Toying with politics

Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, Melissa Gira Grant (Verso, 2014; £8.99)


The cover of this manifesto on sex work shows three cogs in three fleshy tones, a penetrable central socket in each and high-heeled legs sprouting from them as they appear to grind against each other in a mechanically impossible formation, with no outside power to drive them. And what is missing from the book overall is any idea of what drives the business of prostitution. Even to discuss demand, according to Gira Grant, is to detract from the agency of sex workers:

The demand for victims, as anti-sex work activists describe it, is driven by men’s insatiable desire – not by sex workers’ own demands for housing, healthcare, education, a better life, a richer life, if we dare. Male desire is held up as a problem to be solved, and ending men’s “demand” for “buying” women is a social project to be taken up by producing alternatives for men – such as jail – and scant alternatives for sex workers – such as other forms of employment. It’s a smaller and more convenient problem to want to solve: who men want to fuck and how. It’s one that women who oppose sex work and sex workers’ rights can pretend – unlike poverty or racial inequality – that they have no role in, that they do not themselves benefit from. [pp. 42-3]

Gira Grant’s insistent refrain in this book is that sex work is work, and sex workers are entitled to certain rights in the course of their work. That focus on sex as a business makes the elision of the purchaser even more annoying than it might have been otherwise: few forms of employment have been devised solely for the benefit of those who perform them, and while it’s true that money provides motivation for sex workers, sex work can only be work if someone is willing to pay for it.

That someone is men. From the way she characterises the anti-sex work position above, I suspect that it’s Gira Grant who considers “men’s insatiable desire” the driver – where she differs is that she doesn’t believe this desire should be seen as a problem. But the anti-prostitution argument might hold, and more persuasively, that men do not buy sex because they are innately libidinous: instead, the punter is driven by a belief that he has the right to access women as a commodity because he sees women as his inferior, and he finds erotic gratification in a relationship where the social roles are clearly defined by a cash transaction.

In the anti account, sex work is less about pleasure than it is about power, but because Gira Grant’s book doesn’t acknowledge the issue of masculine social dominance, she isn’t able to respond to that argument. Where does Gira Grant think power is vested? In the state, acting through the police and judiciary; and in anti-prostitution feminists, who Gira Grant claims are allied with police brutality. In the passage quoted above, they’re also implicitly stated to be white and middle class, which seems a rather sly and false way to shore up the radical credentials of the pro-sex work case. 

On the point of brutality, Gira Grant offers many examples of the abuses committed against women in the sex trade in the name of regulating prostitution, and if anyone is foolish enough to think that policing around the globe is an inherently feminist institution, this is a good book with which to disabuse yourself. The Indian sex workers who say they suffer more abuse from police than punters, the accounts of Cambodian round-ups: these are horrific. (They’re also examples of why end-demand campaigners are opposed to the policing of the women who sell sex.)

It’s unfortunate, then, that Gira Grant demands the reader accept her feminist-complicity hypothesis along with the fact of state violence. The women’s movement has long spoken out against police misogyny towards sex workers, on the understanding that as to prostitutes so to all women: the 1977 Reclaim the Night march in Leeds, reacting to the introduction of a curfew on women (not men) during the Yorkshire Ripper’s savage spree, is a totemic example of that.  You don’t have to accept the legitimacy of the sex trade to stand against the abuse of those involved in it, and given Gira Grant’s embrace of a harm-reduction ethic elsewhere, it’s strange to see her adopt a moral absolutism that excludes collaboration with potential allies on immediate and life-saving goals.

