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Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work

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The sex industry is an endless source of prurient drama for the mainstream media. Recent years have seen a panic over "online red-light districts," which supposedly seduce vulnerable young women into a life of degradation, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's live tweeting of a Cambodian brothel raid. The current trend for writing about and describing actual exp The sex industry is an endless source of prurient drama for the mainstream media. Recent years have seen a panic over "online red-light districts," which supposedly seduce vulnerable young women into a life of degradation, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's live tweeting of a Cambodian brothel raid. The current trend for writing about and describing actual experiences of sex work fuels a culture obsessed with the behaviour of sex workers. Rarely do these fearful dispatches come from sex workers themselves, and they never seem to deviate from the position that sex workers must be rescued from their condition, and the industry simply abolished—a position common among feminists and conservatives alike. In Playing the Whore, journalist Melissa Gira Grant turns these pieties on their head, arguing for an overhaul in the way we think about sex work. Based on ten years of writing and reporting on the sex trade, and grounded in her experience as an organizer, advocate, and former sex worker, Playing the Whore dismantles pervasive myths about sex work, criticizes both conditions within the sex industry and its criminalization, and argues that separating sex work from the "legitimate" economy only harms those who perform sexual labor. In Playing the Whore, sex workers' demands, too long relegated to the margins, take center stage: sex work is work, and sex workers' rights are human rights.


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The sex industry is an endless source of prurient drama for the mainstream media. Recent years have seen a panic over "online red-light districts," which supposedly seduce vulnerable young women into a life of degradation, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's live tweeting of a Cambodian brothel raid. The current trend for writing about and describing actual exp The sex industry is an endless source of prurient drama for the mainstream media. Recent years have seen a panic over "online red-light districts," which supposedly seduce vulnerable young women into a life of degradation, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's live tweeting of a Cambodian brothel raid. The current trend for writing about and describing actual experiences of sex work fuels a culture obsessed with the behaviour of sex workers. Rarely do these fearful dispatches come from sex workers themselves, and they never seem to deviate from the position that sex workers must be rescued from their condition, and the industry simply abolished—a position common among feminists and conservatives alike. In Playing the Whore, journalist Melissa Gira Grant turns these pieties on their head, arguing for an overhaul in the way we think about sex work. Based on ten years of writing and reporting on the sex trade, and grounded in her experience as an organizer, advocate, and former sex worker, Playing the Whore dismantles pervasive myths about sex work, criticizes both conditions within the sex industry and its criminalization, and argues that separating sex work from the "legitimate" economy only harms those who perform sexual labor. In Playing the Whore, sex workers' demands, too long relegated to the margins, take center stage: sex work is work, and sex workers' rights are human rights.

30 review for Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work

  1. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    Passionately argues for the legalization and destigmatization of sex work. The work consists of a series of tersely written, loosely related essays, which cover everything from the policing of sex work to the history of the prostitute as a social type. As wide ranging as the book is, again and again author Melissa Gira Grant, a journalist and former sex worker herself, convincingly demonstrates that sex workers are systematically silenced and demonized by conservatives, liberals, and leftists al Passionately argues for the legalization and destigmatization of sex work. The work consists of a series of tersely written, loosely related essays, which cover everything from the policing of sex work to the history of the prostitute as a social type. As wide ranging as the book is, again and again author Melissa Gira Grant, a journalist and former sex worker herself, convincingly demonstrates that sex workers are systematically silenced and demonized by conservatives, liberals, and leftists alike, who implement misguided policies that ultimately harm the women they’re ostensibly meant to help. Grant has a penchant for making provocative claims, without developing them or arranging them into a cohesive argument; broad in focus, her book seeks to shift the cultural conversation about sex work and center sex workers’ voices, which it does effectively.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Adrienne

    I really wanted to like this book. I read an interview with Melissa Gira Grant at The Awl (http://www.theawl.com/2014/03/do-what...), and was so impressed by the smart points she made about the role of whorephobia in upholding the economic status quo that I immediately went from reading the interview to ordering the book. The problem with this book is not the content of the ideas. They continue to be interesting and provocative. The problem is with the editing. The book lacks coherence; lacks any I really wanted to like this book. I read an interview with Melissa Gira Grant at The Awl (http://www.theawl.com/2014/03/do-what...), and was so impressed by the smart points she made about the role of whorephobia in upholding the economic status quo that I immediately went from reading the interview to ordering the book. The problem with this book is not the content of the ideas. They continue to be interesting and provocative. The problem is with the editing. The book lacks coherence; lacks any sense of an overarching argument. Grant meanders, seemingly aimlessly, from idea to idea, failing to give the reader any sense that the book amounts to something larger than the sum of its parts. The illustrations and polemics (one might say rants) collected here demonstrate that prevailing logic about sex work is inadequate, but the book fails to cohere into a helpful alternative way to think about sex work.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ashley

    “Sex work can indeed be empowering. But that is not the point. Money is the fucking point.” - Melissa Gira Grant, Playing the Whore Growing up I had three basic images of sex work (although I didn’t call it that then): the Julia Roberts / Pretty Woman version; the desperate, drug addicted woman; and the ‘sex slave’ in another country who was ‘rescued’ regularly on Dateline and 48 Hours. I didn’t spend time thinking about sex workers, but I did wonder why sex work was illegal in most places. Recentl “Sex work can indeed be empowering. But that is not the point. Money is the fucking point.” - Melissa Gira Grant, Playing the Whore Growing up I had three basic images of sex work (although I didn’t call it that then): the Julia Roberts / Pretty Woman version; the desperate, drug addicted woman; and the ‘sex slave’ in another country who was ‘rescued’ regularly on Dateline and 48 Hours. I didn’t spend time thinking about sex workers, but I did wonder why sex work was illegal in most places. Recently I’ve become more interested in labor rights; specifically how society views certain types of labor as worthy (of money or legality) and others as deserving of criminalization or at least disdain. I live in Seattle, where the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour was met with such charming arguments from non-shift workers as ‘what did a McDonald’s worker do to deserve that? I barely make that!’ as though people in the fast food industry aren’t working just as hard as people sitting in air conditioned offices, able to take coffee and bathroom breaks whenever they want. This interest led me to Ms. Grant’s book. She takes a perspective that is missing in coverage of sex work and workers – one that does not start by asking ‘should people do sex work’ but instead asks what can we do to improve the lives of the people who work in that industry. The book is well-written and educated me on the topic, but when asked to describe it in a few sentences I have a hard time. Each chapter feels like a separate essay in a broader collection, and initially I was not sure of the main purpose of the book, as it covers a broad area. It is not a linear history of sex work, nor is it an argument (primarily) for the decriminalization or legalization of sex work. It is more than that. Going back through my notes and rereading the portions I highlighted does bring more clarity to me. That is a function not of Ms. Grant’s writing, but of my need to re-read the book to better take in all of the information she shares. Her purpose seems to be to point out all of the ways in which people who seek to help sex workers fail, and in doing so Ms. Grant draws the reader’s attention to the need for the reader to take actions in solidarity with these workers, and support those who can change the conditions of their lives for the better, not pull them out of sex work or make it more dangerous for them to perform the work they do. Ms. Grant illustrates this in many ways, including critiquing the fight against online posting of sex worker ads and the large anti-sex work organizations that purport to rescue sex workers from horrible conditions. Ms. Grant points out that so many of the ‘rescued’ end up in worse situations, with less agency than they had when doing sex work, and concludes that this stems from the inability of so many to see these women and men as people doing a job and not as one-dimensional ‘whores.’ “The goal, these antiprostitute advocates say, of eradicating men’s desire for paid sex isn’t ‘antisex’ but to restore the personhood of prostitutes, that is, of people who are already people except to those who claim to want to fix them.” That’s the point, really. Sex workers are people first, people who make their money in the sex work industry. The problems these workers face doesn’t stem from the morality of sex work – they originate with the rest of society, which is invested in making sex work dangerous. The question the reader is left with – that I am left with – is what am I going to do to benefit these workers?

