Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work 
by Melissa Gira Grant.
Verso, 136 pp., £8.99, March 2014, 978 1 78168 323 1
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You're at work​ . You’re good at your job and work long hours – your boss has little to complain about. You get on with your colleagues and have them over for dinner now and again, but your boss doesn’t like you seeing them outside work. He doesn’t like that you’re a member of a union either, and that you’ve told your colleagues about it. He starts harassing you. It begins with a sexually inappropriate comment here and there, and comments about your weight. It turns out he’s pressuring some of your colleagues to have sex with him. One day, after a night shift, your lift doesn’t turn up, so your boss drives you home. He threatens you: he’s watching you, he says, and if you don’t look out, something might happen; you’ve spent too long in your ‘comfort zone’ and someone needs to take you out of it. The harassment continues, until you quit. You want to file a complaint. It seems like a solid case. You’d win, right?

Not if you’re a sex worker. Unless, that is, you live in New Zealand, where sex work has been decriminalised. In February its Human Rights Tribunal published a landmark decision siding with a sex worker against her employer and brothel-owner. Advocacy and activist groups believe that such a victory would be impossible in the United States, France, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Ireland, the United Kingdom or the many other places where sex work is illegal or aspects of it are criminalised. Criminals can’t win harassment cases.

There are many ways of criminalising sex workers, but they fall into two main categories. They can be criminalised directly, if the actual exchange of sex for money is illegal, or its procuring, advertising or soliciting. In the Swedish model, by contrast, it’s demand that is criminalised: buying sex is illegal. Anti-prostitution campaigners tout ending demand as the best way to prosecute men who buy, and to protect the prostituted and trafficked women who are their victims. Sex workers’ rights groups say that this is a form of indirect criminalisation.

There isn’t much reliable information about the impact on sex workers of criminalising demand. (When it comes to statistics, it’s hard to know who to trust: research is almost always carried out by groups who know what they’re looking for before they start and find the data they need to make their case.) This hasn’t stopped campaigners seeing it as a solution to the ‘prostitution problem’. In February, the European Parliament voted in favour of a resolution proposed by the British MEP Mary Honeyball that criminalises the purchase of sex and recommends member states implement the Swedish model. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade has recommended that Britain do so without delay.

The idea underpinning the proposed legislation is that sex work is a form of violence against women. To put it in its most powerful form, prostitution is rape. Anti-prostitution campaigners tend to argue for the outright abolition of sex work and criminalising the buyer is one step towards this: it shows the prostitute in her true light, as victim not criminal. But abolitionist feminists may well be uneasy with the company they’re keeping: the All-Party Parliamentary Group’s secretariat is the homophobic, anti-abortion charity Christian Action Research and Education.

On the other side, sex worker advocates say that those who want to rescue sex workers are confusing them with trafficking victims. The list of advocacy groups includes humanitarian organisations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, as well as UNAIDS. It also includes a group that you’d think legislators might want to listen to: sex workers themselves. Across Europe, they oppose the Swedish model, and support New Zealand-style decriminalisation. They say the move from criminal to victim doesn’t help them, in theory or practice. It doesn’t stop them from being treated like criminals by the people who try to save them, or from being denied rights in the same way criminals are. It leaves them vulnerable to police violence (laws are not enforced equally across the sex industry, and racial and gender profiling makes the position of black and transgender sex workers particularly precarious). If you take the view that sex work is a form of violence against women, then violence and harassment are just part of the job (if your boss tries to have sex with you, well, what did you expect?). The New Zealand Human Rights Tribunal ruling takes the opposite view. Sex workers are workers. Their workplaces should be safe, and they should have the same rights – including labour and employment rights – as everybody else.

This is the central argument of Melissa Gira Grant’s book Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. Sex workers exist. So do the many victims of human (including sexual) trafficking. But they are not necessarily the same people, and sex workers are not all victims who need to be saved. Some of them might be victims: raped and exploited by pimps, johns and police. Some of them might be empowered and love their job in the way we all wish we loved ours. But between the victims and the empowered, there’s a whole world of sex workers who do what they do and get by. Some might like their job, sort of, some of the time. Many might not like it much at all, but prefer it to their other options. Others might want to get out, but not really know how. People experience the conditions of their labour in a huge variety of ways, and in this, sex workers are no different from the rest of us.

