Reviewed: Playing the whore by Melissa Gira Grant

This is as good as leftist literature gets. Sex work takes place in an exploitative capitalist industry, is frequently represented ‘on their behalf’ but in this case analysed from the inside, from a radical feminist and labourist perspective, speaking both to fellow sex workers about strategising campaigning and also to people on the outside, offering guidance about how to act in solidarity. It is an analysis of the problems of the work, the nature of alienation including its many dangers, resulting both from the nature of work itself (affective labour par excellence) and also from the legal and moralising situation in which it finds itself and the kinds of relationships wider campaign groups chose to adopt.

In doing so, Grant produces incisive analyses such as:

“valuing the ability of sex workers to negotiate intimacy can shift the focus of those who seek to end sex workers’ exploitation: from representations of sexualization to the ways sex workers’ labour is organized. When massive chains like Pret A Manger or Starbucks require their workers to serve up coffee with a smile or else, we don’t believe we can remedy this demand for forced niceties by telling attention-desperate customers to get their emotional needs met elsewhere. The demand lies not with the customers’ whims, but with the management. This is why sex workers gain no greater control over their work by locating their exploitation only or even primarily in the hands of their customers. It’s understandable why that might be appealing, in an age where consumer choice is seen as the salve on so many labor abuses, Buying ‘the right things’ might matter, but not enough, and not much at all at the bargaining table” (p 79).

She makes use of social theories to unearth certain aspects of the labour process, the politics of representation, etc but most importantly she does this in a writing style that is understandable not just to ‘graduates’. In other words, social theory is used in order to illuminate, not to obscure. This leads to the following proposal as a mobilising vision for her class:

“so long as there are women who are called whores, there will be women who are trained to 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. The fear of the whore, or of being the whore, is the engine that drives the whole thing. That engine could be called ‘misogyny’, but even that word misses something: the cheapness of the whore, how easily she might be discarded not only due to her gender but to her race, her class. Whore is maybe the original intersectional insult.

To build a class on this moves us away from our perception of the whore as someone endangered principally by patriarchy to someone whose body is crossed by multiple points of prejudice and violence – oppression and exploitation not in the abstract hands of men but in the specific institutions that prop them up. Some lines are more legible that others. Some create borders – white woman, successful white woman – that others stake their whole politics on maintaining. But to us living where they cross, we resist being defined by these borders alone, even as we are seen through them.

This is how we could reimagine whore as a class. Because it’s not just that laws against prostitution are used to target a class of people as whores whether or not they are selling sex, and in areas of their lives far outside what they do for a living.”

There is one downside and that is that the book is targetted at a US audience, so the generalisability of its analyses and propositions is necessarily limited. Although she does look at some examples from elsewhere, the book can be difficult at times to follow for readers not familiar with, say, the names Eliot Spitzer and David Vitter which are mentioned as apparently household references to what seems to have been a significant sex-worker scandal involving some politicians.

Nevertheless, even though the words ‘Marxism’ and ‘autonomism’ are entirely absent and ‘intersectional’ is mentioned only once (by my count), this is one of the most real accounts of what intersectional autonomism means: the self-organisation (including analysis, theory-building, consciousness-formation and representation) of a self-identified group experiencing a commonality of oppressions based on a series of overlapping structures (patriarchy, classism, capitalism, racism, the state), who are claiming the right to organise within but independently from and where necessary against broader emancipatory movements towards a general goal of decriminalisation – basically getting everybody off their backs. It is good reading for anybody, anywhere, trying to understand their place in an world being shaped by the overlapping and mutually reinforcing forces of intersectional capitalism.

Diversity commentary: Single-author monograph. Author is white, English-speaking, from the heart of the empire and university-level educated there, but a woman, sexually non-conformist, former sex-worker whose livelihood was criminalised.