  4. 5 out of 5

    Nick Imrie

    About a third of the way through this book Grant writes: 'We should, in fact, refuse to debate. Sex work itself, and, inseparable from it, the lives of sex workers are not up for debate – or they shouldn't be.' And with a heavy heart, I knew this book wasn't going to get any better. A book about sex work which refuses to make an argument is hardly any use to the reader, except as a curiosity, which is ironic since Grant spends a lot of time castigating the general public for their peeping-tom cur About a third of the way through this book Grant writes: 'We should, in fact, refuse to debate. Sex work itself, and, inseparable from it, the lives of sex workers are not up for debate – or they shouldn't be.' And with a heavy heart, I knew this book wasn't going to get any better. A book about sex work which refuses to make an argument is hardly any use to the reader, except as a curiosity, which is ironic since Grant spends a lot of time castigating the general public for their peeping-tom curiosity about the lives of sex workers. So if Grant isn't making an argument in support of sex work, then what's the point of the book? It's hard to say. It rambles across the subject of sex work, touching on different aspects, gesturing at various debates, but never quite making a point. There's a very interesting memoir of the author's youth in the queer AIDS activism community. There's a lyrical elegy for the red light districts of San Francisco and New York. The chapter on the failures of the rescue industry in Cambodia is easily the best, and the only part that seems to have been thoroughly researched and supported with evidence. The lack of proper references and evidence was a massive disappointment. Of course, since Grant is committed to not debating, it stands to reason that she also wouldn't bother to attempt to prove her points. Take for example: Opponents, from the European Women's Lobby to reactionary feminist bloggers, like to claim that sex workers insist it is “a job like any other” but sex workers do not make this claim – unless by this anti-sex work activists agree with sex workers that the conditions under which sexual services are offered can be as unstable and undesirable as those cutting cuticles, giving colonics, or diapering someone else's babies. It's very telling that Grant doesn't make any effort to explore her assertion here: that sex work is on a par with other low-paid feminine service work. Do prostitutes, nannies, and beauticians have the same rates of being assaulted, raped, and murdered by clients? Do they have the same rates of drug addiction, mental health problems, and suicide? Are nannies as likely to be controlled by abusive boyfriends taking their earnings? Do they have the same rates of serious infection or persistent pain as a consequence of their work? This is far from the only example of Grant making uncharitable assertions about her opponents. The book is littered with generalisations about anti-prostitution activists and feminists, but rarely quotes any of them directly. This lack was especially noticeable to me, because I read the book in tandem with Banyard's Pimp State: Sex, Money, and the Future of Equality, a well-researched anti-prostitution polemic. For example, Grant says: 'Opponents of sex work decry prostitution as a violent institution, yet concede that violence is also useful to keep people from it.' Who are these opponents? The feminists represented by Banyard would never in a million years approve of violence against women as 'useful'. Consequently the margins of my copy are absolutely filled with scrawls of 'citation needed' with increasingly frustrated under-linings and exclamation marks. Where Grant does refer to specific feminists she's still pretty sloppy. When claiming that Kate Millett failed to understand the issues of sex work in the 1970s she doesn't quote Millett directly, she quotes pro-sex work historian Melinda Chateauvert's opinion of what Millett believed. And when not sloppy, she can be flat out wrong. When railing against anti-prostitution awareness-raising organisations, Grant claims that feminists create such organisations because: It gives the producers jobs, the effectiveness of which is measured by a subjective accounting of how much they are being talked about. And: They hire Hollywood bros like Ashton Kutcher and Sean Penn to make clicky little public service announcements for Youtube in which they tell their fans, “Real Men don't buy girls.” It takes one google search to see that Ashton Kutcher is the founder and chairman of his own anti-trafficking foundation, not an employee of unspecified feminists. If such a feminist organisation existed then Grant would be able to name it. Perhaps the most distasteful of all Grants mis-characterisations of her opponents is her assertion that they get off on the very pornography that they oppose. She describes a meeting of Women Against Pornography in the 1970s where a woman got up to speak about how her father used pornography as an aid and manual when sexually abusing her. Rather than egalitarian consciousness-raising, the sharing of stories took on an air of sentimental performance. […] The whole room was emotionally whipped up into a rage with their own private images of child rape, while at the same time, revelling in the awfulness of it. [..] How are you to say that the description of the child's violation by a woman on a stage itself mines a pornographic revelation. How is this group of women's consumption of the evil of pornography in a group exhibition all that different from the men seated in a Times Square theater having their own communal experience of porn? There is a sameness here to the communal release of feeling, the shaking of the body whether consumed by sobs or ejaculations: This is what film theorist Linda Williams saw in her analysis of porn films and “weepies” - chick flicks. To be in these rooms of women raging against pornography is to give in to the hawker's pavement promise of “hardcore” relief. The women whose relationship to pornography has never included participants in it are only incidentally concerned with the actual women in it. Grant, of course, does not quote an actual attendee who admits that she felt 'hardcore relief' and enjoyed 'revelling in the awfulness'? And if she could find an attendee who would admit to being shaken by sobs, would she agree that it was because of voyeuristic pleasure, or is it more likely that she herself is also a rape survivor suffering her own trauma? Look at Grant's interesting word choice here: How are you to say that the description of the child's violation by a woman on a stage itself mines a pornographic revelation? The child and the woman are one and the same person. A more honest phrasing would be: 'How are you to say that a woman describing her own childhood violation is miming pornography?' Phrased that way, the obvious answer is you are not to say that – it would a disgusting and cruel thing to tell a survivor of childhood rape, bravely speaking out against abuse, that her 'sentimental performance' is 'miming pornography'. You'd have to be a proper psychopath. And in Grant's case you'd also have to be a hypocrite. Grant spends so much time in this book saying that sex workers should lead and define the discussion of sex work – isn't it also fair that survivors of childhood rape should lead and define the discussion of childhood rape? Isn't it verging on narcissistic to complain that: 'The women whose relationship to pornography has never included participants in it are only incidentally concerned with the actual women in it.' One could just as easily assert that pro-pornography advocates like Grant are only incidentally concerned with the actual women who will be raped because of it. God, this is depressing. Not only the sneering at rape victims, but also the fact that it's such an unnecessary tactic. Why did Grant not follow a more compassionate and rational line of argument? She could have pointed out that, although the pornography was used as an aid during the rape, it was unlikely to have caused the rape; she could have shared some of the statistics on the correlation between the drop in rape and the rise in porn. She could have pointed to statistics which show that the vast majority of pornography users are not rapists – including the large numbers of women who use porn. She could have made any number of arguments that didn't sink to the level of insinuating that the victims of childhood incest pretend to be against abuse because they're secretly aroused by reliving the experience in public. Of course, when it comes to a subject as emotional and difficult as sex work, then we can expect and forgive a certain amount of animosity between opposing sides, but Grant is also frequently wrong on general facts. Like her claim that: There were no prostitutes in Pompeii. It's the nineteenth century that brings us the person of the prostitute Obviously there were prostitutes in Pompeii. Again, a simple google search will provide plenty of information on the amazingly preserved brothels of Pompeii, and a search for 'prostitution in ancient Rome' will provide lots of further reading and books on the topic. There is an interesting discussion to be had about the ways that different cultures have concepetualised prostitutes, but to pretend that no-one had any concept of 'a woman who sells sex for money' before 1799 is not helpful. Indeed, part of my frustration with Grant's work is that I often felt that her framing was unhelpful. Again, it was illuminating to read this at the same time as Pimp State: Sex, Money, and the Future of Equality. Banyard is meticulously clear about whether she is talking about prostitution, stripping, or pornography, but Grant talks about 'Sex Work' which can cover everything from 'escorting, street hustling, hostessing, stripping, performing sex for videos and webcams – the range of labor makes speaking of just one feel inadequate'. It isn't clear if Grant realises that she's unwittingly making her opponents argument for them. Just one reason why anti-prostitution activists prefer 'prostitution' to 'sex work' is that it's unhelpful to lump together activities as diverse as street-walking and camwhoring. Compare Grant's description of typical sex work in a dungeon, with Banyard's description of a typical German brothel: In the dungeon: A client can expect that several workers are available on each shift, and some workers will want to do what he wants to and some won't. A receptionist will take his call, or answer his e-mail, and assign him to a worker based on what he'd like, and the worker's preferences, and mutual availability. Some dungeons might post their workers specialities on a website. They might also keep them listed in a binder next to the phone, the workers each taking turns playing receptionist, matching clients to workers over the shift. After each appointment the worker would write up a short memo and file it for future reference should the client call again, so that others would know more about him. In the brothel: They cannot speak much German […] The youngest women in the brothel are eighteen; most aren't much older than twenty. [...]men make their way up and down the stairs, wandering along the corridors to see who's accepting custom. […] They work, live and sleep in their one room in the brothel. […] Each woman here has to pay the brothel owner €120 a day for the use of a room. This means she will have to perform sex acts on four men before she breaks even, more if she's paying off rent from previous days. I ask Sabine how long the women's doors are open to men walking the corridors. 'Seven days a week and about sixteen hours a day.' […] they are plied with drugs because 'for one thing they suffer pain, genuine physical pain... They are fucked from all sides.' Grant's depiction of American sex work as well-paid, even high paid, work that people drop in and out of between other jobs or activism, marred only by the threat of police violence and arrest, has almost nothing in common with Banyard's depiction of German prostitution as an industrial scale process in which women are trapped by the combination of poverty, drugs, violence, and market forces. The women of the Stuttgardt brothels do not have the luxury of working shifts or having their own preferences and specialities. I wish that Grant had discussed legal sex work more. It would have been very interesting to see her opinion of how legal sex work is turning out in Germany and whether that's what she'd want for America. She makes a brief reference to New Zealand because: New Zealand's model of decriminalized prostitution was advanced by sex workers, and has since been evaluated with their participation (and largely to their satisfaction) But she doesn't go into any detail, which compares rather unfavourably with Banyard who discusses New Zealand, quoting the New Zealand Law Prostitution Reform Committee, a New Zealand employment lawyer, the Crime and Justice Research Centre, Christchurch School of Medicine, and Kiwi sex workers, in her argument that legalisation has not improved conditions for sex workers, has made it harder for the police to identify under-age sex workers, and has increased the number of sex workers over all. In comparison, Grant's assertions look positively anaemic. So Grant fails to support her own assertions, and frequently mis-represents her opponents. I think sometimes she also doesn't understand how badly she puts forward her own perspective. For example, the chapter 'The Peephole' weighs up the benefits and risks of using the internet for sex work. She claims that online advertising such as Craigslist and Backpage is good because it makes sex work more profitable, easier, and gives control to sex workers. Grant says the opponents are driven by unfounded fear of pimps, traffickers, and slavery, and a selfish desire to pat themselves on the back for 'protecting' women. Also, the statistics on underage sex workers gathered by antis are massively overblown, due to their failure to understand dummy and repeat adverts. It's an emotionally persuasive chapter – and then the very next chapter shares a poignant description of a public rally held by parents whose daughters were murdered after selling sex on Craigslist. It's really very odd that Grant doesn't make any link between these two sections. She doesn't realise that many people think that girls being murdered by customers they found on Craigslist is a good reason to stop customers finding girls on Craigslist. Presumably, she also doesn't realise that her sneering at antis for being hysterical fearmongers looks rather shabby when it's revealed that their fears were not imaginary and sex workers were dying. And look – I'm not saying that Craiglist should have shut down – I don't know the details of the case. What I'm saying is that I wish Grant had made an argument and laid out the reasons why it's better and safer with it than without it, instead of just sneering at her opponents. Of the grieving parents she says: Doing this each time they find a body, crying for all these cameras. It was like their currency. It's what they've got left. Dacia told me that, in a way, it was worse than that. There weren't as many cameras today as there were last time. I don't know about you, but it seems pretty low to me to insinuate that they're doing it for attention rather than because they genuinely want to prevent another girl getting murder. When I started writing this review, I was disappointed that the book didn't have a clearer structure and argument, and as I wrote, my opinion dropped further. Attempting to find simple quotes to show Grant's points made me realise just how badly written this book is. It's really very hard to find her saying anything succinctly and clearly. And I hadn't realised just how much Grant sneered at everyone she disagrees with, until I tried to find quotes that didn't include casting aspersions on her opponents! I'm sure there are good books out there that make the case in favour of sex work. This isn't it.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Ceilidh

