O’Connell Davidson explains that “regulation of the commercial sex industry does nothing, in itself, to counteract racism, xenophobia and prejudice against migrants and minority ethnic groups. Indeed, the desire to apply and enforce labour standards in the sex industry can co-exist with the wish to drive migrant women out of the sector.
Unless governments do something to address the social devaluation of migrants, and their social, political and economic marginalisation, regulation may merely serve to reinforce existing racial, ethnic, and national hierarchies in the sex industry.” A leftist analysis of the work of sex work would have drawn attention to how not much will change unless capitalism is abolished, but Gira Grant’s analysis is wedded to libertarian ideals of individual autonomy and freedom.
Also perplexing is that there’s scant mention in Playing the Whore about patriarchy or even misogyny, but there is, throughout, a defence of “male desire”. At the end of the book, Gira Grant acknowledges the sex worker feminists “who keep me coming back to feminism”, but it’s a kind of feminism that, throughout the book, seems to find more of a problem with feminism than with patriarchy or capitalism. In one way, it’s a calculated move not to alienate the male readers who want to be feminist by supporting a woman’s right to be whatever but most especially her right “to be sexual”. It’s perplexing that talk of rape culture and misogyny is plentiful online when it comes to women just being women, but as soon as it’s about women being sex workers, then the narrative shifts slightly and there is no misogyny to speak of, only male desire that is being unfairly “policed” and scapegoated.
There’s room to talk about this, as Virginie Despentes did in her polemic, King Kong Theory, but hers is written from a personal point of view and she speaks largely of her own experience as a white woman in France. There’s no doubt that maintaining a divide between the “ordinary or good woman” vs. “the whore” is necessary for capitalism in order to train men how to desire women and crucially, to teach women how to be and to keep women divided from each other, so that the state—and by extension, capital—can have control over the means of the reproduction of labour power. This is why the state will generally rarely crack down on the sex industry, but it will unleash its horrors on the powerless, and it will seek to discipline and incarcerate sex workers as an example to other women. That capitalism can co-opt sexualisation or use sex to sell basically everything is again a matter of class; women at the top are given leeway to experiment and play, and women at the bottom will go to prison for it and be made to pay.
While Gira Grant is right to criticise the abhorrent paternal white saviourism of Nicholas Kristof, Kamala Kempadoo in Sexing the Caribbean reminds us that this form of white saviourism takes other forms: if Kristof is able to show up in Cambodia to perform his saviourism with money, benevolent racism and the police by his side, the white male sex tourists who show up in Cuba to perform their version of white saviourism do so instead with money, racism, and a benevolent hard-on. As a male sex tourist quoted in Kempadoo’s book says, “I much rather give my money to a suffering Cuban” than “to the Cuban government”. Kempadoo explains, “Sex tourism is defined in this way as a form of development for poor people in poor nations and as a way to ‘help’ poor women and their families, masking the inequalities of power that are involved and allowing the sex tourist to perceive himself as benevolent and desirable”. (O’Connell Davidson’s essay “British Sex Tourists in Thailand” in the anthology HeteroSexual Politics also analyses Western sex tourism in the developing world as the site where a certain form of white knight/saviour male masculinity can be constructed and reproduced.)
In this case, one wonders, to which group of women does male desire present itself as generally harmless? Which type of sex worker is able to put forth the narrative that men who pay for sex are better than men who expect it for free? Women who are constantly devalued in life and in media representations know better; misogyny, like capitalism, knows how to exploit the weakest. We are reminded again of O’Connell Davidson’s point, which is also something that has always been a key aspect of black feminism: women who are socially valued and privileged will experience male desire and sexual demand in sex work, as in life, very differently from women who are already positioned at the bottom of those hierarchies. These differences alter the value of sex as a commodity, as well as the labour of sex, depending on the class, race, and geographical location of the sex worker.
While credit must be given to Gira Grant’s necessary and pithy commentary on public apathy regarding the murder of sex workers, or how certain women maintain and accumulate status and privileges by aligning with the patriarchy by positioning the “whore” as the other to their respectable femininity, one becomes wary of statements like, “When the public is groomed to expect a poor, suffering whore, it’s appreciable why some sex workers who do come out take pains to provide a counternarrative: to never look like a prostitute.” Sex workers who want to reclaim the way they are presented, who demand dignity and respect in their work and outside of it, should be supported by every feminist. But pity the “poor, suffering whore” who is either made hypervisible by the likes of Kristof, who uses her as a prop to further his own career, or made invisible by the likes of Gira Grant, who seems to want to ensure that the image of a certain class of sex workers is rehabilitated without having to think about the tiresome issue of prostitutes who “conform to the stereotype” and therefore apparently make Gira Grant’s work that much harder.