The book’s grasp of history comes up short in other ways. In the second chapter, Gira Grant tries to show that the identity of the prostitute is a culturally unstable one, invented that it might be controlled: “It’s the nineteenth century that brings us the person of the prostitute,” she writes. [p. 14] This is a welcome rejection of the tedious conservatism of the “world’s oldest profession” argument that is so often made in favour of sex work by self-proclaimed radicals with a blind spot for irony. But in chapter 6, discussing the use of technology by sex workers, she tells us: “In ancient Greece, certain classes of prostitute attracted customers by scoring the words ‘Follow me’ on the soles of their sandals […]” [p. 70]

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim that the prostitute is a Victorian innovation for the governing of sexuality, and then subsequently claim a continuity between the prostitutes of ancient Greece and those of Craigslist. There is one interesting observation to draw from Gira Grant’s commentary on prostitution and the wider economy, though, and that’s how much it resembles Gail Dines’ account in Pornland of a sex industry entwined with the hospitality, service and communications industries. Dines’ intention is to horrify readers with the level of capitalist complicity, Grant’s is to present sex work as a normalised part of the economy: both seem to agree that we live in Pornland, but only one is willing to imagine that there might be a better existence for women beyond it.

Gira Grant seems to see nowhere for women to fit beyond the sexual market. She writes: “[t]o truly confront [violence against sex workers] would require us to admit that we permit violence against some women to be committed in order to protect the social and sexual value of other women.” [p. 6] Even if an individual woman is not selling sex herself, in Gira Grant’s view that woman is offering a product in competition with that offered by sex workers, and anti-prostitution laws are to be understood as economically protectionist policies. Fuck Laws rather than Corn Laws, so to speak.

Actually, in the construction Gira Grant uses, the woman herself is the product – a possibly telling contradiction with other parts of the book where she insists that sex workers do not “sell their bodies” [p. 94] but instead provide a service. Neither the version Gira Grant dismisses not the one she offers in its place adequately characterises the sale of sex: sex workers don’t “sell their bodies” in the sense of handing over possession of a good, but reviews from PunterNet show that the men who pay for sex are very clear that the body of the woman is what they are paying for. What they buy is a licence for use of the woman’s body, for a certain amount of time and in a certain way (which many punters feel entitled to renegotiate during sex).

I don’t consider sex work a wrong to women because I think it affects my sexual value. I reject the idea that any woman should be given a sexual value at all. I consider prostitution a wrong because it places all women within an economic structure that prices them sexually: there is no comparable structure that women can place on men, because women have neither the capital nor the social power to do so. Gira Grant thinks that we must accept the legitimacy of sex work to make women safe; I think that as long as sex work is legitimised, men’s power over women is legitimised by extension, and women are made less safe.

Shared aims can and do coexist between these opposing positions, but to find them we have to be willing to look at the power that turns the cogs: the men who buy sex, and why they do it. Gira Grant displaces agency away from such men: “so long as there are women who are called whores, there will be women who 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.”

You might notice here that Gira Grant implies that women’s fears enable men’s violence, even though for women to be afraid of being mistaken for a whore, the male violence would logically have to come first. But Gira Grant cannot account for male violence around sex work, and the confusing call for “whore” to be adopted as a political identity with which Playing the Whore concludes is no answer to the abuses women suffer in a world where their bodies are a commercial commodity. Treating something as a game or a performance does not, after all, stop it from being viciously real to other people.

5 thoughts on “Toying with politics

  1. Thank you for this insightful review.

    I’m disturbed that male leftists like Chris Hayes are lining up to endorse a book that assigns women responsibility for male violence. It’s delusional to think that our attitudes have an effect on how men treat prostitutes, and as you say, who could blame us for being afraid of being mistaken for one? Male violence produces the fear. How is she considered a feminist when she engages in this guilt-tripping?

    I saw a couple of Grant’s jabs at you on Twitter. “Telling that a book devoted to sex workers’ own political demands is dismissed as “toying” with politics.” Grant only represents some prostitutes-by-choice, and her demands are not automatically more valid than those of others. The “harm reduction” Grant calls for only spreads harm around to other women, so those of us with non-prostitute privilege do get a say in the matter, particularly when she expects women and not men to do the labor of advancing her cause. Considering her general tone of derision toward those of us running the unfair sex cartel, she’s really asking a lot of us, don’t you think?