    Read this. Seriously, this is a game changer for feminists, particularly those who have little to no knowledge of sex work.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    I'm glad I read this book. I'm not sure what my view about prostitution is. I do wish that Grant had more than ancedotal evidence ( and to be fair, she acknowledges her somewhat limited viewpoint). But Grant does have some very good points about how we should see sex workers and how shaming and policing are used to enforce feel good policies that might do more harm than good. If you are interested in the topic, you should read this book, simply for the reframing discussion about how to view sex I'm glad I read this book. I'm not sure what my view about prostitution is. I do wish that Grant had more than ancedotal evidence ( and to be fair, she acknowledges her somewhat limited viewpoint). But Grant does have some very good points about how we should see sex workers and how shaming and policing are used to enforce feel good policies that might do more harm than good. If you are interested in the topic, you should read this book, simply for the reframing discussion about how to view sex workers.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jack Hart

    I found Playing the Whore to be a fresh, innovative, and strongly voiced reflection on sex worker politics. So I was a little thrown off when I turned to the reviews—as well as the comments on various blogs, Goodreads, and Amazon—to find how many readers found the book to be tired, wandering, and ranting. Perhaps my bias in favor of desacralizing sex made me completely forgiving of some issues of tone that I didn’t not notice, and completely sympathetic to the book’s central notion that sex work I found Playing the Whore to be a fresh, innovative, and strongly voiced reflection on sex worker politics. So I was a little thrown off when I turned to the reviews—as well as the comments on various blogs, Goodreads, and Amazon—to find how many readers found the book to be tired, wandering, and ranting. Perhaps my bias in favor of desacralizing sex made me completely forgiving of some issues of tone that I didn’t not notice, and completely sympathetic to the book’s central notion that sex work is work and should be afforded the protections of work. In this review I want to voice my reaction to Playing the Whore and its disappointed readers in two ways. In the first part I’ll suggest the kind of book this book is not. Perhaps this may be helpful to the many readers who found it a frustrating read, but who also mentioned that they had caught glimpses of its intelligence and power. Perhaps an explicit consideration of how this argument does not proceed will help such readers recognize and bracket expectations they may have imposed upon it. Maybe, then, it can be given another shot on its own terms. In the second part I’ll restate Grant’s central arguments and add commentary about why I find them to be so persuasive. My audience for this effort is, again, those of her intrigued readers who had a decisively mixed reaction to her arguments as arguments. --One of the ways a reader and a book can miss each other is when the reader is looking for the book to do stuff the book itself has no interest in doing. So here are some observations about what the book is not attempting. This is not an outreach book. Playing the Whore does not seek to persuade those who think that sex work isn’t work by confronting the reasons that they might think that in a staged pro-con debate. Such a book would be an interesting act of citizenship and I wish someone would write it, but that’s not what’s happening here. Instead this author seeks to be persuasive by citing ethnographers, anthropologists, and sociologists who’ve studied the views of sex workers by talking to them to establish the proposition that for the vast majority of those who do it, sex work feels like the other kinds of work that they have also done. She will then go on to argue that to grant sex workers the dignity of their own understanding of their own motivations would radically change the conversation around sex work. This is not a book on Sex Worker Feminism 101, nor a manifesto. A representative Goodreads comment complains, “The illustrations and polemics (one might say rants) collected here demonstrate that the prevailing logic about sex work is inadequate, but the book fails to cohere into a helpful alternative way to think about sex work.” I would agree with this reader that there is more critique here than affirmative program, but I would also say that demonstrating the inadequacy of the prevailing logic of a very deeply held set of cultural beliefs is kind of a lot. I appreciate the hunger to be taught more of the background of the arguments used so that their coherence and implication might have the look and feel of a more executive view, but would also point out that the book’s humility strikes me as one of its virtues. Grant knows what she knows deftly, even tenaciously, but it was my impression that she wanted to admit an element of uncertainty about how to go forward. Her plea isn’t for this or that unified policy, but the more democratic call that sex workers be included in policy discussions so as to become less its object and more its subject.The What-Is-To-Be-Done question remains for each sympathetic reader within the confines of his or her activist circumstances, but the preference for decriminalizing or legalizing sex work perhaps along the lines of the New Zeeland model, revoking the policy of making U.S. foreign aid contingent on the distressed government signing an anti-prostitution pledge, asking law enforcement to work with a much more informed and nuanced distinction between prostitution and trafficking, as well as support for the positions with respect to prostitution articulated by The World Health Organization, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International as well as SWOP (Sex Workers Outreach Program) seem pretty programmatically clear-cut. This is not a memoir. Although Grant lets it be known that she has done sex work and so considers herself to be speaking as one of the “them” against whom so much public scorn and police resources have been directed, her arguments do not draw upon her particular experience in this labor market. She explains why: “So often in telling sex work stories, the storytelling process is a form of striptease indistinguishable from sex work itself, a demand to create a satisfyingly revealing story, for audiences whose interest is disguised as compassion or curiosity.” In a word, she has learned it’s not safe for a sex worker to tell her story. It seems that given the surrounding culture they can only be read, and so can only be written, as a story of degradation or empowerment. If this seems like an extreme generalization, try to find an existing narrative about doing sex work that can’t be reduced to the proposition that the work is dehumanizing or (less often but at least as suspect) liberating. But while this is not a memoir, I think it is fair to call it a work of intellectual biography—a reckoning and coming to terms with the sources that have produced her mind. Grant has long been reflecting on the way in which the figure of the prostitute has appeared in media and been used by those whose sense of their own respectability dictates a condemnatory stance. She’s invested a good part of her life reading and thinking and writing about labor, sex, activism, and politics, and sussing out the forces that resist seeing the commonality between sex work and other kinds of intimate service. She’s also interviewed and worked with and been an activist alongside of those seeking to have the needs and concerns of sex workers included in policy debates about prostitution and trafficking. She’s also apparently spent a good amount of time in the COYOTE and the Center for Sex and Culture archives steeping herself in the history of sex worker advocacy and its complicated and ever-changing relation to other feminisms.So her influences are myriad and her absorption of them strike me as mighty and not impersonal, and yet I suspect it’s this virtue that causes spot problems with the book’s tone. Here and there you’re not sure who she’s talking to, or you realize that she’s talking to fellow sex workers now when just a paragraph ago she was talking to a general leftish wonkish reader or those who hew to a particular line of academic analysis which is not itself fully cited. I say this in an effort to acknowledge the perceptions of readers who did not feel the book was for them, but I also say it to insist the book is or can be for any reader ambitious to