On Those Who Must Work as Whores, and Those Who Can Afford to Just Play at It
The debate about sex work is usually about the spectacle that accompanies “sex”, rather than about the sex workers and the work of sex. That needs to change.
Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore is about the work of sex work, as its title states. Gira Grant is a writer and journalist who used to be a sex worker (a Guardian interview says she was one of the "first webcam girls", a phrase used by the media outlet and not endorsed by the author herself), and up until recently she was also a Jacobin magazine contributing editor. This book was published by Verso in collaboration with Jacobin and so, presumably, one might expect it to be an explicitly leftist analysis of the work of sex work, but much of it, as it turns out, goes over well-worn “left-leaning” libertarian arguments that are not unfamiliar.
The debate about sex work is usually as much about the spectacle that accompanies “sex” than it is about sex workers and the work of sex; as such, the debate in the media tends to be flattened into two opposing spectrums: a conservative, far-right one tut-tutting about “morals” and “family values”, while counter-arguments are supplied by liberals who talk about “choice”, “agency”, “consensual sex”, and various other “freedoms”. What’s missing is usually a Marxist or socialist take on sex work that would be able to engage with labour practices and exploitation under capitalist patriarchy, without further engaging in rhetoric that shames sex workers or, indeed, without pushing for reforms or solutions that will severely endanger them and undermine the safety of the conditions in which they do their work.
Playing the Whore initially seems like it might fit the bill of a leftist intervention into sex work, but it quickly falls into its own reductive trap of rehashing well-worn arguments in the guise of saying something new. It’s not that Gira Grant isn’t an engaging or intelligent writer, but Playing the Whore is a curious book that is half manifesto, half analysis and so occupies a rhetorical position that is at once polemical and generalised.
The book is carefully organised into chapters like “The Police”, “The Prostitute”, “The Work”, “The Debate”, and so on, each chapter briefly sketching out examples. So while the book claims to be about the work of sex work, it's mainly about reorienting the narratives around sex work and dispelling, as the book jacket copy informs us, the “pervasive myths about sex work”. Playing the Whore is concerned with what Gira Grant terms the “prostitute imaginary” and how modern moral panics around sex and sexuality started to develop around the late 19th century, moral panics that continue to set the terms by which sex workers are punished, criminalised and ostracised in the present day. According to Gira Grant, “we have not left this period.”
Playing the Whore is strongest when Gira Grant describes what sex workers are up against with the carceral state, for example, as in her opening chapter where she details police sting and undercover operations in the US that reproduce violence and misogyny in the supposed attempts of keeping the streets, or society, safe. Again, presumably for many of the leftists who make up a huge part of Verso and Jacobin’s audience, learning about police violence in a capitalist state is not something new; that it affects women and queers and poor black people and people of colour in severe ways is also something that is well-documented if one understands how the capitalist state reproduces racial, sexual, and gendered oppressions.
When she describes sex workers as being subject to this kind of violence, then, one isn’t sure who she is trying to convince. A large part of this is because Playing the Whore adopts both a specific and general voice—Gira Grant alludes to her past as a sex worker, for example, but explains that she will not be telling her story, that her selective silence about herself is a political stance, albeit a “temporary, and ultimately insufficient means of resistance”. Certainly she has every right to reveal as much or as little as she is comfortable with or sees fit, but aside from a political stance, it's also a useful authorial device, allowing Gira Grant to speak for all sex workers while reminding her readers that there are many different types of sex workers and sex industries; it allows her to both maintain an objective distance from the debate while setting the terms of the debate.
Indeed, sometimes she is an “I” but sometimes she is the “we”, as when she talks about the various kind of symbolic stigma and material harm that sex workers routinely face. But as Gira Grant points out in her book, not all sex workers are the same, and university-educated white women in the imperial core who work as cam girls, for example, have a different experience of sex work than teenage Thai girls who work in bars in Pattaya, sexually servicing largely older, wealthier white male tourists, and it cannot be assumed that the experiences of the former can help to explain the experiences of the latter.
Gira Grant’s point is that Western academics and activists working in state-funded institutions and pushing for abolition and anti-trafficking measures that are often harmful to sex workers—in that it works through violent state machineries—cannot also be expected to speak for the sex worker in the global south, and she is right, of course. But Gira Grant also seems to regularly conflate abolitionists, conservatives, and feminists without giving specifics. A reader who pays less attention to the discussions that takes place within feminism itself (between socialist feminists and liberal feminists, for example, or radical feminists and Black feminists), would come away with the notion that “the feminists” are a bunch of fun-hating, sex-hating, prison-loving rich women, while the sex-positive feminists are often presented as some radical opposing group—but many of them also identify as feminist.
