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Why I Am Not A Feminist by Jessa Crispin

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Are you a feminist? Do you believe women are human beings and that they deserve to be treated as such? That women deserve all the same rights and liberties bestowed upon men? If so, then you are a feminist . . . or so the feminists keep insisting. But somewhere along the way, the movement for female liberation sacrificed meaning for acceptance, and left us with a banal, polite, ineffectual pose that barely challenges the status quo. In this bracing, fiercely intelligent manifesto, Jessa Crispin demands more.

Why I Am Not A Feminist is a radical, fearless call for revolution. It accuses the feminist movement of obliviousness, irrelevance, and cowardice—and demands nothing less than the total dismantling of a system of oppression.
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Why I Am Not A Feminist is an immediately gripping title, especially with Jessa Crispin’s chosen subtitle: A Feminist Manifesto. A feminist manifesto from someone who says they are not a feminist? That’s a fascinating idea, and the interviews and coverage around the book really intrigued me, so I picked up the volume…

Crispin’s title is explained in the introduction to the book, and is a theme she returns to throughout the book as a touchpoint: Why I Am Not A Feminist sets up a model of “universal feminism”, to use Crispin’s term, that she says is embodied by people like Laurie Penny: unthreatening to the capitalist kyriarchic system, narcissistic in its focus on individual choice, and losing all meaning by attempting to appeal to everyone (or at least, all women). Having set up this strawman (an interesting one, given the rise of feminists protesting capitalism on feminist grounds, including one Laurie Penny), Crispin sets out a radical feminist (again, her term) manifesto for the rest of the book, consistently centring the discussion on women, and how women take part in their own oppression.

The actual programme Crispin lays out is an interesting one; Why I Am Not A Feminist is very much focused on the role of women in not only dismantling the present patriarchal status quo, but the whole heirarchical and kyriarchic nature of society. Crispin looks at multiple different vectors of the way women are, themselves, complicit in the oppressive nature of society, and the way much modern feminism fails to challenge that: rather than calling for more women in the boardroom, she says, we should be tearing the whole boardroom down. This is especially important when she talks about women as engaging in kyriarchic discrimination against other marginalised groups: she consistently points out racism, homophobia, and an unnamed poverty-hatred as relevant here. It’s a powerful and effective argument that she marshalls strong evidence for, with a series of pointed chapters each focusing on one way “universal feminism” fails to do that.

However, this also reveals one of the flaws of this manifesto: Crispin’s insistence of doing this is very much also about emphasising the rehabilitation of second-wave feminism, and specifically Germaine Greer and Andrea Dworkin. Why I Am Not A Feminist fails to engage with significant modern issues in feminism around gender diversity, and specifically trans issues; trans people are never mentioned throughout the whole book, and the “universal feminism” movement is supposedly attacking second wave feminism purely because of its anger, rather than because it has continued to try to exclude, attack, and rip down trans people.

Why I Am Not A Feminist has an interesting three-page section at the start of its seventh chapter addressing men; this is the only time, throughout the whole book, that Crispin addresses men. Here, she, like Laurie Penny in Bitch Doctrine, talks about the discomfort men may feel reading feminist theory – and states that it is not women’s responsibility to reassure them, or do the emotional labour of helping men through that discomfort. It’s one of the most powerful parts of the book, and strikes an interesting contrast with the rest of that chapter, which is about not making an enemy of men. Crispin has some very fascinating things to say about the importance of not idealising women or demonising men, and the importance of feminism as opening up space for everyone by dismantling the capitalist kyriarchic structures of society.

In the end, Why I Am Not A Feminist would be an absolutely fantastic book, were it not for Crispin’s failure to engage with the trans-exclusionary tendencies of radical feminism and the second wave in particular, which make it a hard book to talk about.

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Trans Like Me by CN Lester

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What does it mean to be transgender? How do we discuss the subject? In this eye-opening book, CN Lester, academic and activist, takes us on a journey through some of the most pressing issues concerning the trans debate: from pronouns to Caitlyn Jenner; from feminist and LGBTQ activists, to the rise in referrals for gender variant children – all by way of insightful and moving passages about the author’s own experience. Trans Like Me shows us how to strive for authenticity in a world which often seeks to limit us by way of labels.
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At this ‘trans tipping point’ (thank you, Time), a lot of people still don’t know anything about trans people outside a famous few: Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock. All of them are beautiful, and identify as women. CN Lester doesn’t: like me, they are genderqueer, and want to open up the discussion about trans issues to a more diverse array of genders. Trans Like Me is their book-length attempt to do that.