Can the poor and suffering sex workers simply exist as humans, one wonders; can their poverty and suffering be acknowledged and respected without having white liberal solipsism enter the picture to save them or erase them? You would have to look outside Playing the Whore for that answer: Kempadoo’s Sexing the Caribbean is one, the anthology Prostitution and Beyond: An Analysis of Sex Work in India is another. Rohini Sahni and V. Kalyan Shankar’s essay in the latter anthology, for example, draws crucial attention to how inequalities play out in ways that don’t benefit sex-workers in terms of how competition, location, and various other factors like youth, beauty, etc. can structure prices around brothel-based sex work: “Even before her soliciting, her prices are already defined by the structures she hails from. Although the prices quoted are seldom lowered, giving the impression that it is the woman who determines the prices, she is, in reality, a price-taker.” Much like most people in physical wage labour, that is. And based on demand, as structured by the “market”, Sahni and Shankar point out that “it is ‘forced’ sex work that fetches an assured higher price than ‘choice’, at least in the context for brothel-based sex work”, because the demand is higher for trafficked girls who usually comprise young minors, who are valued by male customers for their youth and beauty, while an older woman who is in the sex trade by “choice” will have to be content with charging more “competitive” (i.e., stable, lower) prices.
If anything, this should prove the world of difference that exists between sex workers based on class, gender, and sexuality, as well as based on where they live. These differences are flattened in both liberal/libertarian “pro” and conservative “anti” sex work positions.
Gira Grant tries to situate male entitlement to bodies—and it is largely male entitlement to female and queer bodies, in sex work—in some liberal framework wherein all “opposition to sexualization” stems from respectable women’s frantic need to distance themselves from prostitutes. Sure, this might be the case with some women, obviously, but Gira Grant never considers the possibility that “opposition to sexualization” might also be tied to opposition to exploitation that occurs with wage labour; that is, opposition to how capitalists continue to profit off the use of the bodies of others, in sex work and out of it. As Silvia Federici says in “Wages Against Housework”: “We say: stop celebrating our exploitation, our supposed heroism. From now on we want money for each moment of it, so that we can refuse some of it and eventually all of it.”
Finally, that Gira Grant is able to throw around the term “carceral feminism” without situating it in the context of the US military industry complex and imperialism, where the US military “expands” markets for the sex industry around the world, like in Iraq, for example (and the Thai sex industry is also one such legacy), suggests there are some serious limitations to her analysis. It abstracts sex work from militarised violence, rape, and sexual assault that occurs in war zones and outside of it. Gira Grant wants us not to penalise individual men for their “desires” because of notion of sexual liberation, but doesn’t address the demand for global institutionalised sexual services by one of the world’s largest militaries. As she points out, one of the names in the client’s list belonging to the “famed ‘DC Madam’” is Harlan Ullman, “the man regarded as the architect of the shock-and-awe doctrine used by the Bush administration in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.”
This doesn’t come as a surprise; the problem is that liberal notions of sexual liberation, its claim to want to free ahistorical, apolitical “sexual desire” from the anti-fun, anti-sex chains of radical feminist policing or whatever, is damaging and limited, when it’s clear how patriarchy and capitalism and militarised violence collude to produce situations where, for many women living amidst the devastation wrought by imperialist occupations, selling sexual services to American troops is intimately linked to how they’re dehumanised by American imperialism. That the US military ruins your country and your opportunities for self-actualisation, but requires and facilitates the existence of a largely non-white female labour power that can reproduce its largely male military labour power is one of the key aspects of the globalised sex industry. In this sense, the agenda of “carceral feminists” can be dangerous, yes, but why limit the blame to the feminists without acknowledging how sex workers are also at risk, perhaps even more so, from the American military industrial complex?
The point of these criticisms isn’t to undermine the hard work of sex work advocacy groups that Gira Grant references in her final chapter, “The Movement”. These are groups that are able to connect the work of sex work with anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, feminism, anti-racism, and queer struggles, to paint a picture that shows systemic, intersecting oppressions. “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”, Gira Grant writes, and this is absolutely true, but the people with book deals, who are given writing and speaking opportunities, and who advocate not only for sex workers but who seem invested in the continued existence of institutionalised sex industries, can and must be expected to defend their politics and how they use it to frame the sex work “debate”.
When the Black Women for Wages for Housework group put out a statement that included the lines, “Who among us, Black women, is above prostitution?” thereby concluding, “When prostitutes win, all women win”, they were referring to the ways in which women’s struggles must be connected across the board in order to understand how relations under capitalism must always be exploitative; people at the top of the hierarchy “winning” always comes at the expense of the women at the bottom. Their point is that radical politics always begins from the oppressed. (Their statement is available as a pdf download here at “Feminist Manifestos on Prostitution and the State”, compiled by LIES Journal.)
Gira Grant seems to want to have it all: she is the “we” of the sex workers who are fighting the good fight, but she is also re-enacting neoliberalism by arguing that “no one else’s value is robbed by whatever it is that’s happening between my legs.” The point is, under capitalism, whatever is happening between my legs or yours does in fact have value for all women, whether or not we are “good” people or have good intentions. The point is that we want to fight to get to a point where it doesn’t, where one person’s pleasure does not come at the expense of another. It is not, one hopes, a vision of politics where sex work advocacy incorporates a flattened view of equivalent subjects where lifestyle choices are made out to be the same as survival, where the sex industry or any other form of wage labour stays intact, where the status quo is maintained, in order that a few at the top can continue to make a career out of it.
There is a crucial difference, then, between those who work as whores in order to be able to exist as a subject within the exploitative and dehumanising system of capitalism, and those who can afford to merely play the whore.