Review: Playing the Whore

Becky Gardner reviews Melissa Gira Grant’s book “Playing the Whore” (Verso, 2014). This review was originally published in the Summer 2014 edition of the rs21 magazine.

playingthewhore_coverIn her new book Playing the Whore, journalist Melissa Gira Grant brings the voice, experience and politics of sex workers into the current debates about the sex industry. In doing so, she reveals the reality of life for marginalised groups under neoliberalism. Grant deconstructs the “Prostitute Imagery”- the pervasive myths about sex work which are formulated by everyone but sex workers themselves.

She details how current arguments from both feminists and conservatives alike have harmed and endangered sex workers far more extensively than their work has. Some commentators can see police victimisation, violence and harassment towards sex workers as socially acceptable.

Respondents to one study in West Bengal reported over 48,000 separate incidents of police violence, in comparison to 4,000 reports of customer violence. Rather than being condemned by those who claim to care about violence against women, some try to justify this violence as an inevitable outcome of sex work itself. Some organisations even collude with the police to “’rescue them’ at the moment of their arrest”.

Grant’s writing is sharp, critical and emotive in its concise, but targeted, rebuttals of the institutions and campaigns which have denied sex workers their own agency, and sought to control the boundaries of the discussion. For that reason, it does come across as defensive in places. This is surely an inevitable outcome when sex workers have had to continually fight to defend their own existence.

These rebuttals do not always sit comfortably with the reader, but they do present an opportunity for us re-evaluate our own position: Are we dogmatic and reactionary? Do we otherwise seek to “control, abolish or otherwise profit” from sex work? How do we, as socialists, relate to the experiences of sex workers and extend solidarity with them outside of the legalised economy? We are challenged to seriously consider how we can ensure that sex workers’ voices are no longer limited to anecdotal soundbites which present them as either “exploited” or “empowered”.

Grant’s work is evidence of the potential to radically re-write the context in which debates surrounding-the sex industry are conducted. More widely, it also contributes to our understanding of oppression, exploitation, morality, and agency – all of which are crucial to the Marxist project. Yet we are reminded that change is not going to happen as long as we deny or otherwise exclude sex workers from taking full part in these discussions. The same point can be made about other marginalised groups within society.

Further still, Grant’s focus has the potential to raise serious doubts and questions about social reproduction theory. The experiences voiced within this book do not fit this economistic and relatively binary model.

Socialists must embark on a meaningful engagement with all of the issues discussed by Grant in her important work to prove that we are serious about contributing to the discussions surrounding the nature of oppression.

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