Trans Like Me is written very much for a cis audience. That is, it’s written with the intention of educating a cis audience about trans issues and trans lives, and the reality, complexity, and diversity of those lives, rather than to a trans audience as a rallying cry or political manifesto. Lester certainly has a political agenda, but it’s one that involves getting cis people to sign up to trans rights; hence, explanations of how dysphoria can feel from the inside, discussions of the reality of discrimination against trans people on an everyday basis, and explanation of the medical and legal obstacles trans people face in getting recognition as ourselves. They lay these things out excellently, while also combining them with calls for change in how the world handles trans people: Trans Like Me suggests how the medical and legal professions can handle trans people better, with concrete ideas for recognition.

Lester’s marshalling of evidence is an interesting combination of scientific data and personal anecdote; much of their argument about gender diversity not being a mental health condition comes from their own personal experiences of having mental health conditions, rather than discussions of psychologists’ research. Trans Like Me does use scientific evidence and historical evidence in other areas though; for instance, Lester makes a very strong argument using historical evidence from a broad swathe of the past to demonstrate that gender diverse people have always existed and been part of (Western) society in varying ways.

One of the key elements of Trans Like Me that distinguishes it from most volumes on trans issues is the way Lester engages with gender diverse people who are not, like themself, binary trans people. Trans Like Me talks about a range of gender expression, from genderfluidity to nonbinary, and how they fit into the discussions of trans issues that we usually see; thus, they open up a space for nonbinary people in the discussion of trans issues and of what needs to be done for a more trans-inclusive society. They are also very clear on the importance of allowing flexibility and change in one’s gender over the course of one’s life; this includes discussion of raising children who are gender diverse, through to late-life transition.

There are weaknesses and gaps in Trans Like Me; Lester unfortunately doesn’t discuss agender people at all, assuming gender is something everyone has, and their discussion of intersexuality (as distinct from the range of trans identities) is both brief and focused largely on undermining the idea of a biological binary of sexes. Lester also at times tends towards the defensive; while necessary when trans people are under attack from a variety of fronts, it would have been nice to see them put forward a stronger argument of itself, rather than strong arguments against trans-exclusionary positions. I would also have liked to see a more clear set of proposals for change: Lester does have some policy ideas, but they don’t really have much of a programme for social reform, or concrete suggestions for action.

Those weaknesses are relatively minor, though; Trans Like Me is an absolutely fantastic book for educating a cis audience about trans issues, as well as opening up the world of nonbinary issues for binary trans people, and I heartily recommend it.

Disclaimer: I am hosting an event with CN Lester and Kaite Welsh at Waterstones Glasgow Argyle Street on August 17th. Please join us!

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Things Can Only Get Better by John O’Farrell

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Things Can Only Get Better is the personal account of a Labour supporter who survived eighteen miserable years of Conservative government. It is the heartbreaking and hilarious confessions of someone who has been actively involved in helping the Labour party lose elections at every level: school candidate: door-to-door canvasser: working for a Labour MP in the House of Commons; standing as a council candidate; and eventually writing jokes for a shadow cabinet minister.


Along the way he slowly came to realise that Michael Foot would never be Prime Minister, that vegetable quiche was not as tasty as chicken tikki masala and that the nuclear arms race was never going to be stopped by face painting alone.
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Do you remember the evening of May 1st, 1997? Do you remember the morning and day that was May 2nd, 1997? Do you remember that things can only get better? That was the first day in my life that I lived under a Labour government. It’s my second political memory. It’s a memory full of joy, and awe, and amazement, and surprise. For John O’Farrell, it was the culmination of nearly two decades of hard work as a Labour activist; and so, over the course of the six months following victory, he wrote his political memoirs of Labour’s time in the wilderness: the result is, of course, Things Can Only Get Better.

This isn’t a standard memoir; really, it’s a series of snapshots in the life of a Labour supporter, taking in each election in which O’Farrell took any active part from the General Election of 1979 that brought Margaret Thatcher to power to that of 1997, which finally removed the Conservative government from office. Things Can Only Get Better is therefore a little parochial at times: Scotland, for instance, which underwent a political earthquake in 1997 unparalleled until 2015, gets only a brief mention, and England outside London barely more than that. When talking about the political mood, it’s notable how often O’Farrell means the political mood in London specifically, or even just in Battersea.

