stealing from their wealthy clients. The plot centers on a plan to rob a billionaire CEO who has requested the services of the madam. To complicate matters, Marisol finds herself falling for a former police officer who has become obsessed with solving the mystery of the uptown burglaries.

But the sex, romance, and heists are all a front: Marisol’s real concern is channeling the riches of her wealthy escort clients to her clients at the health clinic she runs. Throughout the book Marisol fights to improve the lives of these women, whose backgrounds are so much like her own. Orphaned and abused, Marisol traded sex for money to care for her younger sister before she started her own escort service.

If Marisol’s mind is on weightier things than falling in love with the right man, Uptown Thief is similarly interested in more than escapist thrills and salacious scenes.

De Leon, who directs the Poetry for the People program at the University of California, Berkeley, explains that Uptown Thief employs “an intentional strategy to distribute social-justice organizing messages.” She uses the heist plot to grab the reader’s attention before pivoting to a larger story about class injustice, racism, and gender discrimination.

De Leon isn’t trying to reach those already well-versed in feminist and leftist discourses, but those interested in reading about sex and money. By packaging a progressive message in an accessible format, De Leon has created a compelling work of left writing.

Robin Hood

In a different romance novel, the characters Marisol steals from and extorts might represent her only way out of poverty. After all, the genre is known for escapist fantasies where protagonists free themselves from material deprivation or social constraints by falling in love with a wealthy man.

But Marisol doesn’t see her rich clients as a means to achieve individual class mobility. She sees them as a way to spread the wealth. As Marisol says, “So many of these assholes don’t play fair . . . So I’m gonna stop playing by the rules.”

Marisol decides to target CEOs after she finds out about their involvement in a Mexican sex-trafficking scandal. Before each heist, the women discuss the unscrupulous ways the target amassed his fortune. Marisol says of the billionaire: “I’ve studied VanDyke. He had massive sweatshop operations in Asia . . . He became a billionaire by screwing people over in other countries.”

Like the rest of Marisol’s operation, the heists are carefully planned and executed. Before trying to nab VanDyke’s money, Marisol researches every aspect of the situation, from the alarm system to the brand of VanDyke’s safes. She has a pair of fingerprint gloves made, and times the burglary down to the minute.

With the plans set, the team breaks into the apartment during VanDyke’s appointment with Marisol, dressed up as men so that VanDyke won’t suspect them. The plan goes off swimmingly. Marisol does such a good job of feigning innocence that VanDyke later thanks her for her handling of the situation.

This pilfering isn’t motivated by rank avarice, but a desire to get money into the hands of those who need it most. Marisol hasn’t earned a salary in months. She donates part of her take to help the Mexican victims, and the rest goes to the women’s health clinic she operates. Often the burglaries occur out of desperation. When discussing the VanDyke heist, Marisol says, “I’ve maxed out my own credit cards, and borrowed from donors. The debt is racking up . . . I’ve done payroll late a couple of times to make sure we wouldn’t miss a mortgage payment.”

De Leon leavens the Robin Hood themes with characters that break from the standard fare of romantic novels.

Marisol’s escort, Tyesha, balances sex work with all-nighters, pursuing a masters degree in public health as she prepares to take over the clinic. Kim and Jody — an Asian woman and a white woman who superficially fit, in De Leon’s words, their “porn racial stereotypes” — turn out to be in a loving lesbian partnership. Jody could have been a “world-class athlete,” and Kim becomes a genius safe-cracker.

Even Raul, Marisol’s love interest, exhibits few of the masculine stereotypes that typically mark such characters. He discusses race and gender in egalitarian terms, and bemoans “confusing messages boys get.” He admires Marisol for her bravery, her mathematical brilliance, and her community-mindedness. Instead of offering up the common heteronormative tropes of the genre, De Leon paints a world where women are treated like, well, human beings.

Uptown Thief also treats sex work thoughtfully. It realistically depicts the dangers of the industry: Dulce was fleeing a pimp when Marisol took her in; before meeting Marisol, Tyesha had her jaw wired shut after a client broke it.

Yet at the same time, the book doesn’t shy away from suggesting that sex work often represents the best option for these women. For Tyesha, it allows her to pay her way through graduate school — “I work one night a week and I’ve got an IRA and savings for vacation.”

And as Marisol tells her business partner Eva, “If I was God, women would get paid to sit on our asses and think profound thoughts. We’d only fuck people who turned us on. But as long as the female ass outearns the female brain, there are gonna be sex workers who need our clinic.”

At bottom, the problem is capitalism’s propensity to commodify with abandon. As Marisol says of her first pimp, Sergei: “[H]e was only a businessman. He would have been just as happy to sell farm animals if he could make as much money.” In Uptown Thief sex work is just another way to make ends meet in a system that doesn’t always distinguish between people and livestock.

Fault Lines

To her credit, De Leon doesn’t turn Marisol into a one-dimensional, omnipotent crusader for justice. Her relationships are more complicated, more fraught with human complexity. She tells Raul: “I can’t be with someone who puts me on some Robin Hood pedestal . . . And then knocks me off when he finds out I’m not Maid Marian.”

She is also driven as much by her distrust of men and her need for control as she is by her desire for justice. Her clinic co-founder Eva observes, “You’ve only chosen to have two kinds of sex in your adult life — the kind where you’re in total control with a stranger or the kind where you’re getting paid with a stranger.” An important part of the book’s plot involves Marisol learning to make herself vulnerable, to ask for help.

Similarly, while the novel exposes the effects of patriarchy and capitalism on women — especially women of color — and proposes some remedies, it reminds us that the struggle for social progress can’t consume everything else. When Marisol visits her younger sister, Cristina, in Cuba, Marisol can focus only on the beleaguered women she sees.

Cristina tells her, “You go walking on the malécon, and you don’t see the ocean and the ways and the sea spray. You see teenage sex workers who need your help.” If the quest for justice prevents us from seeing what is beautiful in life, then we have already lost.

Still, Uptown Thief doesn’t shrink from its role as populist agitator. Written under the assumption that little background is needed to appreciate ideas like radical wealth distribution, it largely delivers. While Uptown Thief isn’t the typical leftist tract, bringing new people into our movements requires establishing multiple entry points.

And for this, De Leon is to be applauded. Uptown Thief shows that activism is not only about questioning existing social hierarchies, but also about questioning existing ways of engaging in these discussions.