come under the influence of a deeply sourced work that breaks new ground. --Having discussed what the book is not, I’ll now sketch and comment on what I see as its three most innovative and well-made arguments. Argument One: If the arc of history is to bend toward justice the set of automatic, default assumptions about women who sell sex must change. Playing the Whore takes a long and large view by taking note of how the figure of the woman who sells sex has evolved. In Grant’s words, “Commercial sex—as a practice and an industry—as well as the class of people within it are continuously being reinvented.” She goes on to describe how the pre-modern figure of the whore was used to designate any woman who, for whatever reason, had sex outside marriage. Women who sold sexual services didn't get to have their own special smear word until the late Nineteenth Century. It has only been in the last hundred and thirty years or so that the term “prostitute,” a word which originally meant to sell something illicit, came to exclusively designate women who fucked for money. The whore was an outcast, but the prostitute was seen as a fallen woman assumed to have an original dignity. Like the whore she was despised, but now with an admixture of pity. In the public mind she was “a fantasy of absolute degradation.” From the point of view of respectability politics she was a problem to be solved, and a set of do-gooder charitable institutions and legal interventions arose to try to save her, in a telling phrase, “for her own good.” And that’s kind of where we are now. Grant embraces “sex worker” as the progressive term. It has the virtue of having been coined (in the 1970’s) by a woman in the trade and has been adopted by the activist and advocacy organizations formed by sex workers themselves. In recent years it seems to have gained some traction in the larger community. Argument Two: Sex work is work. This is the book’s main argument, and I wish she had been just a little less subtle and a bit more direct in dealing with her main non-argumentative opponent: the yuck factor. Because people who don’t think sex work is work don’t think that because when they imagine themselves doing it what comes to them, to use a crucial phrase quoted earlier, is “a fantasy of absolute degradation.” If you opine that the laws against soliciting and prostitution are absurd such people will taunt you with, “Would you want your daughter doing sex work?” as if the only thing standing between doing sex work and not are harsh laws against it. If my worst nightmare is entering relations with a stranger for any reason whatsoever except experimental or marital intimacy, to say that an exchange of money can make a sex act into an act of labor is going to make as much sense to me as to call acting in a snuff film acting. What Grant might say if she were to speak directly to those fighting to be rational against their own yuck factor is: “It’s not about you.” Or even, “It’s only about you if you make it about you—and before you do that you might want to talk to the folks having sex for money to see if maybe different folks have different yuck thresholds, perhaps related to being in different economic circumstances.” She then goes on to explain that the work of sex work doesn’t take place at the moment of penetrative horror as it’s imagined by a non-sex worker. It is, rather, the more prosaic pretending of a certain kind of mutuality. Acting as if we share our customers’ desires is the work of sex work. But that’s not the same as allowing our customers to define our sexuality….Sex work is not simply sex; it is a performance, it is playing a role, demonstrating a skill, developing empathy within a set of professional boundaries. All this could be more easily recognized and respected as labor were it the labor of a nurse, a therapist, or a nanny. To insist that sex work is work is also to affirm there is a difference between a sexualized form of labor and sexuality itself.Let’s be clear: Nobody is trying to wish the yuck factor away. What is being called for, instead, is the common sense recognition that all labor is more or less alienating. A therapist doesn’t listen to you because he cares what you think, not the way a friend might care. A nanny doesn’t change a kid’s diapers because she shares a natural bond with him. A nurse doesn’t debride an old man’s bedsores because she’s only all about healing. Money creates these relationships. And moreover, people are often grossed out at work. In fact, learning not to be grossed out is a big part of the early learning curve of many professions. The more one thinks about the all too arbitrary and personal and distributed nature of the yuck factor, the less sense it makes to make policy in its name. Argument Three: Sex work is work, but it’s not yet “a job like any other.” A law against theft endangers me only at the moment that I steal, but the criminalization of sex work leads to the police going on the Internet to pose as customers so as to entrap sex workers (and in some jurisdictions their prospective clients). It would be as if they set valuable apparently unsecured items in front of me hoping I would take them so that they could swoop down on me and read me my rights. And what sex workers are arrested for is very rarely having sex, but for agreeing to have sex. “Prostitution is,” Grant observes, “much of the time, a talking crime.” It’s also a crime that rarely goes to trial because the point of these arrests is harassment—cuffing, humiliation, publication, making the work more dangerous and unpleasant. In the age of the Internet when the street scene has largely disappeared, the point of stings is in no non-tortured sense the protection of the law-abiding from the law-breaking. This climate of illegality leads to a big package deal of distorted thinking."Crimininalization” isn’t just a law on the books but a state of being and moving in the world, of forming relationships—of having them predetermined for you. This is why we demonize the customer’s perspective on the sex worker as one of absolute control, why we situate the real violence sex workers can face as the individual [violent] man’s responsibility, and why we imagine that all sex workers must be powerless to say no.From the viewpoint of most sex workers, Grant again cites the appropriate studies, what makes sex work unsafe isn’t as much customers as it is the police. This happens in two ways. First, they create the vulnerability of sex workers to criminally inclined clients by necessitating all-too-private encounters. Second, when a work-related crime is committed against a sex worker she becomes vulnerable to marking herself as a criminal by reporting it. --The walls of marijuana prohibition are being torn down, and big city American mayors and Latin American presidents are talking about “harm reduction” and “despenilizado” as preferred strategies to a war on harder drugs. Other once taboo behaviors are also being reconsidered. New Jersey is trying to get the federal ban on sports betting lifted, and the state of Delaware is selling its citizens parlay cards. The Supreme Court has determined that States can not outlaw acts of sodomy, and pretty near everybody probably knows some sodomites and thinks that they’re nice people. Perhaps most importantly, the fact that the U.S. incarcerates a far greater percentage of its citizens than any other country is starting to be felt as shameful even by those law-and-order types who take specific pride in the fact that their daughters are not whores. These things are happening because libertarian talking points are being explored, expounded, and modified by liberal politicians and left-leaning intellectuals. Melisa Gira Grant is a journalistic leader in this movement, and I think her eloquent voicing of this newly synthesized point of view as it pertains to sex work is important because I think politics are important. This is a book that at times preaches to the choir, but in a new idiom of representivity and solidarity. Does one dare to hope that a rare moment is upon us when the message might find it's way to the world at large? In the near future might a new liberal sensibility on these matters make common cause with the non-theocratic sectors of the small government parties so that they might go forth together to change the law? I found my reading aided by listening to Ms. Grant as a podcast guest. Here are some links where you can do that. -- The VICE Podcast The Whorecast The Belabored Podcast More Recent Articles Amnesty International’s Long-Due Support for Sex Workers Rights Related Articles not by MGG Celebrity Activists Get It Wrong on Amnesty International Sex Work Policy

