Uptown Thief (2016)

by Caty Simon on October 20, 2016 · 1 comment

in Books, Reviews

uptown-thiefSlam poet and African American studies professor Aya de León’s new novel, Uptown Thief, is every activist sex worker’s fantasy: her protagonist Marisol Rivera is a women’s health clinic director by day and an escort agency manager and expert safe-cracker to fund that clinic for survival workers by night. True, any enterprising hooker who actually tried this would get her pet cause into very hot water. But reading about Marisol’s escapades teaming up with her escort employees to rob their rich clients’ friends, practicing some creative accounting to enter these “donations” on her books, is the next best thing to pulling it off yourself.

Though de León has never been a sex worker, she’s been open about her respect for her ex-stripper mother and her aunt’s sex work. Her book is stolidly pro-sex worker without being blandly sex positive, representing a spectrum of experiences in its characters’ diverse backgrounds of high end escorting, survival sex work, and trafficking and abuse survival. There’s even a Live Nude Girls Unite poster in the clinic’s office. There’s never any hint of judgement in the tone de León takes narrating these women’s lives, although occasionally a tinge of didactic respectability politics bleeds through in the novel’s focus on clinic entrepreneurship classes and grad student escorts. Still, a story in which every whore makes good is a refreshing change from our usual crime fiction fate of death or destitution.

De Leon does make some gaffes in describing the way the agency operates which demonstrate her lack of personal experience with the work. Marisol’s escorts dress up as delivery workers in order to get into fancy hotels (huh?). And the agency’s clients agree on every sexual act they’ll perform with her employees in advance with her over the phone—a good way to get arrested. But once I started reading the book as a wish-fulfillment vehicle instead of holding it up to an impossible standard of realism, I began to really enjoy it. Plus, de León doesn’t make as many bloopers writing about sex work practice as many other writers do, perhaps because she made a point of having sex worker consultants edit her early manuscript.

The author’s general pro-lumpenprole stance is very clear here. For example, Marisol’s ex-NYPD love interest, Raul, left the department after suing them for racial discrimination and confesses that his one major regret is becoming a cop. When he catches on to Marisol’s heists, he’s openly admiring, wishing he could be a barrio Robin Hood as well. de León depicts some of the dangers sex workers commonly face by making his white ex-partner a cop who extorted sex from workers with the threat of arrest. And, of course, one of the most reprehensible characters in the book besides the abusive pimp is a snooty billionaire financier client.

De León also exhibits her populism in the way she’s marketed the novel: she’s explained in interviews that she purposefully branded the book as a women’s urban crime novel, a la Zane and Sister Souljah, to make it accessible to as many kinds of readers as possible. Indeed, one activist I know told me that this genre represents the most requested (and sadly, least donated) books to the books for women prisoners program she works with.


{ 1 comment }

Huniecam Studio (2016)

by Cassandra on October 6, 2016 · 2 comments

in Reviews

screenshot-2016-10-03-at-3-44-16-pmEvery time I play a video game that includes sex workers as characters, all I can think about is how great it would be to be seen as a person. Usually, sex workers in games are just toys for the player’s entertainment or tools to deepen the protagonist’s story. Either way, they’re only there intermittently, just a sordid element to add to the grittiness of the setting. I can count on one hand the number of games that spend significant time with a sex worker character, let alone games that portray a sex worker positively, let alone games that are specifically about sex workers.

HunieCam Studio is one of a kind, at least in the sense that it does center on sex workers. The premise is this: you’re the manager of a camgirl studio, and you have 21 days to gain a lot of fans and make a lot of money. Given that I have seen so few games starring sex workers, I was excited right away about this game, but I also knew going in that it was probably going to provide awful representation. Indeed, the store page for HunieCam Studio on Steam paints our profession as gross, mentioning “disgusting fans,” calling the operation “sleazy,” claiming that the camgirls have made “poor life choices,” and inviting the player to “abandon your morals and disappoint everybody who cares about you!”

Many gameplay elements in Huniecam feed directly into normalizing abusive management or at least looking down on workers. For example, the player can send their camgirls to do escorting sessions in a so-called “sleazy motel,” and if they send camgirl Lillian there, there’s a chance she’ll say the line “Like I have a choice!” There is also a chance that when her session is over, the player will get a message saying that she contracted AIDS if she did not bring a condom (not HIV—apparently, in this game, getting HIV first is not a thing) and her voice line in this situation is “Please kill me.”




Lauren (Lauren Miller) and Katie (Ari Graynor) in For A Good Time Call.

There aren’t many films about phone sex that are worth anyone’s time—notable exceptions being the excellent short film Sumi, the brief, funny phone sex segments of Tamra Davis’s 90’s hip hop spoof CB4, and about three-fourths of Spike Lee’s kind-of classic Girl 6. Despite its truly troublesome flaws, I have a soft spot for Girl 6, as it gets at least some things about the industry very right, which is more than most films do. The 2012 phone sex buddy comedy For A Good Time Call fits comfortably alongside Girl 6 as another genuinely mixed bag. Its focus is really more on friendship than phone sex, but it does manage to maintain a phone sex-centric narrative throughout a feature film’s runtime without making me want to throw my TV out my window.

For A Good Time Call, directed by Jamie Travis, is now available on Netflix and other streaming services. I’m relieved to report that it is a pleasant-enough way to spend 90 minutes, and one of the better cinematic portrayals of my profession; not hateful, judgmental, or a patronizing cautionary tale. But I’m exasperated that this baseline decency gives it such an advantage over much of the cannon.

FAGTC tells the story of straight-laced Lauren (Lauren Miller), who through a series of contrivances is forced to become roommates with bubbly, performatively slutty Katie (Ari Graynor). The two initially hate each other and it’s all very Odd Couple (they have history—in college, party girl Katie peed in Lauren’s car after getting wasted), but become bffs through the magic of starting their own phone sex line. One of the screenwriters, Katie Ann Naylon, has said on record that she operated her own phone sex line herself in college.

Bonding through working a phone sex line is actually a great premise for a fun, bubbly film, and it’s the crux of what I simultaneously love and find frustrating about this one. While the relationship between the women is both believable and refreshing, their business model is much less so.

Lauren discovers that Katie is a phone sex operator and confronts her during a call after overhearing the conversation and being confused. Now, I can understand why Katie would want to keep her phone sex gig a secret from judgmental Lauren. But it’s hard for me to suspend disbelief far enough to believe Katie would bring Lauren in as a roommate, into her workplace, without giving some kind of heads up or a cover story to prevent exactly this sort of hassle. I did phone sex out of an apartment with multiple roommates for years, and you’d better believe I told people while interviewing them and gauged their reactions. I couldn’t live with anyone who would mess with my income stream. I find it hard to believe that Katie would both not mention it and be so goddamn loud without at least taking the precaution of setting up a cheap white noise generator.

Then again, good girl Lauren, who slowly gets dragged into the weird, dirty world of phone sex, is supposed to be the audience surrogate, so making Katie’s psychology and behavior equally plausible may not have been a priority. She’s the weird one, so she’s weird! I don’t think the writers were thinking about the reactions of PSOs or anyone else who might relate more to Katie in the audience, despite the fact that the character is based on one of the writers.


{ 1 comment }

domesticminorsextraffickingWhen I got arrested recently, my copy of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains by Alexandra Lutnick came along with me to jail. It’d be fair to blame me, as well as the boys in blue, but I think it’s unlikely that this is the last time this publication will see the inside of an evidence vault or be fondled by the fingers of a police sergeant.

After bail, tearing open my blue possessions bag, I couldn’t help thinking that this book was meant to be in lockup with me. It wasn’t published solely for those with degrees in social service. The text exudes empathy for those left behind in the system. Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking reminds me of the bourbon-infused evenings of my teenage years. I remember feeling desolate and distressed in hotel rooms, dreaming of a world with enough beds and snug blankets.

The text expertly covers the disparity of my vision of the world of sex work and the broader statistical realities of it. This book is exceptionally sourced, as it needs to be in order to defend itself from the inevitable barrage of critique that will come in response to its claims about our failed social structure.

Lutnick isn’t another hapless academic reminding society that there’s an unseen conveyor belt of children being trafficked around the country. This is a view the mainstream media seems far too fond of, one that fails to realize our failures as a culture when it comes to the root causes of youth sex trade work. Instead, she argues that isolating minor sex workers in the margins of society allows us to flee our inherent responsibility to them. The book vigorously motions against a system which criminalizes minors who’ve entered into sex work willingly to escape abusive households. Lutnick contends that the vision our society promotes of young white cis women controlled by external forces is deceptive. Youth in the sex trade are far more diverse in origin, gender identity, and age than popularized media representations of them would lead us to believe.

These minors should be viewed with respect, as conscious proponents of their own motives. Lutnick notes that those left behind in systems of oppression are far more likely to be involved in sex work, as an escape from their abusers as well as systemic violence. As a young femme, there was nowhere for me to go besides the streets. There was money there, opportunity for advancement and excitement. Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking reflects my realities and those of my contemporaries with a clear vision of the true nature of minor sex work.


{ 1 comment }

MARYWEPT_cover300Canadian comic artist Chester Brown is probably the most well-known punter-writer our there. His latest, Mary Wept Over The Feet of Jesus: Prostitution And Religious Obedience In The Bible, is an analysis of the Bible as a graphic novel. (Maybe Brown likes illustration because most clients need pictures in their books.) This review of his newly published book is composed of an edited version of an email and g-chat conversation between Tina Horn and Caty Simon.

Caty: I was surprised by Chester Brown’s Christianity as demonstrated by this book. In its afterword, Brown explicitly identifies himself as a Christian, albeit one focused on mysticism who’s “interested in personally connecting with God, not in imposing my views on anyone else.” His avowed, classic libertarianism in his sex work client graphic novel memoir Paying For It (2011) would’ve had me assume that he was a fervent atheist a la Richard Dawkins. His libertarianism does come up at an interesting point in this book when he puts the words “it’s none of your business how other people spend their money” into Jesus’ mouth when he chides Judas about not judging Mary for spending money on anointing oils for Jesus’ feet rather than on charity.

Tina: Especially when you consider that he ran for Canadian Parliament in the Libertarian Party! This was in the years right before Paying for It came out.

Caty: So he’s actually having Jesus Christ parrot his party politics—that’s ballsy.

Tina: When I was a teenager, I thought Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis was the shit, because it taught me more about what the Bible actually teaches than most of the aggressive Christian kids at my high school. Mary Wept puts me in mind of C.S. Lewis: a Christian highlighting the hypocrisy of other Christians through rational interpretation of their text.

Caty: When people say that Judeo-Christian values oppose prostitution, it gets me fuming, because it’s a lot more complicated than that. There are plenty of heroic whores in the Bible, and many more Biblical heroines who explicitly had transactional sex at some point in their stories. So I enjoyed how Brown highlights the stories of women like Rahab, the prostitute who sheltered Hebrew spies from discovery when they scouted out the city of Jericho, and Tamar, the woman who whored herself out to her father-in-law in disguise in a complicated plot to expose his hypocrisy. I only wish he’d included the story of badass Judith, the woman who beheaded the general Holofernes as he lay drunkenly asleep in her tent after possibly purchasing her services, ushering the Hebrew army to victory.

Maybe Brown felt like he just couldn’t compete with all the exquisite Renaissance and Baroque era artistic renditions of Judith in her moment of triumph, like this one:

Trophime Bigot's "Judith Cutting Off The Head Of Holofernes" (via Wikimedia)

Trophime Bigot’s “Judith Cutting Off The Head Of Holofernes” (via Wikimedia)

But I think the real reason Brown didn’t include tales like Judith’s is because he seems more focused on outlining these sex work-related Biblical narratives in order to glorify sex workers’ clients. He has a convoluted thesis going about men whoremongering as a transcendent challenge to rigid religious dogma. This ascribes nonexistent significance to an activity which is really morally neutral, and it obscures all these awesome sex working Biblical women in stories which are about them. In a memoir about being a sex work client like Paying for It, centering the client perspective makes sense. But in a book like this, it feels beside the point. I’d love to see how this material would look tackled by a sex worker amateur Biblical scholar/comic book artist.

Tina: The book does explore the subjectivity of the clients more than that of the women. Brown’s reinterpretation of a lot of these stories seems to amount to, “God totally says it’s ok to be a whoremonger!” Which is great, but I would love to see more, “God says it’s totally cool to be a whore!” Not because I personally need the validation, but because undermining Christian values with their own text is a longtime favorite sport of mine.

Caty: So, what do you make of Brown depicting God as some sort of Biblical version of a WWE wrestler? His God is BUILT.