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Lady Business Book Review: “Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys”

Say! Feminists! Do you have opinions about sex work?

Sure you do. Everyone does. The sexual experiences of others are always a conversation starter – particularly if the subject of discussion is a lady, or anyone who does not fit solidly inside the hetero norm. Which is why it’s not surprising that, among the earth’s six billion people, there are approximately six billion strongly held opinions about the nature and value and meaning of the sex industry.

As if it were that simple. As if sex work is, or can be understood as, one unified concept and set of experiences; as if we could somehow adopt some comfy one-size-fits-all moral or political standpoint on the deal. The term “sex worker” applies to Nina Hartley and Max Hardcore, Annie Sprinkle and Andrea Dworkin, men and women, trans folks and cis folks, white people and people of color, people who do the work for any number of reasons and in any number of ways. There is no centralizing this story; no one single authority who can sum it all up and tell us what it means.

Which is to say, Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys, an anthology of non-fiction by sex workers, edited by David Henry Sterry and R.J. Martin, is an extremely valuable and necessary book, not because it tells you what your perspective ought to be, but because it provides more perspectives than pretty much any other book on the topic.

It covers more ground than I would have imagined possible. I don’t agree with all of the points raised therein, because it would be impossible to agree with all of the points raised therein. What I love is the fact that, for once, so many different voices are represented within the same space. And, while it’s definitely not intended specifically for a feminist audience, I can’t help but feel that it should be required reading for any feminist who wants to enter a conversation about the industry, precisely because it addresses, head-on, so many of the issues and schisms that have kept those conversations stalled for so long.

The book contains lots of work from well-known writers; it opens with two fairly well-known pieces from Annie Sprinkle, and has bits from other sex-positive trailblazers such as Carol Queen and Nina Hartley. Yet the big names are not the draw here. These pieces are valuable because they ground the anthology in history, but lesser-known writers provide a lot of material that is just as good, and often better, simply because it is so fresh.

Some of the best pieces in the book come from previously unpublished, often anonymous authors. Many of the pieces were originally written in workshops held at SAGE, a center for ending commercial sexual exploitation, and include stories by people who were forced into the sex industry as children; others, like the contribution by a woman named Mochaluv, come from chance encounters. Mochaluv’s piece, if you are wondering, is my favorite in the book. It begins with the line, “the next time I hear some rich white bitch tell me how great being a ho is, I’m gonna smack ‘em upside they righteous head,” it is one of the finer eviscerations of privilege in sex-positive activism that I have read, and it is only one short paragraph long.

The book breaks a lot of ground, in terms of the range of experiences it includes. It includes work from poor folks, folks of color, and gender non-conforming folks (though I wish there had been more trans voices), who are often shut out of the conversation. It also includes lots of work by men, including men who are pimps and clients. This was a choice I initially questioned, since clients, in particular, already have pretty damn many opportunities to make themselves heard – the “strippers, wow! Porn, whoopee!” narrative is already a pretty huge piece of our culture, and to pretend otherwise is naïve – but many of the pieces managed to confound my expectations, and add to the richness of the work. In particular, co-editor R.J. Martin’s piece on the role of love in the life of a pimp was completely unexpected, and very moving.

Which is not to say that there are not missteps. There is one piece, in particular, that should not have been included in the book – a guide on how to buy sex, from self-created media sensation Sebastian Horsley, which relies on manufactured outrageousness, stale one-liners, and piles and piles of casual misogyny. Paying for sex allows one to “fall into a woman’s arms without falling into her hands, and this can only be a good thing,” married women never fuck, “women who moralize are invariably plain,” and on and on and on and zzzzzzz. It’s not just that the piece is offensive; it’s that it’s boring. I could get this kind of insight from reading Maxim, and at least Maxim wouldn’t pretend that it was anything other than mainstream.

Still, if the anthology doesn’t offend you at one point or another, it’s probably not doing its job. And that is absolutely fine, considering that it contains so much great writing. “Tokyo,” a hilarious piece from Mistress Chun Jae-Min, details how she took advantage of her job as a phone sex dominatrix to deliver a political critique to a particularly annoying client – “I cannot believe that you have an Asian mistress fantasy and actually live in Japan. You’re too fucking lazy to even learn the language… so you bother me instead. And I’m not even Japanese.” Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, in “All That Sheltering Emptiness,” writes about being raped by a client, and the the tricky process of negotiation and rationalization that followed, in her typically kinetic and beautiful style. Jodi Sh. Doff, in “Lele,” shows that she can get a whole world – the world of “the pre-Disney Times Square topless business” – across in a few pages, or even a few sentences: a stripper is stabbed by her husband, while she dances; the bartender wipes blood off the bottles and keeps serving.