  8. 5 out of 5

    Sasha

    Great primer on sex work, I like how each chapter was focused on a different facet of the issue (e.g. “The Police,” “The Prostitute,” “The Work”). It was more theory than I expected so sometimes I had to reread sentences a few times. Something about it felt incomplete or lacking cohesion but I would still really recommend it! Lots of great food for thought and lenses for understanding sex work as work. Definitely want to read Revolting Prostitutes to get a more concrete grasp of decriminalizatio Great primer on sex work, I like how each chapter was focused on a different facet of the issue (e.g. “The Police,” “The Prostitute,” “The Work”). It was more theory than I expected so sometimes I had to reread sentences a few times. Something about it felt incomplete or lacking cohesion but I would still really recommend it! Lots of great food for thought and lenses for understanding sex work as work. Definitely want to read Revolting Prostitutes to get a more concrete grasp of decriminalization.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Seth

    A jungle of confused polemics. I'm not exactly sure who the author is trying to convince in this short book. She claims to want to argue that sex work (a broad category that covers prostitution, stripping, pornography, and anything else in the skin trade) is a perfectly legitimate moral activity. Unfortunately, most of the time she simply assumes what she's trying to prove and then moves on to secondary arguments that simply aren't controversial if the reader grants her premises. Of course the so A jungle of confused polemics. I'm not exactly sure who the author is trying to convince in this short book. She claims to want to argue that sex work (a broad category that covers prostitution, stripping, pornography, and anything else in the skin trade) is a perfectly legitimate moral activity. Unfortunately, most of the time she simply assumes what she's trying to prove and then moves on to secondary arguments that simply aren't controversial if the reader grants her premises. Of course the solution to social discrimination and inconsistent enforcement of the laws against prostitutes would be legalization--that is, assuming sex work is truly just like any other banal activity, economic or otherwise, such as nursing nanny work, hair braiding or babysitting. She makes these comparisons often, yet there's little content here to actually explain why sex work isn't immoral, let alone why it shouldn't be treated like any other economic act--apart from pragmatic soundbites unlikely to gain a hearing with any but those who already share her worldview. The author does eventually asks a fundamental question: "What if being sexualized is neither liberating nor empowering, and is simply value neutral?" Now we're getting somewhere! But again, the answer given (like the entire book) is one big question beg, and she doesn't address or even seem to recognize that people can consistently oppose the legalization and normalization of sex work through principled moral reasoning and the (abundant) evidence of abuse, exploitation and other damaging social costs that it wreaks, rather than out of fear or bigotry. The author expresses worry about the negative consequences of law enforcement and NGO actions, such as raids to "rescue" girls but which leaves a vacuum that results in even worse conditions. Of course, if sex work is immoral and dangerous, the solution is better enforcement and better follow-up care of the women and girls involved, not less. So we're back to where we started--at the foundational questions. "Opponents of sex work decry prostitution as a violent institution; yet concede that violence is also useful to keep people from it." This sort of reasoning is of a piece with other such tidbits of pithy, reductionist liberal wisdom like "waging war to preserve peace is inherently a contradiction," and deserves the same ridicule. Her calls to include sex workers in discussions of legislation is like arguing that drug dealers should be invited to board meetings at the DEA. To top it all off, the book is riddled with incomplete and awkwardly constructed sentences, strained connections, and non sequiturs. I was hoping for something that would engage the brain, but instead ended up with a headache. A digital copy of this book was provided by the publisher through Netgalley for purposes of review.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Gaele

    One of the inherent difficulties in formulating a debate is the need for a concise, clear and well-organized presentation of facts, argument and position. In Playing the Whore, Grant is arguing that sex-work (prostitution, stripping, etc.) is a valid occupation, and that all the preconceived discriminatory beliefs to the contrary are not necessarily correct. Unfortunately, while she does present some interesting perspective on the work, the desire to work in the industry and the benefits gained, One of the inherent difficulties in formulating a debate is the need for a concise, clear and well-organized presentation of facts, argument and position. In Playing the Whore, Grant is arguing that sex-work (prostitution, stripping, etc.) is a valid occupation, and that all the preconceived discriminatory beliefs to the contrary are not necessarily correct. Unfortunately, while she does present some interesting perspective on the work, the desire to work in the industry and the benefits gained, the arguments, rants and even facts are presented in such a poorly organized manner that all of the ideas become muddled and don’t really achieve any coherent conclusion. While Grant does have some unique points and a perspective that will give readers a new approach to the industry, her presentation seems to wander without direction: a loosely connected set of ideas, all focusing on sex-work, without any real direction, conclusion or even a strong argument that reinforces her premise. In fact, the tone and overall impression on conclusion of this book is that even the author isn’t all that convinced by her own arguments: she most certainly did not achieve her stated end. Whether the arguments were not presented with enough clarity or information, or the lack of directed focus caused the difficulties I am not quite sure, but the promise was a far cry from the reality in this book. I received an eArc copy from the publisher via for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.

  11. 5 out of 5

    muthuvel

    When it comes to finding similar opinions among people of different political affiliations, Sex Work is one of the most frequent topics. Most in this so-called spectrum have their own opinions, validations on why Sex Work has to be ended. "Raising awareness serves to build value for the raisers, not for those who are the subjects of the awareness." "Far from concerning the lives of people who do sex work, these debates are an opportunity for prostitution opponents to stake out their own intellectu When it comes to finding similar opinions among people of different political affiliations, Sex Work is one of the most frequent topics. Most in this so-called spectrum have their own opinions, validations on why Sex Work has to be ended. "Raising awareness serves to build value for the raisers, not for those who are the subjects of the awareness." "Far from concerning the lives of people who do sex work, these debates are an opportunity for prostitution opponents to stake out their own intellectual, political, and moral contributions to 'this issue." Arguments like Sex is sacred. Sex work objectify and sexualize women. Sex Work has long term effects on the people who are involved. And so on. "It’s objectification, too, when these “supporters” represent sex workers as degraded, as victims, and as titillating object lessons, and render sex workers’ whole selves invisible." Here in this work, Melissa Gira Grant develops a powerful polemic over anti-sexwork rhetoric by 'feminists' and rescue workers, policing and trouble from the 'democratic' institutions and other debators. The author has brought upon a lot of insights on the issue, its relevance in our contemporary societies. "Sex workers are tired of being invited to publicly investigate the politics of their own lives only if they’re also willing to serve as a prop for someone else’s politics." As long as there's structurally inbuilt violence, exploitation, racism bred with Patriarchy, as long as there's a system which stigmatizes womxn, no one with a genuine conscience could have the audacity and authority to generalize all the various multitudes of issues of Sex work to a singular or a handful of agenda to work upon/against. "Whore stigma makes central the racial and class hierarchy reinforced in the dividing of women into the pure and the impure, the clean and the unclean, the white and virgin and all the others. If woman is other, whore is the other’s other." Having conditioned by the prior readings, found the arguments a bit loosely put together in fragments. Nevertheless it's an informative read for anyone who's capable of reading with a clear head. Playing the Whore (2014) ~ Melissa Gira Grant

