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No one ever wanted to save me from the restaurant industry

Rachel Elizabeth Fraser

Playing The Whore: The Work of Sex Work
By Melissa Gira Grant
Verso Books, 2014
144 pages
ISBN: 9781781683231

In Playing The Whore, journalist Melissa Gira Grant stresses again and again the imbrication of sex work with other precarious and low paying forms of labour. She does this partly to reframe the speech of sex workers, whose “complaints about sex work shouldn’t be construed, as they often are, as evidence of sex workers’ desire to exit sex work.” Certainly, if academics’ quotidian grousing about their jobs were to be taken as evidence of their desire to leave the academy, its continued overpopulation would be quite astonishing. Many feminist theorists have stressed the commonalities between sex work and other feminised forms of labour in which the heart must be managed and the personality pressed into service. Grant shows that the joins between these forms of labour run through the lives of particular women: “the same workers are performing sex work and nonsexual service work.” Prohibitionist feminists sometimes object to what they take to be the “sanitising” rubric of sex work and sex workers, insisting instead upon the rather more pungent language of prostitution, and prostituted women. To a Marxian ear, though, to designate some practice as labour is hardly fumigatory. Rather, it marks the practice as susceptible to a certain sort of analysis—an analysis which even those of us with the scantiest of acquaintances with Das Kapital ought to suspect might not be entirely salutary. The ostensibly “sanitising” rubric has the effect of troubling those productivist ethics in which waged work is seen not merely as economic necessity but also as a moral duty and an indispensable site of “self-actualisation.” Panegyrics to waged work as an abstract category (think of the rhetoric of Iain Duncan Smith) co-exist with a discourse that produces detailed taxonomies of the problems attaching to particular, given forms of employment (this or that boss, the commute, the so-called “work-life” balance). But, asked to see “[c]utting cuticles, giving colonics or diapering someone else’s babies” in the same harsh light in which we place sex work with such ease, this odd particularism crumbles away, and the whole category of work starts to take on a slightly grubby aspect.

Once upon a time, Samuel Johnson struck his foot against a stone and proclaimed himself (rather loudly, one imagines) to have refuted Bishop Berkeley’s immaterialist thesis. In so doing, he produced some memorable and amusing theatrics, certainly, and his remarks even have a certain vivacity that might, easily enough, be taken for argumentative force. But his precipitate glibness leaves his adversary intact. And so it sometimes is with Grant when she turns her guns on that most feminist of canards: objectification. Her piquant remarks will surely not amuse quite so many generations of undergraduates as those of Johnson, but they do succeed in preferring wit to wisdom, that most undergraduate of pursuits. The discussion is a series of tart irrelevancies; a study by the APA into the effects of self¬≠objectification on cognitive function is ridiculed for failing to account for “all the actual women who perform essential feats of accounting while wearing G-strings,” and she cites no theorist of objectification more sophisticated than one Ariel Levy. If Female Chauvinist Pigs were the most adroit comment on the interplay of embodiment, subjectivity and autonomy to be found in the feminist canon, perhaps Grant’s dispatch of its thesis would have been less reminiscent of a man kicking a stone.

Grant’s flippancy wanes when she becomes preoccupied by the speech of sex workers. Political theorists have emphasised that it is through attending to the speech of others that we come to appreciate the texture of their lives. It is stories which provide what Iris Young calls that “thick description of needs and problems and consequences” that we must hear if we are to act justly. But to make themselves understood, Grant argues, sex workers must vie with and negotiate “narrow roles—virgin, victim, wretch, or whore”—roles that they did not themselves “originate” but through which their speech is filtered and its force construed. The evocative particularities of narrative turn out to be no match for the sweeping contours of what Grant calls ‘the prostitute imaginary’. Vivifying the calculus of risk and recompense that regulates sex workers’ disclosures and silences, she tells us that the first women ever to share their stories of prostitution (Grant’s usage) with her were later arrested. For sex workers, even anonymous speech can incur “social, political, and emotional” costs. They will, Grant promises, find their speech relentlessly eroticised—”[t]he storytelling process is a form of striptease indistinguishable from striptease itself”—but unremunerated. By making sincerity burdensome, the disciplinary apparatus applied to sex work excludes prostitutes from our affective economy far more effectively than from the ‘real’ one.

Rachel Elizabeth Fraser is a philosophy DPhil student at Linacre College, Oxford, with interests in language and epistemology.