However, that limitation aside, Things Can Only Get Better is actually rather fascinating in one particular way that is often overlooked: the hard work of actually running an election campaign on the local level. O’Farrell worked as ward secretary, campaign agent, and campaign organiser in various elections of various scales over the course of the Tory dominion, and he talks about the processes involved in running a campaign operation. The complete lack of glamour and lack of general recognition volunteers get is something he drives home to the reader with a real sense of the importance of the work.

O’Farrell’s history of the Labour Party’s 1980s wilderness years seems to presage a lot of their new wilderness years in the 21st century; the infighting and desperation, and the arguments over the soul of the party. Things Can Only Get Better sides solidly with the Blairites, because they brought Labour to power, even while acknowledging that Blair was pawning the soul of the party for victory. Obviously, written in 1997 and published in 1998, the decade that followed was something that O’Farrell couldn’t predict, from the Iraq War and erosion of public ownership of public services (such as health and education) to the huge expansion of gay rights and the strengthening of our relationship with Europe.

The biggest theme of O’Farrell’s book, though, is also the reason I’m posting this review out of sequence, the day before election day; as Things Can Only Get Better hammers home time again, it is vital to take part in democracy. It is vital to vote. Polls, time and again, are proved wrong in the book, because people don’t turn out, or because they lied to pollsters; a counsel of despair is a false counsel, because you, the voter, can take part, and O’Farrell has some very choice words for those who claim that both sides are the same:

Other people told me they were not voting because ‘they’re all the same’. As if the party of Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit and Nicholas Ridley was the same as the party of Neil Kinnock, John Prescott and Dennis Skinner. The idea that there’s no point in voting because ‘they’re all the same’ is just intellectually lazy. You don’t have to wholly endorse everything one particular candidate stands for, you just have to consider one person as preferable to the other. If all of them are completely unacceptable, then stand for election yourself. Nothing gets my hackles up more than people who should know better copping out of the political system because they think they are above it. (p215)

That quote also illustrates one of the great strengths of Things Can Only Get Better; O’Farrell, a writer for Have I Got News For You and Spitting Image, and occasional joke-polisher for then-Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown, is funny. He’s angry, he’s passionate, he’s political, and all of that is interspersed with brilliant bon mots, and moments that undercut his moral severity; O’Farrell isn’t above poking fun at himself or at the foibles of the Labour Party, any more than he’s above making cracks at the expense of the Tories. Some of the things O’Farrell goes after are the easy, obvious targets, but he’s also willing to do the harder political lifting too.

In the end, Things Can Only Get Better is a paean to the importance of getting stuck in and persisting to create change; I look forward to O’Farrell’s sequel, Things Can Only Get Worse, to be released in September, bringing the story up to the current election. Now, go out and vote on Thursday, write O’Farrell’s last chapter for him… and let’s make it a hopeful, progressive one!

They Can’t Kill Us All by Wesley Lowery

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In over a year of on-the-ground reportage, Washington Post writer Wesley Lowery traveled across the US to uncover life inside the most heavily policed, if otherwise neglected, corners of America today.

In an effort to grasp the scale of the response to Michael Brown’s death and understand the magnitude of the problem police violence represents, Lowery conducted hundreds of interviews with the families of victims of police brutality, as well as with local activists working to stop it. Lowery investigates the cumulative effect of decades of racially biased policing in segregated neighborhoods with constant discrimination, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure and too few jobs.


Offering a historically informed look at the standoff between the police and those they are sworn to protect, They Can’t Kill Us All demonstrates that civil unrest is just one tool of resistance in the broader struggle for justice. And at the end of President Obama’s tenure, it grapples with a worrying and largely unexamined aspect of his legacy: the failure to deliver tangible security and opportunity to the marginalised Americans most in need of it.
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The broad Black Lives Matter movement has been one of the emerging political phenomena of the 2010s, affecting change, driving conversations and changing political priorities across the world. Wesley Lowery’s reportage gave him a unique point from which to observe the development of the movement, the mobilisation of a generation and community of people often seen as “apathetic” by outsiders, and this book came out of that reportage, so how does “They Can’t Kill Us All”: The Story of Black Lives Matter hold up to the task?