  12. 4 out of 5

    Anelis

    This is not the world's best written book but it's a very important one that should be a must-read for all people. While the writing could be more fluent, the messages, thoughts, personal stories, statistics, and social analyses and quotes it provides are extremely necessary for everyone to know and understand. Even if you’ve read a few articles or listened to some podcasts on the matter, Playing the Whore provides many new aspects and touches on a variety of subjects that have to do with the vas This is not the world's best written book but it's a very important one that should be a must-read for all people. While the writing could be more fluent, the messages, thoughts, personal stories, statistics, and social analyses and quotes it provides are extremely necessary for everyone to know and understand. Even if you’ve read a few articles or listened to some podcasts on the matter, Playing the Whore provides many new aspects and touches on a variety of subjects that have to do with the vastness that is the industry. Selected quotes: Chapter 4: The Debate “Sex workers should not be expected to defend the existence of sex work in order to have the right to do it free from harm.” “Is this the real fear then: not that more people are becoming prostitutes but that the conventional ways we’d distinguish prostitute from a nonprostitute woman are no longer functional? Antiprostitution laws are primarily about exclusion and banishment; how, now, will we know who is to be banished and excluded?” Chapter 5: The Industry “As feminist anarchist Emma Goldman noted in 1910, the prostitution panic “will help to create a few more fat political jobs-parasites who stalk about the world as inspectors, investigators, detectives, and so forth.” The loss of sex workers’ income was their gain.” Chapter 7: The Stigma “Naming whore stigma offers us a way through it: to value difference, to develop solidarity between women in and out of the sex trade. […]There’s an echo of this in the popularization of whore stigma in a milder form as outrage at “slut shaming.” What is lost, however, in moving from whore stigma to slut shaming is the centrality of the people most harmed by this form of discrimination.” Chapter 8: The Other Women “Prostitutes, in their imagination, have actually become the mute objects men have reduced them to. They are apparently unlike all other women, who face objectification but can retain their ability to speak and move in the world independently. […] When anti-sex work activists claim that all sex work is rape, they don’t just ignore the labor; they excuse the actual rape of sex workers. If men can do whatever they want when they buy sex, the rape of sex workers, of those who are thought to have no consent to give anyway, isn’t understood by opponents as an aberration but as somehow intrinsic and inevitable.” “When massive chains like Pret A Manger or Starbucks require their workers to serve up coffee with a smile or else, we don’t believe we can remedy this demand for forced niceties by telling attention-desperate customers to get their emotional needs met elsewhere.” Chapter 10: The Movement “Because so long as there are women to be called whores, there will be women who are trained to believe it is next to death to be one or be mistaken for one. And so long as that is, men will feel they can leave whores for dead with impunity. The fear of the whore, or of being the whore, is the engine that drives the whole thing. That could be called “misogyny,” but even that word misses something: the cheapness of the whore, how easily she might be discarded not only due to her gender but to her race, her class. Whore is maybe the original intersectional insult.”

  13. 5 out of 5

    Damaskcat

    This is an interesting look at the work of prostitutes, lap dancers, pole dancers and pornographic film actors. It looks at the situation primarily in America and includes comments from people in the industry and how they feel about the work. I found it particularly fascinating in that it looks at the attitudes of the general public to the sex industry and asks why sex in marriage is acceptable but paying for sex and receiving payment for it suddenly makes it something shameful for the women who This is an interesting look at the work of prostitutes, lap dancers, pole dancers and pornographic film actors. It looks at the situation primarily in America and includes comments from people in the industry and how they feel about the work. I found it particularly fascinating in that it looks at the attitudes of the general public to the sex industry and asks why sex in marriage is acceptable but paying for sex and receiving payment for it suddenly makes it something shameful for the women who provide the service but not for those who use the service. I found this an intriguing, thought provoking and down to earth book and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in sociology and the way society in general views certain activities. It is written in an accessible style and can be read by the general reader as well as those studying sociology or gender issues. I received a free copy of this book for review purposes.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Raya Saab

    Such an eye opener for me. This book challenged my thoughts and opinions. I went into this book realizing that I had opinions on sex work that were never mine but pushed on me by society and how I was raised. It was such a freeing feeling to open my eyes and mind to the history of sex work, the problems the people involved in it face, and the stigma that our society constructed around it. Sex workers’s issues are labor issues and as a woman, we must understand the importance of including them in Such an eye opener for me. This book challenged my thoughts and opinions. I went into this book realizing that I had opinions on sex work that were never mine but pushed on me by society and how I was raised. It was such a freeing feeling to open my eyes and mind to the history of sex work, the problems the people involved in it face, and the stigma that our society constructed around it. Sex workers’s issues are labor issues and as a woman, we must understand the importance of including them in the conversation, supporting them, considering them as people with agency. Not until then we can speak proudly of being feminists. To stand in solidarity with sex workers is to stand in solidarity with women issues and the fact that we have agency over our bodies and lives.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jehona

    This was an interesting book! It targeted too much the anti - sex work feminists in my opinion. Probably due to the understandable feeling of betrayal. She makes some excellent points from the perspective of the person who wants to do sex work. But, she diminishes the fact that sex work is one of the types of work into which people are forced. Human trafficking for sex work is a real thing in many countries, even if that is not so much the case in America. One thing that should be clear to every p This was an interesting book! It targeted too much the anti - sex work feminists in my opinion. Probably due to the understandable feeling of betrayal. She makes some excellent points from the perspective of the person who wants to do sex work. But, she diminishes the fact that sex work is one of the types of work into which people are forced. Human trafficking for sex work is a real thing in many countries, even if that is not so much the case in America. One thing that should be clear to every person with a working brain is that criminalizing prostitution doesn't help anybody.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Katie Klabusich

    Fantastic. So well written and worth multiple reads. The broader ties to feminism as a movement and the way women, the LGBTQ community and people of color are treated historically and in a sexual/control context specifically makes this a must-read for all feminists and allies, no matter your background. Get. This. Book.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Eve

    It's very short but gave me a lot to think about. It's very short but gave me a lot to think about.

  18. 4 out of 5

    amal

    Spoiler! Sex work is work!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Francesca

    A good introductory read about sex work and it's stigmas and criminalization. Sex workers are often left behind in mainstream feminism and also super important to keep in mind when talking about the prison industrial complex/"justice" system as a group that are over-policed and criminalized. "Because so long as there are women who are called whores, there will be women who are trained to believe it is next to death to be one or to be mistaken for one. And so long as that is, men will feel they c A good introductory read about sex work and it's stigmas and criminalization. Sex workers are often left behind in mainstream feminism and also super important to keep in mind when talking about the prison industrial complex/"justice" system as a group that are over-policed and criminalized. "Because so long as there are women who are called whores, there will be women who are trained to believe it is next to death to be one or to be mistaken for one. And so long as that is, men will feel they can leave whores for dead with impunity. The fear of the whore, or of being the whore, is the engine that drives the whole thing. That engine could be called "misogyny", but even that word misses something: the cheapness of the whore, how easily she might be discarded not only due to her gender but to her race, her class. Whore is maybe the original intersectional insult." Edit to add: Sex workers are also an important group to keep in mind when talking about labor rights/labor organizing! Second edit to also add: I can email a copy of this ebook to anyone who is interested and needs it!

