Melissa Gira Grant’s debut book “Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work” (Verso) isn’t merely a sobering dissection of how sex work and sex workers are policed and understood in contemporary America, where a woman’s sexual value can be conflated with her social worth; it’s a radically potent addition to the ongoing discussion of income inequality and how members of an underclass are demanding to be recognized as human beings. Gira Grant, a journalist and former sex worker, has applied her incisive mind to the intersections of sex work, gender, politics, public policy, and technology in the pages and pixels of The Nation, The Guardian, The New York Times, Dissent, and Jacobin, where she is a contributing editor. And with “Playing the Whore,” she unapologetically shows how the salacious preoccupation with the sex part of sex work prevents legitimate discussion about the socioeconomic conditions that produce it. “
There has to be a way to embrace sex worker identity without finding ourselves expected, again and again, to perform someone else’s sexual fantasy, whether they come dressed as jailer or comrade,” she writes in “Playing the Whore.” “But at the same time, our politics cannot deny the body just because somebody else has a complex about it.”
Gira Grant comes to Baltimore Sept. 27 as part of Red Emma’s Radical Bookfair Pavilion at the Baltimore Book Festival. City Paper caught up with her by phone from her home in Brooklyn, to talk about the reframing sex work as a labor issue instead of legal or moral one.
City Paper: Could you tell me a little bit about how you began to investigate sex work and sex workers in terms of labor and political economy and power, how you made that transition, as you write in the book, from a state of being to a form of labor? I ask because later in the book you write that you kind of came to it from AIDS activism and queer rights, and in a few ways “Playing the Whore” reminds me of Cindy Patton’s “Inventing AIDS,” which is very much a theory book about reconceptualizing a situation.
Melissa Gira Grant: I think part of it is growing up in the other side of AIDS. I came of age in a generation where we didn’t have a memory of a sexual revolution. It was always a sex panic. And I’m sure it’s possible that the very first thing I ever heard about prostitution, and it would only have been called prostitution, was somehow related to people who were at risk. We think of sex workers as people who aren’t quote “criminals” but as quote “victims,” and some people would say that that’s a step forward in demystifying the experience around sex work. That always felt unsatisfying to me. As much as I came up out of AIDS activism I also came up out of identifying as a feminist and there’s something in that that resists the idea that victimhood is empowering. I didn’t understand why that was presented as an empowering vision of what sex work was.
So in the late ’90s when I was [in] college you started getting more memoirs by sex workers out there, and it sort of confirmed things I had been feeling but didn’t really have a word for. Some of them thought of [sex work] as an identity, even an identity akin to their sexual orientation or their relationship style. But for other people it was work—that sometimes it felt like something great and empowering and sometimes it felt like just another boring job and sometimes it was horrible. And I would not have gotten this education had it not been for this moment in the culture where sex-worker memoirs started to happen.
I also knew that when I came to write this book that even though I had experience doing sex work I didn’t want to be writing from just the source material of that decade of my life. The purpose of this book was to step back from all of the myths and fantasies about what sex work was and who sex workers were and look at the culture at large. Why does the culture at large have this investment in the idea of a sex worker as a victim or a criminal? What do we get out of propping up these systems of policing and surveillance that turn sex workers into what are regarded by violent people as acceptable victims or targets for their violence?
And I’m not just speaking about serial killers or rapists. I’m speaking about law enforcement. We live in a world that permits violence against sex workers and that is the end game of a lot of our policies. I don’t have a lot of suggestions at the end of the book, which is sometimes unsatisfying to people when they ask, “What’s the answer?” And the answer is we have to start from a different baseline, which is do you value and believe and honor [sex workers’] experiences as valid? Or do we require them to represent themselves in a particular way to be acceptable before we listen to what they have to tell us?
CP: And like you say early on in the book, you stopped asking how we made prostitution illegal and started asking how we made violence against prostitutes acceptable—that’s a repositioning of the question that might be difficult for people to wrap their heads around, that that should be the question worth asking.
MGG: It’s the core question for me if you want to try to understand why, on the one hand, we say we don’t criminalize people for poverty and we don’t want to criminalize people for just doing what they have to do to get by but we actually live in a world that does that. And that’s a hard truth. I think it’s something that impacts all kinds of women who are living below the poverty line or who are struggling, whether that’s women who are getting arrested for leaving kids in their car because they don’t have child care and are going to a job interview or arrested for having their kids play on the playground while they’re at work. A lot of what this comes down to is we live in an unequal world. And [violence against sex workers] should be understood [in that context]. You’d think it could be understood within this larger cultural response to violence against women or gender-based violence but it often is presented in opposition to that, as if sex work itself is the source of violence and not all of the other circumstances that people are facing.
CP: It’s like we’re OK with not having to think about it as an inequality issue by letting law enforcement deal with it.
MGG: Right, and that’s the problem. This person broke the law and is made a victim through prostitution so the solution is to stop them from doing prostitution. The language you hear from some of these groups is we have to rehabilitate these women, as if there’s something incredibly flawed or broken about them and not the culture in which we live that doesn’t actually see caring for people as a priority.