Gira Grant doesn’t engage with specific anti-sex work arguments abolitionist feminists or radical feminists. This would have made her book stronger, but it would have also required more nuance, as Gira Grant would have had to deal with the fact that some feminists, particularly Marxist or socialist feminists, who have written against the sex industry, as part of a larger project in analysing wage labour in the capitalist system, rarely blame sex workers for being immoral women or for being in sex work at all. It’s also rare that feminist abolitionists also blame women; if anything, their focus is on the men who buy sex.
Certainly, perhaps the conservative American Christian right—a large part which might still be stuck in the late 19th century, it's hard to tell—likes to regularly point out the immoral depravity of sex workers, but this group also tends to say this about most women who don’t fit the bill of white American Christian virtue in general. For leftist feminists, being against wage labour (including factory labour and sexual labour, for example) does not preclude fighting for the rights of workers, including sex workers.
This is the problem, then: sex work, in Playing the Whore, is often abstracted from the structure of wage labour under capitalist patriarchy. While Gira Grant points out that sex workers are in the industry large part because of debt, the housing crisis, and lack of health care—because they need the money—she never takes up this argument beyond stating the obvious.
If we take seriously the words of Italian autonomist feminist Leopoldina Fortunati in her book, The Arcane of Reproduction, that the prostitute’s struggle is “every woman’s struggle” because “capitalist development thus means the development of prostitution”, precisely because “capital has always demonstrated enormous flexibility and appetite in its exploitation of female labor-power”, then Gira Grant’s assertion that “sex work itself … is not up for debate” seems as anti-feminist and in service of capitalism as much as the careerist abolition feminists she purports to critique. If we situate sex work within the mechanisms of capitalism and patriarchy, then, it would seem there's plenty to think about beyond a call for decriminalisation. If many women turn to sex work because most jobs for women are underpaid, scarce, or dangerous, especially for women who already live in poorer parts of the world, especially for black women and women of colour who already face both racial and gendered discrimination, then it seems important to consider why, in a male-dominated world where male reproductive needs are valued over those of women’s needs, the sex industry proves to be the one place where women can earn more than a decent wage.
It seems dangerously reductive to simply state that the sex industry offers higher wages for women and leave it at that. Why is it that in a world where women are largely devalued for other skills, they are especially compensated for sexual skills? But to speak of it this way is also reductive; as with all other forms of wage labour, some women in sex work enjoy better pay, benefits, and work conditions than most others in sex work. Gira Grant approvingly cites Selma James’s essay, “Hookers in the House of the Lord”—and it is a brilliant and necessary essay on feminist solidarity—but it's part of a collection of essays titled Sex, Race, and Class, and James’ work is oriented to class struggle from every angle. For example, James is careful to point out that it's certain “careerist feminists” who don’t stand in solidarity with sex workers (or underpaid, “othered” female labourers in other industries, in general), while Gira Grant appears to blame a generalised “feminism” for this.
There is a difference; one seeks to unite, one seeks to divide. James and Fortunati argue persuasively for how connections can be built for women to stand together as a class (utopian as this might be, they offer a way to think through this) while Gira Grant seems content to stake out a territory for herself as expert. If there are careerist feminists who make a living out of white saviourism and the incarceration and imprisonment of some of the most powerless members of the labour force, then we must also consider the careerist sex-industry advocates who are invested in maintaining the status quo of the sex industry so long as sex workers of a certain class are able to enjoy their rights, earn a decent wage, be free from stigma, and enjoy “sexual freedom”.
Some slips in Gira Grant’s writing suggest that her position is not free from the prejudices she is astute enough to point out in her adversaries. While she wants to bust open our “prostitute imaginary”, riddled with myths as it is, she also writes that “when many researchers and reporters go looking for prostitutes, they find only those who conform to their stereotypes.” This is interesting; who are the prostitutes who conform to the stereotype of the prostitute? This book wants to debunk stereotypes but goes on to discreetly acknowledge the stereotype; whatever the stereotype is, however, it appears as though Gira Grant wants you to know that she does not conform to it.
