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Playing the Whore by Melissa Gira Grant

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The sex industry is an endless source of prurient drama for the mainstream media. Recent years have seen a panic over “online red-light districts,” which supposedly seduce vulnerable young women into a life of degradation, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s live tweeting of a Cambodian brothel raid. The current trend for writing about and describing actual experiences of sex work fuels a culture obsessed with the behaviour of sex workers. Rarely do these fearful dispatches come from sex workers themselves, and they never seem to deviate from the position that sex workers must be rescued from their condition, and the industry simply abolished—a position common among feminists and conservatives alike.

In Playing the Whore, journalist Melissa Gira Grant turns these pieties on their head, arguing for an overhaul in the way we think about sex work. Based on ten years of writing and reporting on the sex trade, and grounded in her experience as an organizer, advocate, and former sex worker, Playing the Whore dismantles pervasive myths about sex work, criticizes both conditions within the sex industry and its criminalization, and argues that separating sex work from the “legitimate” economy only harms those who perform sexual labor.

In Playing the Whore, sex workers’ demands, too long relegated to the margins, take center stage: sex work is work, and sex workers’ rights are human rights.
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Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore is subtitled The Work of Sex Work. Its manifesto is encapsulated in that subtitle: sex work is work, is labour, just as domestic labour is labour. It tackles this idea in a number of different ways and on a number of different grounds.

Grant’s book is not a confessional, tell-all, personal story; nor is it a piece of research by someone with no connection with sex work other than their (dispassionate, etic) research into the subject. Rather, Playing the Whore is a book by someone who is (was?) a sex worker, who knows and is engaged with sex worker politics and organising, who can engage with sex workers without suspicion around their motive. That Grant doesn’t leverage her experiences into an argument strengthens her case, as does her use of anecdote to illustrate points without using them as her sole evidence. Grant’s experience as a sex worker is used incredibly well, and resists the narrative of arousal that surrounds sex work; indeed, Grant states that Playing the Whore is “not a peep show (sic)” (34).

Instead, Playing the Whore is a discussion, or at least Grant puts it forward as such. However, it reads more like one side of a discussion; while antiprostitution campaigners’ views are noted, their validity is attacked, their positions are not looked at for the purpose of defence but rather either ridicule or more simply to be undermined, and their motives guessed at. While this is understandable in a polemic, which Playing the Whore undoubtedly is, it is not part of a discussion; it is part of a pamphlet.

Playing the Whore also reads like a pamphlet. While using quotations, data, and research, it also uses anecdotes, personal reflection, and unacademic, more informal language. That is no bad thing; it makes what would otherwise be an extraordinarily dense work more approachable, especially combined with its almost friendly tone, rather than the angry tone one might expect. Grant’s work is densely and effectively argued, whether criticising TERFs or demonstrating the collusion of the police and antiprostution/rescue industries in the perpetuation of the abuse of sex workers. In that regard this is a brilliant text; it puts its pro-reform, pro-sex worker position forward powerfully, effectively demonstrates the problems of the arguments for treating sex work as an exceptional kind of work, the hangovers into the modern era (despite feminism and sex worker organisation) of portrayals of prostitutes in the past, and more.

Playing the Whore is, then, a good-humoured, well-written and passionate pamphlet on the nature of sex work as work; it’s not an academic or dispassionate tract, but then nor would Grant want it to be.


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