CP: I’m glad you mention those groups because in the book you touch on an industry that’s supported by this conventional debate about raising awareness about prostitution that doesn’t involve sex workers in the discussion. How did you arrive at that observation?
MGG: It’s something that probably came up for me the first time when I was a volunteer and then later staff at a rape crisis and women’s center on a college campus when I was a student and understanding that, even though many of us on staff were survivors of violence, there’s still this hierarchy that happens where there’s the helpers and the helped. And that’s quite different from the kinds of organization that I later worked at like the St. James Infirmary, which is a peer-based organization run by people with experience in sex work for people who do sex work and for their children and partners. Yes, there is somebody sitting there across from you drawing your blood and there is somebody talking you through different kinds of peer counseling options, but at St. James they’re trying to break down the divide between who is a helper and who is to be helped. And the model of an organization like that is a harm-reduction model where there is an acceptance that everyone is an expert in their own life and if only people had the resources they actually needed to care for themselves, they would. This is an issue of giving people what they need rather than trying to direct and control them. And that’s quite different than most, if not the majority of, projects that are set up supposedly to help sex workers. [Those organizations] don’t regard what they’re doing as effective unless they get people in their project to stop doing sex work. And that’s not realistic. Unless you can provide another job for that person that can care for them, unless you can provide them with stable housing and health care, that’s not a realistic expectation. And if you talked to sex workers and valued what they say, they would tell you that. They don’t need group therapy—they need jobs. They need an income.
CP: One of the things I took away from “Playing the Whore” is that a lot of the information that people use to make their assumptions about sex workers and how sex work operates is not particularly accurate, hence the importance of, like you mentioned, memoirs and peer information. And I have to confess I had never heard of the late 1970s underground sex-worker publication COYOTE Howls before reading this book. How did you come across it and could you tell me a bit more about it?
MGG: I don’t even know how many sex workers know about it because our history isn’t exactly carried out with the same level of—I mean, the history of the feminist movement can be hard to get a hold on, the labor movement is hard to get a hold on, all movement histories are obscured and you have to go digging for them. In this case I was just lucky to have access to Carol Leigh, the woman who invented the term sex work. She posted a photo of this newsletter on her Facebook [page] and I asked her to send it to me because I thought it was so amazing. And this is the thing—I knew about COYOTE. I worked at the clinic started by COYOTE’s founder, Margo St. James, that’s named in honor of her, but I did not know that they had produced this newsletter. There’s comics in there by [underground comix veteran] Trina Robbins, there’s amazing satirical art. It’s such an amazing archive.
What I loved about it was how irreverent it was but also this slice of feminist history that I didn’t really have access to. The big issues, this is 1977, in this newsletter when you’re talking about sex workers rights and women’s rights were welfare and police violence. And I’ve got to tell you, growing up as a feminist in the late ’90s, I didn’t understand how important those two issues were. I think if you had asked me what the big issues for feminists were I might tell you Roe v. Wade and equal pay, which are important issues. But the reality is [COYOTE Howls] was talking about women facing the most oppression and the least access to resources, and welfare and police violence are at the top of the list before equal pay. So that was such a huge lesson for me—when you can actually center what sex workers face rather than treat sex work as this really contentious oppositional thing within feminism, feminism starts looking really different.
CP: I was also a bit appalled when I read the section of the book when you write about being defined as a sex worker and only a sex worker, not being seen by reporters or researchers as a serious journalist or thinker or activist. It’s a very powerful example of the person being abstracted from their work, which is a pretty classically Marxist observation.
MGG: So much of it is misogyny. If you talk openly about ever having done sex work then that’s what people want to talk to you about, not your politics. That’s something that women and trans women face across the board in a way that men don’t. And I think that that comes up in every field, so it doesn’t surprise me that it comes up here.
What’s different around sex work, I think, is the traditional allies you’d have in feminists don’t necessarily show up for you because sex work is treated as this third-rail issue. So you’re often left quite on your own to fight these battles. There’s been three different feminist and progressive conferences that have gone down in the last few months where sex work was discussed and no sex workers were invited. So when your political allies are also excluding you from these conversation while they’re talking about you—yeah, I do look at it as you’re being alienated from your own labor. You’re being alienated from how people are talking about the circumstances of your life because they don’t take you seriously.
CP: And it’s hard to get somebody to change their mind about something they think they’ve morally figured out.
MGG: Right, and I think is just an interesting entry point. I’ve been really excited to see that [“Playing the Whore”] is being taught in colleges and universities, both in the context of talking about sex work but also as a way to talk about broader feminist issues. Who is leading the movement? Is the movement about getting more women into the boardroom or is the movement about what’s going on in the streets? Who is considered a leader? Can you regard someone who has done sex work as a leader or do they have to have a more polished, media-friendly appearance? It’s just so funny to me because in any other context we would say that the personal is political and your own experiences should be believed, whether that’s on abortion or sexual assault. Look at all the leadership that comes from people who are saying, “Look I’ve had an abortion” or “I have been raped and that is why this matters to me.” But for some reason sex work is considered different, and if you’ve had those experiences then actually, maybe your voice is questionable.