  20. 4 out of 5

    Barry

    The central argument of the book, that sex workers engage in labour and should be considered in similar terms to those who are employed in service economies is a powerful and convincing one. I will be honest, I've never before really considered the status of sex workers in respect of their relation to labour. I have fallen into the trap of considering sex workers as either a) an object of pity and someone to be 'rescued' or b) someone empowered by their sexuality and choices. I have never conside The central argument of the book, that sex workers engage in labour and should be considered in similar terms to those who are employed in service economies is a powerful and convincing one. I will be honest, I've never before really considered the status of sex workers in respect of their relation to labour. I have fallen into the trap of considering sex workers as either a) an object of pity and someone to be 'rescued' or b) someone empowered by their sexuality and choices. I have never considered the fully reasonable argument that a sex worker may view their job as any other job and also in comparison to other forms of work. I am sure many would consider elements of sex work to be unpleasant or distasteful yet how many of us truly love going to work? I'm one of the fortunate ones - I'm not slaving away on subsistence wages in backbreaking conditions or smiling time and time again as I serve coffee to rude people. I like the argument that if you want to improve the lives of sex workers you enable choices for the people involved - access to decent health care, employment opportunities etc. In unequal societies there is always going to be a market and a supply of sex work. If society wants to improve the lives of sex workers, enable a better alternative. There are some excellent points in the book about parts of the feminist movement that stand in the way of sex workers rights. By suggesting that the objectification of sex workers is the objectification of all women puts the blame at the people they are 'saving'. Even the discussion of sex worker arrests and 'saving' exist to present an image of these people as sex workers only and that the men and women engaged in this do not exist outside of this role they play. Yes, I think sex trafficking is disgusting and evil. Yes, I have no interest whatsoever in particularly degrading pornography. I also acknowledge that some sex workers in my city have chronic drug issues and would rather not be doing what they are doing. But all of them are people whose voices are not heard. I have heard that 'sex with prostitutes is rape' and I've taken a view previously that it isn't if an agreed transaction has taken place. I've had trouble reconciling that with sex workers who engage in this due to significant poverty for example, rather than empowerment. However, I have been swayed by the idea of 'undesirable consent' - the idea that a sex worker has agreed to an act even though they are not to thrilled about doing it. Again, how many people have done things at work they would rather not do? Again, this use of the idea of 'undesirable consent' is powerful as there are scenarios where sex workers are raped and abused and it is important to identify when sex workers do not receive adequate protection by the state and society at large, especially if one takes the attitude of 'all sex work is rape'. I particularly liked the discussion of 'make this legal - we can tax and regulate it'. Sex work is already regulated by laws - it is the police and judiciary who regulate it - it's just that it does not act in the interests of the worker. As for tax - the workers are already paying tax in a variety of ways (we're quite happy apparently for Starbucks not to pay tax as they employ loads of people who do then pay tax but untaxed low waged sex income needs paying?) My only criticism of the book is that at times the writing isn't particularly strong and it meanders a little. At times I'm not sure what the core points of the book are. However, it is a book that has challenged my thinking and I'd urge readers to read a few other reviews on here as quite a few of them discuss the issues more eloquently than I.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Vishal Misra

    This is a very short book, but does not detract from its importance. It has a very simple presence. How much violence is it acceptable to inflict on those who are Othered. I can't give this book 5 stars, as it is riddled with typos and niggling editorial irritants that could have easily been ironed out. However, it is still a remarkable book. It shows that the biggest perpetrator of violence against sex workers are the protectors of society. The police. Intimidation and forced sex are just some This is a very short book, but does not detract from its importance. It has a very simple presence. How much violence is it acceptable to inflict on those who are Othered. I can't give this book 5 stars, as it is riddled with typos and niggling editorial irritants that could have easily been ironed out. However, it is still a remarkable book. It shows that the biggest perpetrator of violence against sex workers are the protectors of society. The police. Intimidation and forced sex are just some of the terrors inflicted on sex workers. Grant lays bare the hypocrisy of NGOs and charities that seek to rescue sex workers, only to reintroduce them to a world of precarious, cheap labour. Indeed, most sex work elides the problem of insecure and poorly paid work that provides sex work with so many recruits. Rather, these NGOs find themselves able to make a profit through devaluing the lives of sex workers. Grant also shows the hypocrisy inherent in those who fight "slut shaming" by differentiating women who are definitely "not" sluts. Indeed, the lack of support for SlutWalks by sex workers themselves was a telling signal. Sex workers are marginalised, deemed unintelligent or unskilled. In fact the opposite is true. Grant attacks the notion of consent being inherently absent in sex work and dismisses the idea that criminalising demand will do anything to help sex workers. Indeed, most attempts to eradicate sex work serve to eradicate sex workers. This liberal shame is well shown by Grant and is roundly criticised. Indeed, Grant's main message is that the sex worker must always inhabit a fantasy land. Either as the objects of sexual fantasy for clients, or as fantasies of wretchedness, despair and exploitation. If they fail to do this they are class traitors. They are indeed, Whores. The Other of the Other that is women. This is a must read for anyone with an interest in sex work, but more so for those with an interest in the voices of sex workers themselves as opposed to the fantasies that inhabit the minds of journalists, novelists and anti-sex and antiprostitution campaigners.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Drake

    At times I found the author to be meandering, but her writing is full of powerful insight. For me this book is not only about sex workers, and not only about women. For me, this book is about the spectacle of removing someone’s agency because you’re uncomfortable with what they have to say, and in turn replacing their real-world experiences with your own made-up ideals. Men should read this book to understand why sexual agency matters, and what it means to take it away from someone. Women should r At times I found the author to be meandering, but her writing is full of powerful insight. For me this book is not only about sex workers, and not only about women. For me, this book is about the spectacle of removing someone’s agency because you’re uncomfortable with what they have to say, and in turn replacing their real-world experiences with your own made-up ideals. Men should read this book to understand why sexual agency matters, and what it means to take it away from someone. Women should read this book to understand that sex workers share the same fight for agency over their sexuality and ownership over their bodies. Sex work activists should read this book for ammunition in their struggle to convince the rest of us.

  23. 5 out of 5

    David

    Eye-opening angle on sex work. A valuable (and seemingly rare) perspective that emphasizes the agency and humanity of the sex worker. Some difficult insights here, and some challenging arguments. One of Grant's most compelling points, which she returns to from a few different angles, is the myopic and dehumanizing approach that most organizations take to addressing the reality of sex work. She points out that it is taken for granted that sex workers are victims but that this (thin veneer of?) con Eye-opening angle on sex work. A valuable (and seemingly rare) perspective that emphasizes the agency and humanity of the sex worker. Some difficult insights here, and some challenging arguments. One of Grant's most compelling points, which she returns to from a few different angles, is the myopic and dehumanizing approach that most organizations take to addressing the reality of sex work. She points out that it is taken for granted that sex workers are victims but that this (thin veneer of?) concern almost never includes any willingness to interrogate the larger social fabric (or lack thereof) that has placed these persons in a position where they have decided that the best option for them is to be part of the sex-for-hire industry. It's ridiculous to lock them up and/or shame them while also refusing to address a broken system that leaves them with few other good options. If they choose sex work over more hours/ less money/ no benefits at McDonald's or WalMart, is the true problem their choice of sex work or the fact that McDonald's and WalMart are terrible options (that generate billions of dollars for their owners yet intentionally leave their workers in need of US government programs designed to help the unemployed and poverty-stricken). The US, and neoliberalism in general, is so terrible at interrogating for root causes. It's much easier to stigmatize and ruin lives. You see it everywhere. Sigh.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Clare