Grant’s persuasive manifesto shows that the contrast between radical anti-prostitution feminists and pro-sex work liberals is misleading. It’s a product of what she calls the ‘prostitute imaginary’. The exchange economy of sex may be ancient, but the idea of the professional prostitute is a product of 19th-century Victorian morality and its police force. Whenever we think of the sex worker as a prostitute, we reduce her to what she does for a living. To those who encounter her – whether it’s the client in her bedroom, the cop extracting her from a brothel, or the aid worker moving her off a street corner – she’s always at work. And so she’s always sexualised. She’s also an object to control: working, but without agency, her work makes her a victim to be rescued or arrested or both. Grant, like many sex worker activists and advocates, uses the terminology of ‘sex work’ rather than the language of ‘prostitution’. This avoids the gendered language and framing of sex work as a women’s issue: sex work has long provided a reliable source of income to gender nonconformists who face discrimination in other forms of employment. The terminology also helps shift the debate from the moral sphere to the economic, where sex work covers the range of sexual acts that people perform for money: sex, companionship, intimacy, stripping, pole-dancing, live sex on a web-cam; many sex workers supplement their income doing more than one of these.

A former sex worker herself, Grant has been asked repeatedly to talk about her experiences, and has evaded doing so. ‘This is not a peep show,’ she writes. She has also been accused of being ‘unrepresentative’ – being white and university-educated. Well, she has responded, what did you expect? While sex workers continue to inhabit a space between legal and illegal, it’s hardly surprising that only those with resources, those who are least vulnerable, will come forward to tell their stories.

If sex workers claim they aren’t victims, we expect them to say they chose sex work voluntarily, that they find their work fun, or a therapeutic public service, that they are empowered. We’re not satisfied if they say that it’s a crappy job, but they’re doing OK. But why should workers have to be having fun, or be satisfied with their job, before they can earn the right to join a union, or have legal protection from violence? ‘Sex workers,’ Grant says, ‘should not be expected to defend the existence of sex work in order to have the right to do it free from harm.’ Ignoring the economic rights of sex workers also denies a basic fact: there’s a huge sex industry out there (that some see as simply a part of the mainstream media), the products of which many people comfortably or shamefully consume, as free-riding voyeurs or as paying participants. Yet few are willing to move beyond their guilty secrets to discuss how to protect the workers who enable them.

Underneath Grant’s strategically inclusive argument lurks a harder political critique of the transformation of politics and economics since the 1970s. Over the last forty years, international politics has become more and more concerned with humanitarian issues. The view of women as victims of violence and objects to be trafficked can be seen as part of this trend. Violence against women is a major global problem, but the focus on humanitarian issues like violence (and the framing of violence against women as a humanitarian rather than a political issue) distracts from the political and economic conditions that give rise to them.

Even humanitarian organisations now recognise that the conflation of sex work with sex trafficking has gone too far. Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and USAID today all use the term ‘sex work’ rather than ‘prostitution’, and differentiate between victims of trafficking and sex workers. In her discussion of the ‘rescue industry’, Grant describes a 2008 case, documented by HRW and Cambodian human rights organisations: the US State Department and anti-prostitution NGOs led a crackdown that resulted in the forcible removal of Cambodian sex workers to rehabilitation centres where they were kept in cages (thirty or forty to a cell), beaten by guards (in three instances, to death), before eventually being given less ‘immoral’ employment operating sewing machines (in conditions that made the work they were rescued from look pretty attractive). All this despite a prior UNAIDS survey of 20,000 sex workers in Cambodia which found that 88 per cent said they had not been forced into sex work. The data, as Grant recognises, may well be unreliable. But they were the only data available when the forced removals began. Sex workers are one of the last groups about whom false consciousness arguments are still made, whose preferences we say don’t track their ‘real interests’. Where we should think ‘self-determination’, we still think ‘save’.

