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Transnational Desires, Suzana Maia (2012)

There was something surreal about reading Susana Maia’s Transnational Desires: Brazilian Erotic Dancers in New York during down time in the strip club where I now work. Perhaps because I was reading about Astoria strip clubs while in an Astoria strip club, Maia’s ethnography hit close to home. Maia and I are both social scientists; we even share some of the same academic mentors. We both felt an uncomfortable alienation in Manhattan strip clubs. We’re both interested in intimacy, desire, gender, and transnational ties for immigrants.

The similarities stop there. Maia saw herself in many of the Brazilian middle class dancers she so passionately describes in the book, whereas I haven’t yet met another South Asian or Muslim dancer in four years of dancing. Maia chose to write about strip clubs as an observant ally and outsider, and she never danced. I, on the other hand, focus on an entirely different subject in my academic work. Stripping keeps me entertained and helps pay my bills. I’m not doing my dissertation on strip clubs, though friends often inquire why not. Maia sees herself as ambiguously positioned between the United States and Brazil. For me, the U.S. is certainly home.

A reader might be surprised to see a lack of citations from the so-called “sex worker rights literature” in this book. For Maia, this is a deliberate choice, as she resists reducing these women to a static “sex worker” identity. The book is about more than just what happens in the strip club for Brazilian dancers. Maia explores race, colorism, downward class mobility, and cultural citizenship as she traces the journeys of nine dancers. She asks why middle class Brazilian women, often highly educated, choose to move to New York and work in the adult entertainment industry.

The Early Erotic Review or Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies (1757)

Harris’s List is an 18th century catalog of London prostitutes complete with (real) names, addresses, and descriptions of each, and it proves to me just how much men throughout the ages have loved reviewing prostitutes. They love it today, they loved it 250 years ago, and my guess is that even most Egyptian hieroglyphics and ancient animal cave paintings will one day be recognized as elaborate codes indicating which slave or wild woman gave the best BJ in exchange for some fruit. Not that it’s all about crude physical congress; Harris’s List attests that johns have always valued good education, witty conversation, and pleasant demeanor in their paid companions while frowning upon arrogance and high prices. There’s also an astonishing amount of sexism on display with the regular endorsement that if she weren’t such a fallen slut, Suzy Hooker would have been a proper lady. (“Notwithstanding the unfortunate bent she has taken;” “if she had not quitted the path of virtue.”)

Harris’s List was published annually for 38 years and written by various authors over that time, but the copy I read was one compiled from versions by original scribe Samuel Derrick—inspired by a pimp, though not a pimp himself—who, according to academic Hallie Rubenhold, died in love with a courtesan he couldn’t afford. That’s sweet cosmic justice since Derrick, or at least the narrator’s voice he assumes, is a bit of dick, though I’ve admitted before that I almost categorically hate reviews and those who write them, so I might be biased. You can judge yourself with the following choicest tidbits. Which lady would you visit?

Disclaimer: I am not a scholar of old-timey prostitute reviews, but I will do my best with these translations.

An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey As A Surrogate Partner (2013)

An-Intimate-Life-Cohen-Greene-Cheryl-9781593765064An Intimate Life might not exist if not for The Sessions, last year’s Oscar-nominated film fictionalizing the experience of sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene and her client Mark O’Brien. From the blurbs by actors Helen Hunt and John Hawkes to the book’s pictures of Cohen Greene posing next to the stars, it’s obvious the publishers were guessing most readers would come to the memoir through the movie. I hope it finds a wider audience than that, though, because it could have a big impact on the lives of the sexually misinformed, anxious, and ashamed. Through a combination of vignettes about several of her clients and the recounting of her own sexual awakenings, Cohen Greene offers a blue print on expanding one’s sexual life. As one reviewer on Amazon wrote, “Thank you from my heart and penis.” Sounds like something one of my guys would say.

Awesomely, Cohen Greene opens the book with her number of sexual partners (900) but perhaps less awesomely, she follows that immediately with an explanation of why she’s not a prostitute. I admit that I’m probably a little oversensitive to this, but what is she trying to say exactly? Does she think there’s something wrong with being a prostitute? You don’t come around these parts blowing that horn, Madam. While I imagine Cohen Greene is not someone who would sneer at or shame prostitutes, it’s a little suspicious that she so regularly wants to distance herself from us. For her, the difference in our work is “significant”:

  •  prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, while surrogacy is new
  •  intercourse is not the majority or totality of the interaction
  •  her ultimate aim is to “model a healthy intimate relationship”
  •  she’s focused on resolving problems and achieving goals rather than simply providing a sexual experience

Her favorite metaphor is that going to see a prostitute is like going to a restaurant but going to see a surrogate is like attending culinary school, the implication being that prostitutes don’t teach their clients anything.

Part of me gets it. But another part of me thinks she might not know many escorts.

The Las Vegas Madam: The Escorts, The Clients, The Truth (2015)

LVMadam3_Layout 1The Las Vegas Madam: The Escorts, The Clients, The Truth is the tell-all memoir of Jami Rodman, the madam who came to fame by employing former Olympic middle distance runner Suzy Favor Hamilton as a high-end escort. It covers her childhood all the way up through the formation and subsequent closure of the escort agency she started, Haley Heston’s Private Collection.

“Real life is complex. I got lucky, most don’t. This story is for them—the families pulled into the mess, the misplaced mothers, the stolen lives. May tomorrow be a better day.”

From the moment I read those words in the dedication, I had a bad feeling that this book was going to be written more to play to outsiders’ expectations than to advocate for the people Rodman worked with. Her employees were among the highest-earning escorts in the industry. If Rodman believed that even these privileged few qualify as having “stolen lives”, I had a feeling that she and I would have little in common.

Diablo Cody’s Candy Girl (2005)

I was outed the other day as a stripper. I tracked down everyone involved in the gossip chain, found the weak link (who sent me an apology letter), and then asked one of the recipients of this hot morsel of Big News in a Small Town out to coffee. She told me she was surprised that I was nude dancing but she didn’t really care; she thought it was kinda neat and had I read Candy Girl? I would love it, she told me. It’s all about a cool girl stripper. I hadn’t read it but I’ve heard a smattering of talk in the sex worker scene about it. So I decided to read it, seeing as how, as my Small Town friend demonstrated, it’s the modern touchstone to answer every civilian girl’s fantastical question: “What’s it like to be a stripper?”

Here on Tits and Sass there’s general disagreement on the quality of this book. Kat likes it. Catherine doesn’t. So it’s kind of appropriate that I’m writing the review because I generally like 93 percent of the book and abhor 7 percent so deeply, I want to scream at Diablo Cody, “Are you fucking serious?!!”

Let’s start with the good.