Further, when she talks about gentrification and “migration of sex work to the Internet”, she acknowledges the material realities of gentrification: the physical and usually violent displacement of poor people, especially poor black people and people of colour, from places that they used to call home. But she then goes on to make the curious point that “gentrified sex work brings along with it consumers and workers who might never have before have ventured there.” In other words, she borrows leftist language to seemingly critique gentrification, only to make a case for gentrification: middle and upper class people who were too afraid to buy and sell sex among the dirty masses might now be more willing to do it if the former inhabitants are no longer there. (Hint: since this is America, “consumers and workers who might never have before have ventured there” could presumably be understood to mean “white”.)
This seems of a piece with one of the articles Gira Grant wrote in her past life as writer for Valleywag, Gawker’s tech and media blog. In "How do I get a Stanford girl to blow me?", Gira Grant assumes her intended audience—presumably upwardly mobile, mainly white and Asian-American tech guys—want a certain type of girl: “Forty bucks and a car with a front seat can get you sucked off. But you want someone ... nice. Pretty. "Classy." Innocent enough. You're a tech guy. You want a Stanford girl.” There are some latent assumptions at work in that implication of a “nice, pretty, classy” sex worker that I hope I don’t need to spell out. In Playing the Whore for example, Gira Grant critiques precisely this kind of racism and disgust for the poor that plays out among the media in their depictions of sex workers; she writes of the time ABC requested for her and a fellow sex work advocacy blogger if they could produce “a ‘classy,’ ‘educated’ (read: white, conventionally attractive) escort” to appear on one of their shows.
Gira Grant is certainly aware of what “classy” is code for; what bothers me is that this kind of racial and class superiority was in display in her own writing where she coaches “tech guys” on how to go about acquiring nice, classy sex for money, and yet when she becomes a published author who does activism on behalf of sex workers, this type of attitude is then displaced solely onto people whom she paints, throughout the book, as being part of the generalised enemy. Gira Grant cautions us not to take, at their word, materials and advertisements written by sex workers to sell their services, as this type of promotional materials are “glamorized” in order to sell a service and hardly representative of the work of sex work—that seems clear enough. But in this case, hers being an article written in Valleywag, one can assume that Gira Grant was glamourising a particular type of sex worker not for the purpose of making a sale, but for the purpose of offering advice to potential buyers and clients; in other words, both discreetly shaping their desire in the guise of pretending to fulfill a demand for a certain type of sex worker. (“But you want someone … nice. Pretty. Classy.”)
It’s not that male desire doesn’t take forms that explicitly classed and raced, but in accepting this form of “demand” as normal or acceptable, Gira Grant is able to use that framework on which to write her article. It seems like the old, familiar story all over again: freedom to sexually experiment, freedom to earn a decent wage at sex work, all kinds of freedom, under racist, misogynist capitalism, always comes “at the cost of women at the bottom of social hierarchies”, as this study on slut-shaming published in Al-Jazeera America describes: "Slut-shaming has little to do with sex, study finds", by Marisa Taylor, 29 May 2014. In this case, “nice, pretty, classy” (i.e., white, middle and upper-class, and educated) versus women who are not.
As Julia O’Connell Davidson writes in "Men, middlemen, and migrants" on Eurozone.com:
Consumer markets – whether in sex, other personal services, or goods – are sites in which a society's status hierarchies are reproduced, and this means that inequalities along lines of class, race, nation, age and gender do get played out symbolically and reinforced in practices of consumption. It is not necessary to be morally conservative, abolitionist, anti-pleasure or sex negative in order to feel uneasy about, say, the emergence of a sizeable market involving West African street workers and white clients in Spain, a country where there are no black female politicians, only a handful of black female professionals, few representations of black women as anything other than domestic workers or prostitutes on television and other media, and where anti-African racism is routinely voiced.
Her article ultimately points out that anti-trafficking abolitionist positions often harm the people that they aim to “protect”. That is, her position is not too different from Gira Grant’s, but it’s important to note that O’Connell Davidson is able to situate her argument within a framework that’s attentive to how capitalist social relations continue to reproduce equality through race, class, and gender as opposed to Gira Grant, who often gives lip service to these matters but fails to actually incorporate them into her analysis. Further, O’Connell Davidson points out that while decriminalisation is a significant, necessary step, it will not—much like in other forms of wage labour—erase the inequalities that will continue to perpetuate disproportionate gains for the sex workers at the top of social hierarchy at the expense of sex workers at the bottom, within the first world, and also on a global scale between first world sex workers and those in the global south.