  2. Thanks for an interesting review. I’m shocked how this subject has polarised feminists. I was unfollowed on twitter for re-tweeting this :(

  3. What fraction of total wealth and social power do women need to own/control before it is no longer a knockout argument to point to?

    Clearly defined roles are obviously great for lots of reasons: the question is whether they are good, fair, sustainable (etc) roles. I’ve seen little or no evidence anywhere that most or all men find buying sex with cash erotic. Most seem to prefer the cheaper prices they pay in the normal mating market.

    If you think that some women selling sex for cash (rather than for access to status, commitment, or straight up pleasure) changes the relationships all other women have with men then that can be framed as a testable prediction. Is there some non vague version of your claim you’d like to make that we can check with the data?

  4. Heya – thanks for an interesting post. I was quite struck by the fear thing, as it seems fairly contrary to what I’d always assumed – that fear of being labeled ‘whore’ was more to do with sexual shame, and the fear of being given a sexual label. This is all tied in, I think, with the inequality that exists around how we view men and women: that women are (and should always be) passively sexual, to be labelled and processed, whereas men are in control of and own any sexual power.

    “You might notice here that Gira Grant implies that women’s fears enable men’s violence, even though for women to be afraid of being mistaken for a whore, the male violence would logically have to come first.”

    I agree that this is odd, and also sounds like it’s victim blaming when put like that. But interpreted as a fear of sexual shame, it seems natural for women to fear the label ‘whore’ – it props up the idea that someone else owns and gets to label women’s sexual experience.

    I agree with a lot of what you write, but I think we fundamentally disagree on sex work. I’ve been struggling to pinpoint why, but having read this through a couple of times I think this is probably the main thing I’d challenge:

    “I consider prostitution a wrong because it places all women within an economic structure that prices them sexually: there is no comparable structure that women can place on men, because women have neither the capital nor the social power to do so.”

    While I completely agree that the inequality is a problem, I’d argue that simply because the power structure in which we live tries to do this that doesn’t mean that what it is manipulating is necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. Essentially: just because women are currently in a weaker position in our society, and because most sex workers are women, that doesn’t mean sex work always has to be something which props up these power structures. We don’t *have* to put a sexual price on everyone any more than we have to consider how we can exploit people in other ways (for instance – we live in a capitalist society but don’t need to always consider what we can get from people, or the monetary value of what they can provide for us).

    If we all lived in a society in which everyone was equal, had the same capital and power, would I be anti sex work? No. Because there would be no reason to be. Therefore the problem with sex work is not the buying and selling of sexual services, but the way that sex workers are treated, the way we interpret and discuss sex work, and the abuse of power that goes along with some parts of the system. Given that, I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to say that this particular type of work is out of bounds because it’s being performed within this context, rather I think it’s important to challenge the context and reframe the way we think about sex work. I think there are many sex workers and organisations that are doing a fantastic job of doing this at the moment, and I suspect that (although we won’t exactly shatter the system into a million pieces and use the rubble to construct a new Utopia in the next five years) they have made pretty good headway as far as reframing the debate, and challenging the power structures in which sex work exists.

    Sorry, this is getting a bit long and rambly, but basically I agree with you that the fact that sex work exists within an unequal power structure is problematic, but I think that the problem (and the thing that needs to be challenged) is the power structure rather than the work.

  5. Excellent post again, thank you.

    Until the sense of entitlement men have towards sex is removed, they will continue to defend prostitution. This notion that they have ‘needs’ (rather than wants) and ‘rights’ to have sex, has no more veracity than a toddler claiming that if she doesn’t have sweets she will die.

    The notion that men are insatiable animals that must be kept calm by having sex on tap is historical rather than biological. It suggests that they have no control over themselves.

    If I were a man, I’d be insulted.

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