Grant wants​ to go back to an older politics. The problem with humanitarianism isn’t just that it provides a vehicle for displaced imperial ventures, or that it can go badly wrong. It’s that it misses the work in sex work. The feminists of the 1970s did not. That decade saw the mobilisation of the English Collective of Prostitutes, protests against police brutality by French sex workers in Lyon, and the transition, Grant argues, from the ‘state of being’ of prostitution to the ‘form of labour’ that is sex work (a transition captured by the activist Carol Leigh, who coined the term ‘sex work’ in 1978). The same years saw a feminist alliance of sex workers and the Wages for Housework movement. ‘Hookers’ and ‘housewives’ had, they argued, a lot in common: we expect the things they provide to be offered freely, through nurture, affection and love. ‘A housewife,’ Grant writes, ‘maintains her legitimacy by not seeking a wage, and a hooker breaks with convention by demanding one.’ Intimacy, care, sex: none of these, we think, should be bought and sold, and demanding compensation and remuneration for women’s work remains subversive. But the most dirty, intimate work is done by those we pay, and it is done by women. Women make up the majority of the low-wage or unpaid workforce who do the unglamorous jobs that keep society running. Sex work is on this spectrum of physical, often sexualised, labour.

Going back to the 1970s isn’t possible, though, for sex workers or for the rest of us. The nature of sex work has been transformed since then. Two developments stand out in Grant’s account: the gentrification of red-light districts and the arrival of the internet. Gentrification has meant that sexually oriented businesses have become isolated, and those who work in them less safe (the Soho police raids earlier this year won’t be the last in a long line of attempts to drive sex workers out of London’s expensive heartlands). But the loss of physical community has coincided with a shift of commercial sex from the streets to the internet, which provides its own form of safety: transactions previously negotiated on street corners now happen in private, with physical dangers often removed and risks better controlled. ‘Gentrified sex work’ brings with it new workers and consumers, who wouldn’t have negotiated the old red-light districts. Sex work has been individualised and liberalised: workers once had communities, but now work in isolation; they once had pimps, but now negotiate deals themselves. They have found new allies in Silicon Valley libertarians who see the internet as a place where everything can be bought and sold. And yet the peculiarly public form of privacy that the internet provides means older dangers have been replaced by new ones: the risk of anonymity becoming renown at the click of a mouse, and the increased threat of state surveillance, which, as long as sex work remains criminalised, is a very real threat to freedom. Sex workers are watched by an ever larger public, too, but those who watch are even less likely than they once were to meet a sex worker ‘in the physical world’, either on or off the job.

The transformation of sex work means it’s best understood when situated in its proper economic place alongside not just housework but the service sector more broadly. The sex and service industries already exist on a continuum, and share a workforce: sex workers are often employed in other service sectors too, as waitresses or bar staff. To say that sex work is like other jobs isn’t to say that having sex for money is just the same as what other workers do, but there are continuities in both the type of work and the reasons people do it. Women who work in service industries are often required to please male clients: the barmaid who makes you feel special, the waitress who ‘doesn’t mind’ you pinching her bum, the welcoming corporate receptionist. ‘The conditions under which sexual services are offered,’ Grant writes, ‘can be as unstable and undesirable as those cutting cuticles, giving colonics, or diapering someone else’s babies.’ It’s a tough economy to make money in; sex workers, like service providers in other sectors since 2008, have struggled to find clients. But some people might nonetheless think it preferable to the zero hours contract work in other sectors where they might be expected to provide informal sexual services anyway.

The precarious and sexualised nature of women’s work was seen clearly by Selma James, the founder of Wages for Housework, who identified something else that Grant wants us to take seriously: ‘whore stigma’. This is the prejudice that legitimates violence against sex workers in particular, and – since all women can be treated as if they’re whores – women in general. Many will wince at the idea of reclaiming the whore. Grant stresses the work in sex work, but doesn’t shy away from the sex. Responding to the recent feminist focus on ‘enthusiastic consent’, she stresses ‘unenthusiastic consent’: ‘Consent in sex work, as in non-commercial sex, is more complex than a simple binary yes/no contract.’ Desire and consent can too easily be confused, but just as pleasure isn’t necessary for consent, the absence of pleasure doesn’t mean the withdrawal of consent: ‘If rape isn’t just bad sex, just bad sex – even at work – isn’t rape.’ If we worry whether the sex worker is enjoying herself, we go wrong in another way too: we confuse the performance she gives with reality. This neglects that she’s working, and that she isn’t always at work. A lot of effort goes into the production of fantasy by sex workers. ‘Playing the whore’ is their job, and ignoring the performance ignores the labour and ‘the skills that enable sex workers to perform a fantasy without living it’.

Grant believes this confusion is at the heart of much of the debate about ‘sexualisation’ that blames sex workers for the ‘pornification’ of culture. Porn and stripping are often seen as driving sexualisation, but the focus is always on the representation: ‘the pole, the thong, the waxed pussy’. But ‘confusing a representation of sex with sex itself is what sexualisation’s critics are supposed to stand against.’ Just because sex workers wear thongs doesn’t mean they accept the definition of sexuality thongs impose on them: acting as if they share the desires of others is the work of sex work. ‘To see off-the-clock sex workers as whole, as people who aren’t just here to fuck, would defy sexualisation.’ There’s a difference between sex workers who sexualise themselves for their jobs, and workers – in the sex industry or elsewhere – who, whether at work or at home, are sexualised by others.

There’s an obvious response to this argument. Even if the stripper is just making a buck, she’s still inadvertently creating conditions that perpetuate the oppression of women by accepting that her body is a commodity that should look the way men want it to. But Grant says that if you want someone to blame for this, don’t blame the worker. Don’t expect a consumer-led revolution either. Blame the management. Most of those who profit from the sexualised bodies, performances and images that women produce aren’t part of the sex economy anyway; they’re part of the mainstream economy. If you focus on the performance when you think about sex work, and don’t think about the lives of the workers themselves, the management has won.

This is the utopian moment in Grant’s realist argument. On this view, there are robust agents underneath the performance, and they don’t derive their self-worth from any of the things they do on stage. Grant is undoubtedly right that many sex workers are entirely detached from their work (if we listened when they spoke, maybe we’d find that was true of most of them). But don’t you have to be quite a powerful agent to keep the representation separate from the reality? Maybe lots of sex workers can. But maybe their clients can’t. The old fears of porn’s critics re-enter here. Sex workers’ clients might get that they’re paying for a performance. But those watching porn, who don’t see the performance begin and end, might not. Yet the idea of a powerful agent who can keep representation and reality separate sits a little uncomfortably with Grant’s claim that sex workers are neither necessarily empowered nor necessarily victims. The force of her book comes from the way she breaks down the binary, seeing sex workers neither as entirely free, empowered agents, nor as objects to be made into victims. But by introducing the opposition between representation and reality (and refusing the idea that the representation might also shape reality) she tries to have it both ways, and the empowered agent who happily chooses creeps back in.

But this objection may be a trap. If an actor plays the part of a murderer every night for six months, you don’t think that his reality off-stage will be shaped by his performance. What makes people feel differently here is that sex is involved. Sex isn’t the same! The voice in your head doesn’t go away: exchanging sex for money is just different from other kinds of exchange; it props up the patriarchy. Maybe. But maybe not for the sex workers who are just doing the job. The way we feel about sex shouldn’t be imposed on others. It certainly shouldn’t be the basis for law.

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Vol. 36 No. 15 · 31 July 2014

New Zealand’s enlightened legislation is matched by equally enlightened enforcement (LRB, 3 July). The Herald on Sunday reported on 13 July how Auckland police resolved a dispute between a sex worker and a client who tried to do a runner. They drove him home to collect his wallet, then to a cash machine to withdraw $100 and escorted him back to settle his debt. A police spokesperson confirmed that such incidents weren’t uncommon: ‘Police would help any citizen having a disagreement whether they were a sex worker or working in a pizza shop.’

Tom Frewen
Manakau, New Zealand

Katrina Forrester might be interested to know that it is not only in New Zealand that sex workers are protected from unfair employment practices. Although sex work is criminalised in South Africa, the South African Labour Appeal Court decided in 2010 in the judgment of Kylie v. Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration and Others that sex workers are entitled to have their employment rights protected and enforced by courts. The court rejected the judgment of a lower court that the criminality of the sex work, and hence the invalidity of the employment contract, rendered a sex worker’s claim to statutory right to fair dismissal unenforceable.

In the Kylie case the appellant challenged the termination of her employment as a sex worker in a massage parlour. The court found that although the underlying employment contract was illegal, the South African Constitution protected her rights. Where a sex worker ‘forms part of a vulnerable class by the nature of the work that she performs and the position that she holds and she is subject to potential exploitation, abuse and assaults on her dignity, there is … no principled reason by which she should not be entitled to some constitutional protection designed to protect her dignity.’

Pierre de Vos
University of Cape Town

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