    I admit that I decided to read this book largely because I am trying to alternate reading fiction and nonfiction but when I went to look at my nonfiction shelves I was basically like “Feeling dumb, what have I got that’s short?” and my copy of Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work looked nice and pocket-sized. I’ve also been following her journalism for a while via Twitter so I sort of knew what to expect, which might not be the most educational approach in the world, bu I admit that I decided to read this book largely because I am trying to alternate reading fiction and nonfiction but when I went to look at my nonfiction shelves I was basically like “Feeling dumb, what have I got that’s short?” and my copy of Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work looked nice and pocket-sized. I’ve also been following her journalism for a while via Twitter so I sort of knew what to expect, which might not be the most educational approach in the world, but whatever, it’s what I can do right now. I probably shouldn’t have been that surprised that a decent amount of the material was already familiar to me, as sex work decriminalization is an issue that people discuss in my organizing circles sometimes and, as I mentioned, I’ve been following Grant on Twitter for a few years now. But I was nonetheless vaguely surprised that it would appear I have in fact picked up a certain amount of 101-level knowledge about sex work as a labor issue that is still not what you’d call “common knowledge” in the political mainstream (e.g. SESTA/FOSTA is bad, “anti-trafficking” orgs are scams). One aspect that Grant talks about a decent amount in this book that I hadn’t had as much familiarity with from, say, the SESTA/FOSTA news coverage, and that I really appreciated her theorizing, is the imagery of sex work--the issues of presentation and objectification and performance that frame how we are taught to think about both the sex trade and the “rescue” industry, and in particular the way that the figure of the prostitute is objectified by the people and organizations that purport to be the ones who care about sex workers. What stories are allowed to get told, and by who and to whom and in what way and for what purpose, is something that I find both very interesting and, frankly, comprehensible in a way that whatever the appeal of commercial sex is supposed to be isn’t. Grant has a good eye for media shenanigans (which all journalists should, although not all of them do) and is able to explain them in a pretty grounded way. I’d have loved a little more exploration of how the myths and arguments we employ when we talk about sex work--especially the language around work that’s supposed to be “empowering”--illustrate our beliefs about work more broadly, but I think she’s written more on that elsewhere. I’m grateful for the work of activists and writers like Grant in providing clear and well-researched arguments about sex work in part because I recognize that I am instinctually susceptible to the arguments of the antis; it’s very, very easy to fall into moralizing against something just because you personally can’t grok it--while this is the basis of the entire conservative worldview, the rest of us aren’t necessarily immune, either. With the whole business of commercial sex filed firmly in my head under Sounds Fake But OK, I am naturally inclined to find it perfectly believable that the whole business is run by monsters/aliens/some other kind of not-the-same-species-as-me creature and that for a human person (i.e., one the same species as me) to get involved must necessarily be unexpected and traumatic, like getting beamed out of your bed at night by little green men with big heads and subjected to probes for some kind of unfathomable alien research. Breaking down not only that sex work is work, but specifically that it is skilled labor, and looking at what kinds of skills it requires and what other fields of work use those same skills, not only reminds me that I’m the weird one here, but also gives me a framework for understanding my own distance from the subject in terms of both my class privilege and my particular skills and... anti-skills? Idunno if that’s a real word but I’m not sure what the word is for “things one is unusually bad at and can’t seem to improve,” but that’s where we’re going to put such staples of affective labor such as “being nice and friendly to strangers for extended periods of time” and “pretending to care about men’s opinions.” Anyway, due to the hard work of writers like Grant in educating dumbasses like me, I now at least understand the appeal of dating men for money more than I understand the appeal of dating them not for money. I hope I never have to do any kind of customer service work at all ever again in my life. Another big chunk of the book is dedicated to chronicling police brutality against sex workers, including and especially by organizations and governments that are supposedly “rescuing” sex workers from trafficking. The focus here is not just on illustrating the outrages--an approach that can easily turn into trauma-spectacle itself--but particularly on explaining how it functions and to what ends (as well as highlighting the cloying nonsensicality of the various institutions that purport to be using policing for socially progressive goals), how it is used to turn a behavior into a type of person and subject that class of person to specific forms of social control. If you’ve read Alex Vitale’s The End of Policing, which contains a chapter on sex work, you’ll find some of this familiar, not just in regard to sex workers but to other criminalized classes of people. There are also some interesting historical tidbits as Grant chronicles the rise of anti-prostitution activism in the feminist mainstream, a departure from the more radical early days, and the history of uneasy solidarity between sex worker activists and other stripes of feminists. The lessons to be learned from them are fairly obvious. Overall it’s a good, easy read, you will probably learn a thing or two, highly recommended. Originally posted at In which sex work is work.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Shanice Mcbean

    "it is not sex work that degrades us but those people who use our experiences to justify degradation". Brilliant little book that puts the voice, experiences and politics of sex workers themselves at the heart of the discussion. Grant's book is, by and large, a reaction to the dogmatic, reactionary and conservative narratives about sex work peddled by people who simultaneously claim to care but systematically deny the agency, safety and views of sex workers. As such the book is quite reactive and c "it is not sex work that degrades us but those people who use our experiences to justify degradation". Brilliant little book that puts the voice, experiences and politics of sex workers themselves at the heart of the discussion. Grant's book is, by and large, a reaction to the dogmatic, reactionary and conservative narratives about sex work peddled by people who simultaneously claim to care but systematically deny the agency, safety and views of sex workers. As such the book is quite reactive and can therefore at times be a little defensive. But this is purely a result of the way in which more conservative layers dominate dialogue around sex work and the resultant need to defend the very existence of sex workers. All round good book; recommended.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Liam89

    Read this, then make everyone you know read it as well. A brilliant and profoundly humane socialist-feminist manifesto calling for an end to the criminalisation of sex workers, but also to fundamentally change the paradigm through which we consider sex workers and the industry be recognising the people who perform such work as not just human beings with lives outside of their job, but also as workers who perform labour, workers who have the same rights as any worker, and indeed as any other huma Read this, then make everyone you know read it as well. A brilliant and profoundly humane socialist-feminist manifesto calling for an end to the criminalisation of sex workers, but also to fundamentally change the paradigm through which we consider sex workers and the industry be recognising the people who perform such work as not just human beings with lives outside of their job, but also as workers who perform labour, workers who have the same rights as any worker, and indeed as any other human being.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie Kelley

    !! this book is so important. i (accidentally) stole it from the bodleian and hoarded it for a few days but ya its back now, go check it out

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kelly Spoer

    5 stars for content Holy crap feminist reading 101. 2 stars for editing. like really, copy editor much? sometime hard to read, also silly mistakes.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Hale

    I think this is an important book for anyone who claims to be a feminist.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    I was unfortunately disappointed by this overall. The author really lost me when she misunderstood both the comments of the police officer and the protest movement Slut Walk. The author here suggests women don't like to be called sluts. The police officer suggested not dressing like a slut as a way to avoid sexual assault, placing the blame on victims for the crimes enacted on their bodies. Many participants in Slut Walk marches chose to wear items of clothing they had worn when assaulted. Nothin I was unfortunately disappointed by this overall. The author really lost me when she misunderstood both the comments of the police officer and the protest movement Slut Walk. The author here suggests women don't like to be called sluts. The police officer suggested not dressing like a slut as a way to avoid sexual assault, placing the blame on victims for the crimes enacted on their bodies. Many participants in Slut Walk marches chose to wear items of clothing they had worn when assaulted. Nothing excuses assault, and this embraces the full spectrum of women, men and non gender binary individuals who experience sexual violence. Anyone can be a victim of an assault, and any other choices they make have no bearing on their worth. This is what slut walk was about, the attitude that anyone deserves to be assaulted. I was also disappointed by the lack of sympathy for the women's conference speaker who shared that she was abused by her father and feels pornography was complicit in her abuse. The scene at the docks where bodies of late sex workers were found was also disappointing, centering the author's experience of the wind being cold rather than centering the grief of family members who have lost someone irreplaceable. She calls their cries performative, a type of currency. This dismisses the real pain grieving families feel. The whole text jumps back and forth from first to third person, San Fransisco to Cambodia, without making any central argument or trying all the strands together at the end. It raised some interesting ideas but felt randomly strung together.

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