The common allegation against radical feminists is that they cast all sex workers as victims, regardless of what sex workers themselves say about that; the common allegation against sex-positive feminists is that they insist on seeing everything in terms of sunshine and sparkles and empowerment, even when the facts are brutal. This book is what it is – and it is excellent – because it explicitly rejects party lines. Sexy and sunny pieces (the sunniest, actually, often come from Sterry himself) coexist with downright harrowing narratives; sex workers who choose the work freely and love doing it are represented, as are sex workers who were forced to do the work and suffered immensely in the process. Both perspectives gain validity and weight by sharing the space. The book is free of any agenda but a commitment to giving voice to sex workers. It’s what most often gets lost, when feminists debate each other about “sex work” in abstract terms. Which is a shame, because it is the entire point.

14 Comments

  1. al_zorra wrote:

    This is an excellent book, as you say!

    Seldom are there facts, much less truth, in conversations or books about these matters.

    Love, C.

    Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 11:28 am | Permalink
  2. Dawn. wrote:

    That book sounds excellent!

    The common allegation against radical feminists is that they cast all sex workers as victims, regardless of what sex workers themselves say about that; the common allegation against sex-positive feminists is that they insist on seeing everything in terms of sunshine and sparkles and empowerment, even when the facts are brutal.

    Very good point. If we could just move past these short-sighted allegations and acknowledge that sex work is an abundantly complex issues involving so many different types of people, circumstances, and experiences that it’s impossible to wade through the black-and-white short-sighted debates that go on between “sex positive” feminists and “radical” feminists.

    Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 7:56 pm | Permalink
  3. Thanks for the lovely review. I’ve had the very same struggle with sex workers roles to feminists.

    At one point we were either the enemy or victims, then suddenly we became heroes. Most of us, however, are just folks trying to make a living.

    Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 7:39 am | Permalink
  4. Cheryl Overs wrote:

    The common allegation against radical feminists is that they cast all sex workers as victims, …sex-positive feminists is that they insist on seeing everything in terms of sunshine and sparkles and empowerment, even when the facts are brutal.

    Brilliant quote. Being a serious sex worker policy advocate means bouncing between these two rhetorical camps all the time – while knowing that Jodi has it right, it’s neither and both, it’s good and bad and its just like any other folks trying to make a living.

    Friday, August 28, 2009 at 7:11 am | Permalink
  5. Adding to book wish list immediately. Thank you.

    Friday, August 28, 2009 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  6. Christina wrote:

    The book sounds fascinating. Adding it to my wishlist!

    Sunday, August 30, 2009 at 3:44 pm | Permalink
  7. sam wrote:

    The directors of The Sage Project have written a message claiming the editors of the book have acted unethically. A few years ago I had the shock of going to a blog and seeing private writings of mine had been stolen, twisted, and sold in a pro-prostitution publication.

    From an email signed by The SAGE Project, Inc.:

    “Recently a book titled, Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys was published by Soft Skull Press. This book is being promoted as a “bestseller” in Borders, on the New York Times, Amazon, and on “sex worker” websites as a book supported by SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation, http://www.sagesf.org).

    On August 23rd, the New York Times published a review of the book which states that the editors, David Henry Sterry and R. J. Martin Jr., are currently affiliated with the SAGE Project. We want to share with you a letter that we have sent to the New York Times to address the fact that these two individuals are no longer affiliated with the organization.

    We are outraged by the way this publication has been marketed and the method through which its content was secured; the book does not honor client confidentiality, naming clients currently and formerly engaged in our programs. One individual happened to stumble upon the book in a writing group and was surprised to find stories she had written in the publication. She, like many of our SAGE clients continues to be connected with the organization and her resilience and strength do not appear in the book. No effort was made to contact her prior to publication.”

    The New York Times letter recaps all that and clarifies for those who would dilute their abolishionist message with muddy waters, “SAGE does not support any system of commercial sexual exploitation.”

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 9:02 am | Permalink
  8. As one of the contributor’s to this book I’d be very upset if what “sam” said were true. I can’t find any evidence of the letter he quotes in the NYTimes or anywhere else, nor can I find anything referencing this on the http://www.sagesf.org/ website.

    He links directly to an anti-prostitution website. It’s fine and good to think all prostitutes are misguided or need saving. No one will argue with your beliefs, they’re yours, but I’m assuming you have tangible proof of what you say, otherwise it’s tantamount to libel and defamation of character.

    Saturday, September 5, 2009 at 7:01 pm | Permalink
  9. Kristie Miller wrote:

    http://my.barnesandnoble.com/communityportal/review.aspx?reviewid=1204874

    “Dear Colleagues & Allies of The SAGE Project,

    Recently a book titled, Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys was published by Soft Skull Press. This book is being promoted as a “bestseller” in Borders, on the New York Times, Amazon, and on “sex worker” websites as a book supported by SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation, http://www.sagesf.org). On August 23rd, the New York Times published a review of the book which states that the editors, David Henry Sterry and R. J. Martin Jr., are currently affiliated with the SAGE Project. We want to share with you a letter that we have sent to the New York Times to address the fact that these two individuals are no longer affiliated with the organization. We are outraged by the way this publication has been marketed and the method through which its content was secured; the book does not honor client confidentiality, naming clients currently and formerly engaged in our programs. One individual happened to stumble upon the book in a writing group and was surprised to find stories she had written in the publication. She, like many of our SAGE clients continues to be connected with the organization and her resilience and strength do not appear in the book. No effort was made to contact her prior to publication. We are writing to you, our allies and colleagues, to let you know that SAGE’s mission and work have not changed. We stand committed to our goal to bring an end to the trauma, pain, and degradation inflicted by commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking. We will update you as we move forward in addressing this issue. The SAGE Project, Inc. ——————————————————————————– Editor The New York Times Book Review Sir or Madame: We are writing to clarify statements and inferences that appeared in Toni Bentley’s review of Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys (August 23, 2009). The SAGE Project is an internationally recognized human rights organization that provides important and life-saving services for children and adults in the San Francisco area. The ultimate “project” of SAGE is to help bring about an end to commercial sexual exploitation of adults and children. Commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking are inherently harmful and have long-term negative impacts on their victims, from trauma, to physical/health implications, to socio-economic effects. SAGE does not support any system of commercial sexual exploitation. Seventy-five percent of our staff members are survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and all of our programs are survivor centered. The book’s authors, R. J. Martin and David Sterry have no current connection with the SAGE Project. Mr. Martin was SAGE’s Development Director but left to pursue other interests at the end of 2006. Mr. Sterry was a SAGE board member from 2004 to 2006. We have not given any permission to the authors of this book to connect SAGE with their publication. We are outraged by this misprint and want to emphasize the importance of making this correction in next Sunday’s Review. Very truly yours, Francine Braae Allen Wilson Co-Executive Directors”

    ___________________________________________________ http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/books/review/Bentley-t.html?pagewanted=2&ref=review

    “This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

    Correction: September 6, 2009
    A review on the cover of the Book Review on Aug. 23, about “Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys,” a collection of essays and other writings about the sex industry, misstated the connection of R. J. Martin Jr., one of the book’s editors, to the SAGE Project (Standing Against Global Exploitation) in San Francisco. While he was indeed once its director of development, he is no longer associated with the group, which had nothing to do with the book. The review also referred imprecisely to the SAGE Project. While it offers a wide variety of support services for the sexually abused, its ultimate goal is to bring about the end of commercial sexual exploitation.”

    Sunday, September 6, 2009 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  10. Sady wrote:

    @Folks weighing in about the SAGE e-mail and the NYT correction: If all of this is true, then it is indeed a legitimate problem. I’m most concerned with the potential issues of outing and of writers’ work being run without their knowledge or permission. However, right now, I basically have nothing to go on other than the two e-mails, the statements in the book, the NYT correction, and the knowledge that these conversations, based as they are in a very big and very deep ideological rift, tend to get really, really ugly. I suspect that, whatever the truth is, it is big and complicated and entirely beyond my grasp as a person who wasn’t involved with SAGE or the creation of the book. I do request that people e-mail me with what they believe to be vital information, if they want to share it, rather than drawing party lines and having some shouting match about it in the thread.

    Monday, September 7, 2009 at 12:19 am | Permalink
  11. sam wrote:

    Why is it always the free speech absolutists who threaten to sue me for speaking?

    Sady, I’ve heard your line too many times from people who think abortion is too divisive and impolite to talk about, but the difference was they didn’t go on to keep talking about it while pretending impartiality for the sake of fake harmony.

    SAGE’s statement, posted entirely by Kristie Miller, is real and if you wanted to you could easily email them to fact check. When you find out for sure that it’s true, then what will you do about the “legitimate problem” you have confirmed? A lawyer told me I had a right to sue $pread Magazine’s executive editor Audacia Ray for stealing my writings but legal rights are worthless for women who can’t afford justice. http://www.spreademism.com/

    When it happened to me there was less concern over ethics violations than embarrassment and hopes I would just shut up lest my unsexy indignation at illegal actions be deemed ‘ugly’, and the same sweeping under the rug with shrugging shoulders is happening to another woman’s stolen words. The mainstream feminist movement doesn’t think it can afford to criticize the sex industry lobbyists they wear like painless, cost-free Bettie Page tattoos.

    Thursday, September 10, 2009 at 10:48 pm | Permalink
  12. sam wrote:

    “As one of the contributor’s to this book I’d be very upset if what “sam” said were true.”

    Now that you know it’s true, what can we do together to right this wrong?

    Maybe if what happened to me were properly addressed at the time it wouldn’t have happened to another woman; Ann Althouse isn’t going to talk about Jessica Valenti’s breasts anymore.

    Friday, September 11, 2009 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  13. Sady wrote:

    Sam. Said it before. I’ll say it again. E-MAIL ME. We are not having this discussion in the comments section. The fact that you disrespected my request there says nothing good.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 8:38 am | Permalink
  14. sam wrote:

    I apologize for my disobedience.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

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