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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

  • Verso's Feminism and Gender Bookshelf


    - Hackney Flashers, Who's still holding the baby?, 1978

    They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.
    They call it frigidity. We call it absenteeism.
    Every miscarriage is a work accident.

    - a feminist pamphlet calling for Wages for Housework written by Silvia Federici in 1975.

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  • Swoop and Rescue

    Toni Mac responds to the recent police raids in Soho and Chinatown targeting migrant sex workers. She campaigns for better working conditions for sex workers by fighting criminalization and supporting public education projects around issues relating to sex worker rights. She is writing a book about sex work with Molly Smith, forthcoming from Verso. 

    Late last night, on the evening of Thursday, 20 October, police officers and sniffer dogs raided six massage parlours in Chinatown and Soho, when their cash registers were full with most of a day’s takings. Women in these presumed sex work premises were dragged out onto the streets past midnight, before 12 were detained and removed for immigration offences, with a further 6 arrests of maids and other staff members.

    (Credit: Toni Mac)

    ‘Operation Lanhydrock’ is reported to be a “proactive multi-agency” effort to tackle a long list of issues said to be plaguing the local community, including human trafficking, exploiting prostitution for gain, immigration offences, money laundering, and drug dealing. The Met has stated that the “aim of the operation is to identify, safeguard and remove victims of human trafficking, sexual exploitation and modern slavery offences”. But the Met (and the law) confuse the meanings of these terms. The person on the street would expect that a victim of these offences had been forced – yet the Modern Slavery Act of 2015 specifies that in the case of “trafficking”, for instance, “it is irrelevant whether the victim consents to the travel”. To be an undocumented migrant who sells sex is to be a victim under the law, irrespective of whether you see yourself that way.

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  • Feminism and Gender Undergraduate Reading List



    Just in time for the beginning of the school year, we've launched the second set of our Feminist Classics series with the reissue of Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World and Close to Home: A Materialist Analysis of Women's Oppression. Kumari Jayawardena's Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World is a major text of transnational feminism that contains "the possiblity of reclaiming a belief in the broad, global universality of women's struggles," as Rafia Zakara writes in the foreword, while Christine Delphy's Close to Home analyzes how the patriarchy — a shifting structure — continously exploits unpaid women's labor. Our Feminist and Gender Undergradaute list mixes foundational texts in critical and left feminist traditions with contemporary books on sex work, gender identity and fluidity, political exile, and theories of feminism in the age of neoliberalism.

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