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.

Riot Grrrl and inventing feminism


It’s 1994 and I’m in the car with my dad. I’m 12 or 13 and we’re listening to music, and it must be 1994 because the cassette we’re listening to is a power pop tracklist from Mojo magazine published in 1994. It’s a good C90, with well-timed peaks and lulls, and pleasing segues and contrasts. The Byrds (The World Turns All Around Her), Marshall Crenshaw (Cynical Girl), Big Star (September Gurls), Badfinger (Baby Blue). We listen to this tape a lot, and I know all the words.

At some point on this journey, I turn to my dad and say: “The girls in these songs get a bit of a rough deal, don’t they dad? They’re either cold heartbreakers or unobtainable.”

“Hmmm,” says my dad. “That’s true.” And I chime out my wonky soprano version of The La’s There She Goes, enjoying the music and satisfied with today’s proof of my preciosity.

But I didn’t know anything. I wondered why the girls had been written like that, but I never questioned who was doing the writing. What I didn’t think to wonder was: why is all this music made by men?


In fact, the article my dad took the tracklisting from had made a gesture towards the gender issue. In the entry for the one female-fronted track (Fifty Years After the Fair by Aimee Mann), the author Will Birch writes: “It would be politically incorrect to include a girl for girl’s sake and, apart from The Bangles, it is hard to think of many young ladies who have entered this musical arena.”

Well, that’s that covered then. One woman gets through the door, and half of her entry is spent explaining why no more can come in. In retrospect, I think, Birch could have picked something by the scratchy, punky Go-Go’s. He should have had something by Kirsty MacColl – maybe the gorgeous, nothing-but-chorus They Don’t Know. It’s 1994, so Juliana Hatfield’s Hey Babe is only two years old, and that’s all close harmonies, big chords, catchiness and wist: the definition of power pop.

I listen to all these girl bands. I make my own mixtapes. I start reading the music press on my own: my dad takes the monthlies, I get the weeklies. One week, an Aimee Mann gig is reviewed. This is quite exciting: mature American singer-songwriters don’t usually break through the Camden throng. But the review is dismissive, and it ends with a crack about the length of the queue for the men’s toilets after the gig, because of course the audience is only there to wank over her.

I feel embarrassed. I put my Aimee Mann tape at the bottom of my wardrobe, and I don’t want to listen to it again for a long time, not until I’m in my 30s.


While all this is happening, something else is happening too: the thing is Riot Grrrl. Riot Grrrl does not make much of an impact in rural Rutland, which is where I grow up. There’s some controversy in the letters page of the NME about Bikini Kill’s girls-only mosh pit policy, and about Huggy Bear’s appearance on The Word, but none of these records filter through to the record shops I go to and I’m never quite intrigued enough to mail-order.

Then in 1999 I go on holiday to Singapore and I hit the record racks hard. I load up on the lo-fi and indie-type stuff I know I like, like Jon Spencer and The Make-Up, and because CDs are cheap, I take a punt on a bunch of stuff I’ve heard of but not heard. I get Bikini Kill’s The Singles, and Dig Me Out and The Hot Rock by Sleater-Kinney.

And then, my world changes.

Actually, it doesn’t really. I love these records, and I love the ideas in them, but they’re not my first introduction either to feminism or to women making music: women pushing playfully against the idea of what being a girl is, like Kenickie, and women making wracked and furious music about being a woman, like PJ Harvey and Kristin Hersh. (All the women I listen to are white, with the exception of Sonya Aurora Madan and Debbie Smith of Echobelly. I don’t notice this for a very long time.)

What Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney are is my first introduction to the idea that the personal is the political. I listen to Anti-Pleasure Dissertation on The Singles, a song addressed to a treacherous boyfriend:

Go tell your fucking friends
What I thought and how I felt
How punk fucking rock
My pussy smells
Now did you tell them?

I remember the time, a few years ago, that a male acquaintance one of my friends was flirting with told us how a girl he’d had sex with had “smelled of tuna”, and we’d laughed: thrilled at the intimacy, thrilled not to be the ones who smelled of tuna, washing a little more carefully afterwards. I start to understand that the way I treat other women is part of the practice of sexism by which all women lose too.

I listen to The End of You by Sleater-Kinney: “Bless me with Athena, there’s no meaner, she’s the best!” I scream out this prayer to the goddess of knowledge (and war) in my room in halls, because I’m 18 now and at university. But I’m not a feminist yet. It’s easy to rack up marks from older male lecturers by writing in an ostentatiously apolitical style (i.e. antifeminist), and for a year or so I do this. (In one essay, I write the smug footnote: “I will be using the pronoun ‘he’ for the reader, for brevity and in accordance with accepted style.” I feel a stab of shame when I see the big tick the marker has put next to this.)

But the other thing Riot Grrrl introduces me to is the idea that creativity is a radical act. The lyrics to Sleater-Kinney’s #1 Must Have, from the 2000 album All Hands on the Bad One, are an epitaph for Riot Grrrl, the slogan “BOY-GIRL REVOLUTION NOW!” long co-opted by the Spice Girls’ “girl power”. Corin Tucker berates herself: “And I think that I sometimes must have wished/For something more than being a size six.” But behind her Carrie Brownstein coos, “Everywhere you go, it’s die or be born,” and this builds into the song’s climax as Tucker sings:

And for all the ladies out there, I wish
We could write more than the next marketing bid
Culture is what we make it, yes it is
Now is the time, now is the time
Now is the time to invent, invent, invent
Invent, invent, invent

It’s insufficient to be angry at what is. Riot Grrrl, with its DIY culture and its handmade, handposted fanzines is about making what should exist instead: the greatest political work in the world is to invent, invent, invent.


I’m thinking about this rage to create last week, because I’m at Bristol City Hall for an event organised by Integrate Bristol, an equality charity that campaigns against FGM in the UK. The girls (many of them now women) who have worked on various projects with Integrate have chosen this cause themselves and used the arts to approach it. Through poetry, film and song, they have found a way to make women’s voices heard: not just their own, explains trustee Muna Hassan when I interview her, but those of their mothers and grandmothers who could not previously speak about the violence they suffered.

Feminism has to be more than a call-out culture. I think about Bikini Kill again, the song I Like Fucking with Kathleen Hanna yowling: “We’re not gonna prove nothing, nothing/Sitting round watching each other starve.” I think she had in mind the pinched aesthetics of 90s body-denying heroin chic, but I hear it as a reproach against the fretful, mutual monitoring that can go on when women police women. We eye each other across the table, following the hand that reaches towards nourishment and is then withdrawn, empty, shamed and hasty.

At the weekend, I hear Hanna interviewed by Lauren Laverne in a Woman’s Hour special on women in music. Laverne asks Hanna about being a role model, and Hanna answers:

I really want to allow myself to be three dimensional and to make mistakes, and to own up to them, and to say, “Oh, I wrote this lyric back in 1994 that I now think is really stupid and here’s why I think it’s really stupid.” Just because I don’t wanna have the onus of perfection on me and I think that’s a real detriment to women making great art, is that we’re supposed to come out and immediately be completely perfect lest we be judged a thousand times harsher than our male counterparts.

A women’s culture does not demand uncritical assent to everything that women make, but it does require that we take the act of creation by women seriously. Mistakes must be taken as simply that – mistakes – and not treated as a fatal flaw in all that a woman has ever done. We might even start to see disagreement as creative in itself. After all, feminism requires that we make things up as we go along. We have never lived in a culture without sexism: we don’t know what one will look like. All we can do is imagine what it might be and invent, invent, invent our way towards it.