In a word, poorly. We’ll begin by addressing the subtitle; this book claims to be the story of Black Lives Matter. That’s always going to be a tall order for a slim volume (less than 250 pages, including the notes and index), but is even taller a one for such a partial and patchy volume as this is; what Lowery is presenting is rather less the story than his story of Black Lives Matter, with a few exceptions. This is unsurprising, given that They Can’t Kill Us All is based on his reportage, but it is a problem: we’re given a view that doesn’t ever tie different events together, that jumps from event to event and flashpoint to flashpoint without ever really covering the hard graft behind the scenes, the stuff that doesn’t get media attention. Reading this book, you’d think none of that actually happened.

Furthermore, They Can’t Kill Us All has a contradictory thread in it; on the one hand, the larger Black Lives Matter movement has many leaders, many people driving it, many people involved. On the other hand, Lowery has a specific set of contacts, so they come up time and again – as leaders and spokespeople for every situation; this is especially true of DeRay Mckesson, who Lowery appears to have relied on heavily for much of his access. The picture presented then becomes of a movement that is falsely protesting its own leaderlessness; the reality of the broad array of groups and people who are active in the cause belies that, but is only mentioned, not demonstrated, in the book.

They Can’t Kill Us All is also incredibly narrow. Rather than being a story of the movement, it is a story of specific moments in the movement: those that coalesced around a specific set of deaths or brutalisations by the police. There is a minimal historical framing in the book – Lowery acknowledges that the American original sin is slavery, and talks about different generations of black activism, but doesn’t really provide past or future context; there’s no suggestion of the historical roots of police oppression and little of the history of anti-oppression activism in the African-American community, and no look at the possible futures of the movement, or future trends in police-community relations.

Those moments are well-written, and the encounters with activists well portrayed, though; Lowery is a consummate journalist and his use of language is incredible. Each person we meet, we’re given a very short pen-portrait of, and those are evocative, packed full of interesting detail and character information; they’re brief but complex and seemingly complete, and the reportage of the black deaths and brutalisations covered in They Can’t Kill Us All are sympathetic, and told with a kind of eye for detail and clarity that really brings them to mind, in both memory and imagination.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of They Can’t Kill Us All is how dated it was the moment it appeared, though. This book came out in the UK & US in 2017. Wesley Lowery doesn’t touch on the racialised, racist Presidential campaign of Donald Trump, let alone his victory in November 2016. Lowery doesn’t touch on the responses of the Democratic or Republican primary candidates, let alone the eventual Presidential candidates, to Black Lives Matter activists and their disruption of events (the closest we get is the fact that some BLM activists became Sanders surrogates; no mention at all of Clinton). Lowery barely covers any of the events of 2016, almost as if Black Lives Matter just vanished into the Presidential campaign – something he says is a media misconception: well, if so, it’s one They Can’t Kill Us All perpetuates.

It’s possible I wanted a different kind of book; an actual history of the Black Lives Matter movement, not a series of snapshots of moments in the movement (but “This is a movement, not a moment”, per Lorenzo Norris, quoted on p73). But that’s what They Can’t Kill Us All claims to be; The Story of Black Lives Matter. On those grounds, despite the excellent journalistic style, this book is a definite failure.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? by C. J. Atkinson, illus. Olly Pike

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Meet Kit – a 12 year old undergoing medical transition – as he talks about gender and the different ways it can be explored. He explains what it is like to transition and how his friends, family and teachers can help through talking, listening and being proactive.

With illustrations throughout, this is an ideal way to start conversations about gender diversity in the classroom or at home and suitable for those working in professional services and settings. The book also includes a useful list of recommended reading, organisations and websites for further information and support.
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Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? first came to my attention thanks to its media coverage in the wake of condemnation by such luminaries as Norman Tebbit, former Thatcherite Cabinet member and rabid queerphobe, and Sarah Vine, columnist for the vile rag the Daily Mail. It is a resource for (young) children and for adults who work with them to better understand gender diversity, and part of a series of such volumes on different issues from the same publisher.

