Melissa Gira Grant
Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work
Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work is a slender, not narrow, book, though Gira Grant admits that her scope of investigation is, in fact, limited. Purposely. An admission, lest anyone think she attempts to speak beyond her purview. Grant is quite clear on this point: She will not make the singular plural, or make sweeping statements in order to “make clearer” or simpler some argument that is neither clear nor simple.
Playing the Whore begins with a scene of a vice bust—undercover operations that uncover more about the law and law enforcement than the purportedly seamy side of sex for sale. Gira Grant not only walks us through a scene (soon to be a crime scene) in order to show us with words what might otherwise be watched on a screen, but also to lead us to her thesis:
The undercover police, perpetually arresting in these videos, enact a form of sustained violence on these women’s bodies [ … ] To produce a prostitute where before there had been only a woman is the purpose of such policing. It is a socially acceptable way to discipline women, fueled by a lust for law and order that is at the core of what I call the "prostitute imaginary"—the ways in which we conceptualize and make arguments about prostitution. The prostitute imaginary compels those who seek to control, abolish, or other-wise profit from prostitution, and is also the rhetorical product of their efforts. It is driven by both fantasies and fear about sex and the value of human life. (4)
With statistics to back her claim that police violence is the most frequent and fear-inducing violence sex workers face, both inside and out of doors in the US and globally, she situates her arguments against those whose argument is this: “Opponents of sex work decry prostitution as a violent institution, yet concede that violence is also useful to keep people from it.” (8)
While Gira Grant doesn’t waste much space dissecting the whys of fears to which opponents react, she does do a steady-handed surgical job on what of prostitution is at stake and at close range for targeting: She claims that prostitution is more about intent than resultant action; that it is “much of the time, a talking crime [ ... ] it’s a walking crime.” (9) And it becomes more than intent while working—the crime becomes intent always, as if prostitution were a way of being and identifying, not work, which one leaves in order to live personal lives of quotidian banality and other desirous endeavors that have nothing whatsoever to do with sex and monetary transactions.
One of the focuses of the book is how the “helping class” and others tend to generalize and lump all categories having to do with sex and profit, such as human trafficking and sex slavery, street walking, escort servicing, brothels, and more. Gira Grant, and other voices she includes, present a clear correction: The work that is chosen sex work cannot be thrown into the same category with other sex-related practices that are illegal and may truly be human rights crimes, nor can the women who are involved.
Along these same lines, those who want to help and understand what led a woman to such measures seem to want either a traumatic history to be the cause of prostituting: the whole story of abuse, self-loathing—psychoanalytic tropes of the stories we tell ourselves to justify a woman falling into such a profession, as if it weren’t a real choice—or that it was a carefully thought out emphatic choice of empowerment. What Gira Grant so necessarily points out is that very few of us can make a blanket statement about loving our jobs, feeling empowered by the career choices we’ve made, but neither do we feel abused and exploited every day; it changes, given the day and circumstance. So to expect that a sex worker chooses between feeling degraded or empowered about her work as a whole is to apply an unfair expectation on an experience that is merely work. This point was quite poignant to me. The following paragraph piqued my own understanding and delivered a punch that should hit home to all women, self-identifying as feminist or not:
But what if being sexualized is neither dehumanizing nor empowering, and is simply value neutral? That the harms here reside not in the looking or feeling but in what actually impacts the body? Should women be more concerned that men want to fuck us or to fuck us and fuck us up? These (sex workers still find themselves insisting) are not the same. (89)
Gira Grant knows of what she speaks: She has done the work of sex work. And while working in San Francisco’s red-light district in North Beach, she observed how sex work was just one of many businesses that was being carried out in the area. Diversity of enterprise: “Forget the particulars of the work performed inside The Hungry I or the Lusty Lady or the Garden of Eden and appreciate the conditions of our shared neighborhood [ … ] you had, all throughout your workday or night, the opportunity for human contact outside your workplace itself.” (69)
The segregation factor, the mandatory testing, Nevada (for an inside look at Nevada’s Mustang Ranch, see Alexa Albert’s Brothel (2001, Random House)). Even those places which have legalized it, Gira Grant says, offer a problematic to the way we perceive prostitution. To be granted the legal right to perform the labor of sex work, but to be regulated in such a way is to still remain in clear view of the carceral eye, and even under a carceral thumb.
Playing the Whore is filled with such important and pointed questions. This small book should generate big conversation, and waves of it. Gira Grant asks:
How different might our analysis of the relationship between sex, value, and womanhood be if we could see through the panic of sexualization to the tectonic social and economic shifts that have pushed commercial sex and its representations to the surface? If we let go of the desire to diagnose and pathologize what’s been called sexualization, we could observe and describe women’s lives more fully and describe more precisely how power and sex shape us. (98)
If we are indeed in the Fourth Wave, Gira Grant isn’t riding on it—she’s helping to create it. Let’s hope it is a tsunami that washes away many of the misconceptions, biases, and harmful perceptions that women continue to disenfranchise themselves by figuring out how to not only survive, but also to live. Let’s hope it raises more questions about how laws and those who “save” are operating under false pretenses, and also razes the idea that to sexualize and support oneself is a crime.
Mullin resides in Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband, Bill, and her dog, Beatrice (no, not named after Dante’s Beatrice, but the divine French actress Dalle). Mullin is currently a media and communications doctoral candidate at European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland.