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Chester Brown’s Paying for It

The sex worker rights movement desperately needs more men outing themselves as johns, standing with sex workers, and defending the right for consenting adults to buy and sell sex. But while I was reading Paying For It, a graphic memoir by Canadian john Chester Brown who does just that, I kept thinking one thing: I would never want this guy as a client.

I’m not flattering myself—it’s clear that Brown wouldn’t want me either, since I’m over 20 and don’t offer half hours—but it was hard to set aside that reaction in spite of the fact that 1) I’m in complete agreement with his arguments for decriminalizing prostitution, 2) I loved his citation of the nearly defunct $pread magazine in his appendix and 3) we share an obsession with sex work. But I’m not the only one who finds him abrasive. In the book’s appendix, one of his friends writes, “Chester seems to have a very limited emotional range compared to most people. There does seem to be something wrong with him.” Internet commenters routinely tear him apart, though most have assuredly not read the book, reinforcing how far johns will have to go in order to surmount their own set of stigmas when they are now so easily dismissed as perverts and sociopaths.

All The Lives I Want (2017)

Alana Massey’s new collection, All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers, is a fucking love song to sex workers. Yet, Massey’s own erotic labor—both licit and ambiguous—is not the focus of the work. Massey interrogates “our collective ownership” of considerable female figures like Britney Spears, Scarlett Johansson, Amber Rose, Lil’ Kim, and others in 15 brief essays. Throughout the book, her own sex work plays a more subtle role in her analytic critique of what, exactly, it means to be owned. But being metaphorically owned—by the public, by stringent gender roles, by a lack of resources, etc.—sits at the intersection of class and race, and Massey isn’t afraid to have those complicated conversations.

In her examination of 25 female celebrities, from Anna Nicole Smith to Princess Diana, Massey looks at how the public consumption of famous women influences the construction of gender and sexuality more generally. “Britney’s body is everybody’s,” Massey says, before expanding on the public’s “particularly pathological focus on her [Britney’s] claim to be a virgin.” This pathological focus on virginity is of course in stark contrast to Massey’s own erotic labor, where her own virginity is never in question. While Massey does not belabor the point, All the Lives I Want is centrally about the organizing force of the Madonna/Whore complex in the lives of all women, using celebrity culture as its lens.

Notably, Massey writes of listening to Beyonce while dancing as a stripper. She reflects on the “curmudgeonly old-guard feminists” who lampoon Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” because of claims that “women do not, in fact, run the world.” Standing in seven-inch heels and grinding on a crotch, Massey concludes that “girls run the world in the sense that they perform the invisible and unappreciated labor that keep the world on its axis. That is different from doing what everyone wants to do, which is rule the world.” She is neither overly optimistic about her role as a sex worker under patriarchy nor does she apologize for it. Likewise, she is not seduced by the pretty things of femininity but rather describes them as a necessary force of destruction.

Curiously, however, “sex work” is not Massey’s preferred term when delving into her personal narrative, despite her forthright descriptions of blowing sugar daddies and fucking strip club regulars. Even the dust jacket of All the Lives I Want references the juxtaposition of Massey’s sex work with her opulent cultural critique as, merely, “an exploration into the female economy.” While perhaps this is calculated, linguistic sorcery from the wands of editors, a means by which Massey’s work can be distinguished from the over-saturated genre of white, cis sex worker memoir, I could not help but notice the its omission. Similarly, at times Massey’s class status feels distracting. While I admire her truthfulness, I am admittedly unfamiliar with, for example, “low grade cocaine,” which she references in an essay about attending NYU with Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. As a once seasoned coke user myself, I’ve never heard the expression. My understanding of the drug has always been that it is either “good shit” or “bleach.” To place the drug in a hierarchy of grades is completely foreign to me. This foreignness is just one example of the necessity for critical reflection on lateral whorephobia, a conversation that is thankfully happening more frequently. It is important to acknowledge these socioeconomic differences, even between sex workers. Massey has the choice to exclude “sex worker” from her self-identification, and that is a privilege that is not extended to all of us.

However, I do not wish to discount the ways that Massey clearly struggles. The title—a sorrowful plea from the notoriously melancholy Sylvia Plath—appears on the cover emblazoned in gold glitter. To the untrained, civilian eye, the use of Plath mourning, “I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want […]” seems like a nod to the alleged prettiness of female suffering. But only a sex worker knows that glitter can be as dark as the agony that precedes its application. In reference to a $900 antipsychotic prescription, for example, Massey states, “I knew the shortest distance between me and $900 was the length of a hot-pink nylon-and-spandex minidress covering a quarter of my body.” Indeed, these pretty artifacts of femininity—glitter the reigning objet d’art—are every bit as severe as the crushing insistence, whispered through the winds of patriarchy, that women stick their heads in an oven. And in this book, Massey demands a rearticulation of female suffering through the sparkling lens of sex work and celebrity, two cohorts of women whose lives and bodies are ruthlessly consumed by an unforgiving public.

Girl, Undressed (2008)

afouler3 by Caty and Red

12/9/2013 update: Yesterday, several commenters pointed out that speculating on the author’s trauma history was inappropriate of us. Upon reflection, we agree that this was specious and unnecessary, and apologize deeply for doing so.

Red: I love stripper memoirs; I buy them all indiscriminately and hope for the best. Strippers are like my family, people I love and hate and get driven crazy by but keep returning to. So you know I read Girl, Undressed when I found a copy at Powell’s. And I hated it. When Caty asked if I wanted to co-review it, I got giddy at the idea of sharing my outrage. Is there anything more fun that being righteously furious with a friend?

For those of you who haven’t read it, Girl, Undressed follows Fowler on a dank and seamy voyage, to places only “the ruined” (her term) can sink. She stumbles around early 2000s Manhattan, a weary traveler promising a glimpse at a New York not “vacuum-packed and delivered to your tastefully decorated abodes via HBO… there’ll be a sad lack of shopping expeditions to Bergdorf’s to punctuate each chapter’s end.” In other words, Fowler is not Carrie Bradshaw (but then who is) and I’m also gathering that she’s not writing this for me or her sisters-in-degradation/fellow strippers.

Tangerine (2015)

Tangerine (Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia)
Tangerine (Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia)

Whenever I see a movie about the lives of sex workers, I find myself automatically assessing whether or not the story represents us authentically—or, more accurately, picking apart the ways that it inevitably doesn’t. Tangerine was really the first time I’d seen a movie about us where I didn’t leave the theater with a mental catalog of all the ways they had screwed up. Still, I felt a little ill-qualified to write a review, seeing that it centers around the lives of two black, transgender sex workers on the harsh streets of L.A., and I’m a white, cisgender chick who did pretty much all her hustling online. On one hand, it felt like someone had finally gotten it right, and on the other, I felt like a total faker for feeling that way about the experience of women whose lives are so different from mine in so many ways.

Though I didn’t know it going in (perhaps for the better?) Tangerine was directed by Sean S. Baker, a straight, white, cisgender guy with a film degree from N.Y.U. Collaborating with Mya Taylor, a black trans woman he met in L.A., Baker created a film about the sex workers he saw working in Hollywood. The idea to make a comedy rather than a tragedy was Taylor’s, which puts so much of the film in perspective for me: I know sex workers (and likely trans women, too) have seen ample tragic portrayals of their lives crafted by men outside the business.

It’s Christmas Eve in Hollywood, and Sin Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just been released from a 28-day jail sentence, which we find out later was her punishment for holding her beloved pimp/boyfriend Chester’s (James Ransone) stash. While celebrating her newfound freedom over a donut with her BFF, fellow transgender sex worker Alexandra (Mya Taylor), she learns that while she was doing time, her pimp/boyfriend Chester had been cheating with a “fish” (which I learned means a cisgender woman). And thus begins a rampage through the L.A. underground to find the offending fish and confront Chester.

Meet The Fokkens (2011)

(Screenshot from "Meet the Fokkens")
(Screenshot from Meet the Fokkens)

Meet the Fokkens, a 2011 documentary directed by Gabriëlle Provaas and Rob Schröde, follows the lives of Martine and Louise Fokkens, 69-year-old twins who have spent many years as full service sex workers in Amsterdam’s red light district. At the time of filming, Martine was still working, albeit reluctantly, while Louise had been retired for two years because of her arthritis. Though the documentary’s main focus is the sisters’ careers as prostitutes, we also see their homes, meet their friends, and hear pieces of their personal histories.

In addition to its focus on a fascinating topic, Meet the Fokkens also presents a charming aesthetic experience. The movie involves many scenes of the Fokkens sisters in matching outfits, and at least one of those outfits is primarily pink! Louise brings her Chihuahua with her everywhere she goes. Even if nothing else in this movie caught my attention—which is not the case—the matching outfits and Chihuahua would have been enough to enchant me. But, happily, Meet the Fokkens is as intellectually engaging as it is, well, precious. The film does more than skim the surface—it delves into sexuality and labor through the exploration of the lives of these two women.