Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, By Melissa Gira Grant, Verso, 144 pages, $17.95
Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk, By Melinda Chateauvert, Beacon Press, 272 pages, $31
Sex is a language, but few people speak it fluently. We lack a vocabulary to adequately express the feelings sex can provoke, and too often the words spoken have more to do with shame than desire.
The world’s oldest profession, as the cliché goes, is not particularly old – the word first appears in the 16th century, a relatively recent linguistic development in the history of languages. Even “profession” is dubious – for many governments, sex work has never been a legitimate job, regulated entirely by criminal codes instead of labour laws. New York-based journalist Melissa Gira Grant writes that “prostitution is a talking crime,” in Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, her book scheduled for release this month. Grant is referring to the American legal prohibitions that prevent all communicating for the purposes of prostitution, including everything from talking to a client to sharing safety tips with a colleague. Until as recently as December, 2013, Canada similarly legislated sex workers into silence.
Prostitution, in the eyes of the law and citizens who want to be law-abiding, is not just a talking crime – it’s a talking point. Politicians and police use sex work to prove a tough stance on crime; feminist discourse has historically been divided down the middle over debates that frequently silence actual sex workers entirely; op-ed columns point fingers and assign blame based on a cultural vocabulary that is not a reflection of reality. Almost everyone has an opinion on sex work and sex workers, but following a Supreme Court ruling handed down in December of last year, there’s a crucial difference. Canada might actually be listening.
In the landmark Supreme Court decision, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote that the prohibitions – the operation of bawdy houses, financially profiting from prostitution, and the aforementioned communication – didn’t enforce conditions on sex workers: “They go a critical step further, imposing dangerous conditions on prostitution; they prevent people engaged in a risky – but legal – activity from taking steps to prevent themselves from risks.”
Justice McLachlin granted the Canadian government 12 months to create a new legal vocabulary. Labour activists, community organizers, writers, and sex workers are hoping that Canada will develop a new language, one having more to do with the intrinsic human rights of sex workers than shameful puritanism.
Grant’s book argues that sex workers are the world’s oldest and most enduring “other,” labeled bad in order to give value to identities considered good. When it comes to this misunderstood and misrepresented job, it’s time to ask ourselves who is allowed the right to speak freely, who is listened to, and why.
When Grant began writing her book, she asked herself, What are the questions people always ask me about sex work? “The questions that sex workers are asked are actually quite tedious, but sometimes those are the questions people feel they need answered before they can decide how they feel about sex work,” Grant tells me over the phone, pointing out that “those questions don’t give sex workers a lot of space to actually say what they really need and want. I wanted to write a book that would expose some of those myths and open up some space for more critical thinking.”
Playing the Whore is exceptionally well written, a book that strongly communicates the necessity of viewing sex work as work first and foremost. The book is the culmination of several years of Grant’s efforts. “There’s always things you don’t get to include,” Grant explains. “I had four years of reporting that I could draw from, and 10 years of academic research on sex work.” She also made a specific decision to not talk about her personal experience as a sex worker, saying that she did so “in order to open up space for the realities of sex work. It’s certainly not a forever decision, but a decision I made for this book and a decision that any sex worker who does any public work considers. The media wants to pre-package you into a role or character, and those demands are part of the reason our stories about sex work are so limited.”
Fortunately, more and more options to listen to sex workers are becoming available. Playing the Whore is just one of several recent releases focusing on the rights and advocacy of sex workers. In Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk, released in January, 2014, author Melinda Chateauvert traces the modern history of sex worker activism alongside many other social movements, like feminism and queer rights. Late last year, Samantha Majic published Sex Work Politics, a case study on how radical nonprofit sex worker organizations can provide social services even under governments that criminalize sex work. Canadian anthology Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy, and Research on Sex Work in Canada, a comprehensive collection featuring the stories of sex workers and how politics, law, race, and class affect their experiences of labour, also came out last year. Read together, these books illustrate the professional and legislative needs of sex workers – without the judgment and stigma.
Now, in Canada, is a time when sex workers should be talking freely and listened to carefully. The issue has never been a lack of voices – sex workers have always championed their own cause and had their own leaders. Indeed, Canada’s recent decision is the result of persistent efforts by three sex workers, Amy Lebovitch, Valerie Scott, and Terri-Jean Bedford, to fight the legal restrictions imposed on their daily lives. The issue is whether the right people are listening.
Chanelle Gallant, a spokesperson and community engagement coordinator at Maggie’s, a Toronto-based organization run by and for local sex workers, says that listening is key: “What really protects sex workers is when sex workers get to have control over their workplace. If we want effective policy that protects the safety, dignity, and human rights of sex workers, then sex workers must be at the centre of all decision making and policies.”
The Canadian government has opened up an online public consultation, where, in 500 words or less per answer, any Canadian citizen can tell the government their feelings about the Supreme Court ruling. But there’s no indication how much weight these responses will be given; worse, there’s no indication that the voices of sex workers will be prioritized, only a grave admission that there “is a lack of consensus on how the criminal justice system should treat adult prostitution, [and] it is generally acknowledged that prostitution poses risks to those involved and to the communities in which it is practiced.”
Attempting to protect sex workers from the risks they face is a noble goal, but not if the resulting actions lead to sex workers being arrested, isolated, and unable to seek justice without bringing scrutiny into their own lives. In the Supreme Court decision, Justice McLachlin wrote that the provisions surrounding sex work were “grossly disproportionate” to the evils they were trying to prevent. As an example, she cites the fact that the prohibition on so-called “bawdy houses” harms organizations such as Vancouver-based Grandma’s House, a safe space intended to help sex workers, established at approximately the same time the Vancouver police warned of a serial killer targeting sex workers. Grandma’s House was shut down after charges were laid against it under Section 210 of Canada’s Criminal Code. We know now that the serial killer was Robert Pickton. “A law that prevents street prostitutes from resorting to a safe haven such as Grandma’s House while a suspected serial killer prowls the streets,” Justice McLachlin notes, “is a law that has lost sight of its purpose.”
Countries with decriminalized sex work are often invoked as modern-day Sodom and Gomorrahs, but for Canada the more apt Biblical allusion is a Tower of Babel: everyone shouting and no one being heard. In Playing the Whore, Grant warns against the danger of discussing sex work only in terms of feelings, saying that we lose when we engage in “endless, circular conversations about how sex work makes you feel.” The feelings sex work provokes have been spoken as facts and etched into law. Now that Canada has an opportunity to start over, we must listen to the words from people who know their own lives and work best. We cannot let our prejudices and preferences about sex work dictate an oppressive set of laws. Without listening to sex workers, we are robbing ourselves of the ability to speak a common language.
Haley Mlotek is a freelance writer and the publisher of WORN Fashion Journal.