The book is divided into two parts: first, forty-odd pages, with illustrations, about Kit, a fictional trans boy who tells us about growing up so far, accessing the Gender Identity Clinic, accessing school facilities, resources and support, going onto hormone blockers, and his trans friends, who include nonbinary people and a trans girl. This section of Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? is clearly aimed at children, both those who are trans and those who are cis, as a broad explanation of trans issues; it uses simpler language, although it introduces things like neopronouns and legal issues around the Equality Act (2010). It also presents, very clearly, things like the difference between gender identity, gendered stereotypes, sex, and sexuality, and explains how those are unrelated, a key thing for children.

The second section of Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? is about half the length and focuses heavily on explaining to adults how they can support trans children, at home, at school and in other settings. This section gets more technical and specific, but also brushes lightly over a number of issues; one of the major problems is its UK-centric nature (GICs, GIRES, and the Equality Act (2010) are all UK institutions), given that it is for distribution internationally, and another is its occasional inaccuracies. Atkinson’s guidance about the law, for instance, suggests that the Equality Act (2010), in protecting gender reassignment, protects people whether or not they medically transition; in reality, however, the position is that only those who intend to, are, or have undergone medical transition are protected (therefore, for instance, I am not), an important mistake. However, the clarity of explanation of the duties of confidentiality and support are welcome.

The one other area Atkinson glosses over rapidly in Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? is that of intersex people. There is one brief mention of intersex people, and there is an entry in the glossary, but some more information, especially for parents and professionals, might have been helpful; after all, intersex children are more likely than most to have medical procedures forced upon them by adults who do not understand intersex conditions, and to be raised in ways that very strictly enforce gender conformity. A little more attention paid to these issues would have been welcome.

In the end, though, I wish something like Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? had been in circulation when I was at school; something that might have put a name to some of the unease I felt about myself, and helped me understand it. C. J. Atkinson has produced a vitally important resource I hope schools across the UK capitalise on.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

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Imagine that all fantasy novels—the ones featuring dragons, knights, wizards, and magic—are set in the same place. That place is called Fantasyland. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is your travel guide, a handbook to everything you might find: Evil, the Dark Lord, Stew, Boots (but not Socks), and what passes for Economics and Ecology. Both a hilarious send-up of the cliches of the genre and an indispensable guide for writers, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland has been nearly impossible to find for years. Now this cult classic is back, and readers can experience Diana Wynne Jones at her very best: incisive, funny, and wildly imaginative. This is the definitive edition of The Tough Guide, featuring a new map, an entirely new design, and additional material written for it by Diana Wynne Jones.
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The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is what, I presume, people had in the days before TVTropes; humorous but pointed descriptions of the cliches and tropes of fantasy, told by an author of the genre.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is organised in, essentially, two sections; a short introduction, and a long reference section. The introduction is an amusing equivalent of the prologue and the proper way to approach a fantasy novel of the sort under discussion – the sort authors like Eddings have written over and over again for year; it discusses the map, the preparations for the Tour, and so on. Its humour is rather sarcastic but with a certain warmth to it, an amusement at the tropes even while showing weariness with them.

That warmth becomes less, and the weariness and frustration greater, in the alphabetised reference section. Taking various items and describing them – such as the QUEST, SWORDs, KINGs, GOOD and EVIL, and COLOUR CODING – Jones describes the hackneyed, cliched uses of these tropes perfectly; The Tough Guide to Fantasyland takes down the various things readers have become used to in a certain kind of fantasy novel. Hence the entry on swords is one of the longest in the book, discussing all the different kinds of swords and the various problems they cause – and concluding with swords being something one has to have but really should try to avoid; or the entry on COLOUR CODING, which sends up the (Western-influenced) system by which characters are outfitted and, indeed, physically appear in general.

Certain sections have more ire than others, however; ANIMALS, ECOLOGY and ECONOMY all demonstrate the failures of the imagination that post-Tolkeinian fantasies suffer from. Jones has some very biting comments about the disregard for logic and worldbuilding in these sections, and the way in which they are inconsistent within themselves; The Tough Guide isn’t a guide to worldbuilding but it certainly points one of the ways of doing it wrong by going in too abstract a direction, as it pokes fun at the fantasy novels that, for instance, insist on stew and meat without having any animals, or rich trading economies without any apparent trading partners.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a classic that ought to be given to every reader and writer of fantasy, to sort the Brookses from the Bears, the Eddingses from the Hurleys; Jones really did give us a gift with this little volume. You’ll never read The Belgariad in the same way again.

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.