Charlotte's Editorial
Charlotte Raven

#SexIndustryWeek: Review – Playing The Whore

By Charlotte Raven

Each weekday throughout our #SexIndustryWeek we will be serialising extracts from Melissa Gira Grant’s new book, Playing The Whore. Editor-in-Chief Charlotte Raven kicks off the week with her review of the book.

I wrote this review of Playing the Whore a week ago, while in a midst of an identity crisis precipitated by a marital crisis. My critical faculties have been disabled, along with my rhetorical élan – I no longer know who I am, or what I think. I have become ruthlessly fairminded and experienced a disturbing, unfamiliar ability to see other points of view. I’ve read positive and negative reviews of Grant’s book and heartily agreed with all of them.

My review reflected this willingness to listen and an unprecedented (and probably fleeting) desire to find the middle ground. I don’t want to be one of the people shouting that prostitutes are collaborators or the ones proclaiming that sex workers are hip, happening and here to stay (the first Bitcoin escort agency opened last year!)

This seemed reasonable. Then I got scared. I woke up at 3 am on Friday morning, terrified that my ambivalence about Grant’s book would be mistaken for complicity in the process by which sex work is being normalised and rebranded as a branch of the leisure industry. People will say, justifiably, that I haven’t defended feminists from the accusation that we are responsible for the oppression and persecution of sex workers. Not capitalism. Nor patriarchy. I was mightily relieved I had the chance to revisit the argument and redeem myself before anything was published. This time I would make a conscious effort not to be seduced by Grant’s theoretical savvy. My intention was to rewrite the piece as an abolitionist polemic pegged on the book rather than a review of it.

Then I changed my mind again and decided to stick with ambivalence and publish the review as was. Was I too easy on Grant? You can judge for yourself. I tried to tune into her wavelength, rather than cut and paste her points into my argument, as I usually do. The extracts we are publishing this week are an open question…

I approached this book with trepidation, expecting a reprise of the argument often made by sex workers in print that their work is an empowering and stimulating lifestyle choice. I have encountered the sex worker in Belle de Jour’s oeuvre but also met some myself, who had very little cultured conversation with their clients while ‘on the clock’ and a lot of depressing sex on cheap sheets. Like many feminists, I think the brutal reality of sex work is often obscured by the image. My job is to distinguish fact from fiction, and challenge false consciousness. I’ve been doing this since the eighties and never thought to question it until now.

I was also expecting lots of sex. As this is a book by someone in the field, I thought the analysis would be spiced with lurid confessional, or displaced completely by it. But Grant thwarts this reader’s expectation. She thinks our prurient fascination with the cut and thrust of sex work prevents us from perceiving the nuanced truth.

The sex worker is ubiquitous but invisible. There are no personal anecdotes here because Grant wants to draw the reader’s gaze away from the sexual mise en scene to what it means. There is no confessional money shot where Grant renounces sex work in favour of the writer’s life. We infer that this has happened but Playing the Whore isn’t a parable.

She doesn’t want to serve as an exemplar to sex workers and warns against seeing other types of work as morally superior and less threatening to personal autonomy. There are no winners in this system – the waitresses, hairdressers and other service sector workers are differently exploited (and less well paid).

I must own up – I have a weakness for deconstructive critical moves like the one Grant performs when she suggests that anti-porn campaigners are porn addicts! I’m also pleased when someone else says the unsayable. At least the resulting Twitter storm won’t be directed at me. Grant believes the anti-porn meetings and speak-outs of feminism’s second wave were pornographic spectacles, delivering the same ‘communal release of feeling’ as the Time Square porn theatres in the pre-Disney era.

She knows how contentious this will be but feels dissenting voices, particularly ones “who have modelled for pictures” have been silenced. “How can you say that the description of a child’s violation by a woman on a stage itself mimes a pornographic revelation?”

Those who presume to save sex workers from themselves have the same proprietary air as porn consumers; a self righteous coalition of NGOs, feminist organizations and high profile media figures have embarked on dramatic search and rescue missions. The American government is committed to “eliminating prostitution” worldwide and threatens to withdraw aid if poor countries don’t comply. Cambodian sex workers have been rounded up and sent to detention centres where they are abused, raped and starved. Many have died. Sex workers are being eliminated but the sex industry is alive and well.

Grant argues persuasively that the recent debate about ‘the sexualisaton’ of society and the pornification of sexuality constitute a standard issue moral panic and contamination fear. Sex workers are thought to have implanted depraved thoughts in ‘normal’ women and frog marched us to the Ministry of Waxing and on to swingers parties in Penge. Many analysts believe that the contamination of our sexual consciousness with pornographic tropes means ‘real’ sex is no longer possible. But Grant insists that sex workers are scapegoats: the burden of our pornographic imagination is placed upon those who will save us from it by their sacrifice. Forty years after Nancy Friday’s collection of sexual fantasies, The Secret Garden, we’re still scared of our ‘outlaw’ desire.

I love polemics and this one certainly carried me along with its energy and undeniable intelligence. However, while Grant’s argument that sex work is no different from hairdressing is well made and points to important ways in which female working lives do share oppressive characteristics, I still believe that selling sex is an abusive commodification of the self. But having read this book I will be much quicker to challenge the presumption of those who oppose prostitution that they also know what’s best for sex workers.

Read Feminist Times’ exclusive serialisation of Playing The Whore each day this week.

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