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Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work

“An important contribution to debates around sex and work ... deserves to be read.” – Nina Power
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.

Reviews

  • “Collectively as a society we've got a whole bunch of tangled, warped intuitions and policies towards the exchange of money for sex. Melissa Gira Grant does a remarkable job of rigorously teasing these apart and righteously scrapping those she finds wanting. Her work has been hugely influential in how I think about sex work and outright changed my mind on a number of points. She's a must read.”
  • “An important contribution to debates around sex and work, and deserves to be read by anyone who wants to get beyond tired and damaging understandings of both.””
  • “Gira Grant is one of the most interesting policy thinkers in the country when it comes to sex work, and this short book introduces and outlines her thinking on the matter.”
  • “An informative and extremely worthwhile addition to the existing body of literature on sex work.”
  • “Makes precisely clear that a culture that polices, silences and marginalizes women who sell sex is a culture that cares nothing about women. Period.”
  • “Thoroughly researched, eminently readable...Keeping the focus on ideas instead of autobiography has an impressively unsettling effect, as we're forced to acknowledge the writer's boundaries, and our own voyeurism.”
  • “A model of excellent nonfiction prose.”
  • “Learn, listen, take heart—this is the real deal.”
  • “Well-researched and provocative … A vital text on an incendiary topic.””
  • “Gira Grant weaves her way through sanctimony and hypocrisy with wit, eloquence, insight, and a dose of necessary outrage.”
  • “As self-appointed saviors like Nicolas Kristof command mainstream media attention for their crusade on behalf of trafficked women, Melissa Gira Grant provides a sharp and powerful counternarrative, a layered, justice-minded critique of such interventions as well as a much needed skewering of ‘carceral feminism.’ An important, illuminating and engaging read.”
  • “Gira Grant teases out the truth from the reality in this complicated and emotive topic… [and] takes some of the campaigns being promoted by feminists about sex work head-on. She argues for a value-neutral and rights-centred reading of sex work, rather than pinning attitudes (and laws) on whether we feel it to be 'good' or 'bad.' The core point that she makes - [is] the necessity of sex workers' voices in policy about them, and the benefit of decriminalisation”
  • “A persuasive manifesto… Underneath Grant’s strategically inclusive argument lurks a harder political critique of the transformation of politics and economics since the 1970s.”

Blog

  • Serving: Ina, 22, sex worker, Central London

    "All kinds of workers in all kinds of jobs are now encouraged to create an experience out of an ordinary transaction – the smiling and fucking that the Wages for Housework campaign identified as worthy of payment – and we are only just beginning to understand what sort of experience of work the service economy allows. The way emotions are used at work is something sex workers understand better than most of us." All Day Long

    Joanna Biggs' All Day Long is an beautifully observed set of case studies of people at work in contemporary Britain. The chapter 'Serving' includes profiles of two Pret baristas, a call centre advisor, a Downing Street special advisor, and a sex worker, whose portrait is excerpted here. The story of Ina, a 22-year-old sex worker in Soho, captures the pressures sex workers face from police raids and gentrification, and the centrality of sex work to feminist understandings of social reproduction and feminized emotional labour. 

    On 16th March at Foyles, Verso launches a special series of events previewing the London Mayoral elections in May in collaboration with Compass. Joanna Biggs will be discussing how we identify with our working lives alongside journalist Frankie Mullin, who will be talking about sex work and the gentrification of Soho. Meanwhile Will Davies, author of The Happiness Industry, explodes myths of well-being and workplace happiness and Nick Srnicek, co-author of Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, maps a route to a post-work future. Emma Dowling, author of the forthcoming Care (Verso, 2017) – a book about care and emotion work – will chair the event.


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  • Five Book Plan: Sex Work and Reproductive Labour

    Melissa Gira Grant, journalist, sexual politics columnist at Pacific Standard and the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, picks her essential reads for Verso's latest Five Book Plan. On International Sex Workers Rights Day, this edition places sex work and social reproduction at the centre of feminist discussions about gendered labour.

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  • Staff picks: Feminist books for International Women’s Day

    In celebration of International Women’s Day on 8th March, the women workers of Verso and New Left Review share some of our favourite feminist books in tribute to the radical roots of the observance. 

    - Jo  Spence/Rosy Martin, Mother as Factory Worker, 1984-88

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