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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

  • “Sometimes you have to scream to be heard” — Avital Ronell on the aims of Valerie Solanas

    "Solanas shows up as a victim of the failed performative, as one who felt her verbal velocities could reach no one in a way that would truly mark or unhinge the brutal protocols of lived reality. At the same time, Valerie Solanas, who took no prisoners, took pleasure in the injurious effects of language and, with Lacanian precision, understood that words are bodies that can be hurled at the other, they can land in the psyche or explode in the soma. A hurtful utterance can give you hives, make you want to throw up, put a dent in your appetite, or summon up any number of somatic responses and physical collapses." — Avital Ronell

    In this edited extract from the new paperback edition of
    SCUM Manifesto, Avital Ronell reconsiders Solanas's infamous text in light of her social milieu, Derrida's The Ends of Man (written in the same year), Judith Butler's Excitable Speech, and notorious feminist icons from Medusa, Medea and Antigone, to Lizzie Borden, Lorenna Bobbit and Aileen Wournos, illuminating the evocative exuberance of Solanas's dark tract. She also examines Solanas' shooting of Andy Warhol a man that had "exercised too much control over her life".

    To mark the paperback edition of this book,
    SCUM Manifesto, along with all our feminist reading, is 50% off on our site until June 6th. Full details here.


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  • "SCUM is against the entire system, the very idea of law and government" — a feminist reading list

    "Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex."  Valerie Solanas


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  • “NO CONDOM, NO PUSSY”: Housework is Real Work. Sex Work is Real Work. Under Capitalism All Work is Shit.

    “We usually add a bit of money to the shitty lives we have now and then ask, so what? on the false premise that we could ever get that money without at the same time revolutionising – in the process of struggling for it – all our family and social relations. But if we take wages for housework as a political perspective, we can see that struggling for it is going to produce a revolution in our lives and in our social power as women. It is also clear that if we think we do not ‘need’ that money, it is because we have accepted the particular forms of prostitution of body and mind by which we get the money to hide that need. As I will try to show, not only is wages for housework a revolutionary perspective, but it is the only revolutionary perspective from a feminist viewpoint and ultimately for the entire working class.” — Silvia Federici in Wages Against Housework (1975)



    Women’s struggles are worker’s struggles. As early as 1800s, women and girls have been central to agitating for class emancipation and have been on the frontlines of strikes and walkouts in a rich history of women’s militancy in work-based struggles.

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