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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.

Support Hos: Elementary, Season One (2012)

That's the face I make when snide detectives blindside me with blackmail videos from my former career as an escort. (Screen shot from Elementary, season one, episode eight.)
That’s the face I make when snide detectives blindside me with blackmail videos from my former career as an escort. (Screen shot from “The Long Fuse,” S1E8, Elementary, CBS)

I’m a sucker for procedurals (while also being deeply ambivalent about them), so of course I was going to watch Elementary, CBS’s not-so-new-now take on Sherlock Holmes; I was immediately sold because female Watson. Played by Lucy Liu. And Jonny Lee Miller as a weird, twitchy, tattooed, recovering-addict Sherlock Holmes. I’m beyond over the BBC’s Sherlock, Howling Cabbagepatch’s shark-face, and the disappointing but predictable treatment of domanitrix Irene Adler—not really surprising considering the writers, but I digress.The formulaic nature of procedural mysteries is inexplicably soothing to me, and, however lackluster (and aren’t they the definition of “formulaic”?) they have the serious merit of being one of the only genres to consistently feature sex workers. Sure, they’re usually dead sex workers, but I don’t give up hope. The times they are a-changin’, and live lovable sex workers have carried their weight on some critically acclaimed cable dramas: Deadwood, Copper, Secret Diary of a Call Girl. I have faith that network procedurals will catch up soon.

In a way, Elementary has. For a procedural that features a sex worker body count of zero, the instances of live sex workers on the show are fairly high. I was alert from first watch: while the pilot didn’t have any dead sex worker bodies, I waited for the inevitable. As episodes went on I started to relax and feel hope, and then suddenly, in E08, “The Long Fuse”: Lisa Edelstein, aka Elementary’s first Sex Worker!!! made it through an episode unharmed. She was treated with sympathy as a working-class girl whose escorting career, after paying for grad school and a successful business, was now being used as blackmail against her by a creep who had violated her privacy and filmed their call.

Blue (2012- )

(via imdb.com)
(Image via imdb.com)

Watching portrayals of sex workers in film and television can be a pretty rough proposition. With the notable exception of “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” (which eventually veered off into some wacky territory of its own) there haven’t been many media depictions of sex workers where we aren’t treated as punchlines or murdered. (Or both, as jokes about hurting and killing prostitutes seem to be prime cannon fodder for network powerhouses like Chuck Lorre and Tina Fey.) It can be a downright depressing experience for a lonely ho looking for a little on-screen validation, so while Blue certainly has its flaws, it is perhaps the closest any scripted series has ever come to treating our lives and our stories with due respect.

Blue tells the story of Blue (neé Francine) a 29 year-old mother moonlighting as an escort to support her teenage son, Josh. (I found it somewhat odd that Blue uses her hooker name in her personal life as well, but to each their own, I suppose.) Blue works a day job at an accounting firm so as not to raise anyone’s suspicions, and has a close relationship with her free-lovin’ Mother (Kathleen Quinlan). The show frames Blue as a woman caught between the burgeoning sexual awakening of her teenage son and the sexual re-awakening of her mother, a single woman in her 50s. Both her son and her mother are content to “give it away,” reveling in sex for its own sake, while Blue is often shown to be the “voice of reason” of sorts, using her sexuality to provide for her family, not simply for her own pleasure.

Invisible Men and Blind Curation

tumblr_n3b9i3QnoZ1sn3as5o1_500The Invisible Men Project, a tumblr-turned-Glasgow-art exhibition, supposedly reveals the previously unknown attitudes of men who engage the services of sex workers. The project was launched by the Glasgow Violence Against Women Partnership who come off as bonafide in their intention and achieve poor results. They do this by constructing a poorly designed mask (a faceless one, because sex workers are faceless, right?) and plucking quotes from the worst reviews written by clients. They paint this in the same manner an artist might paint a mask for a masquerade—with the idea of presenting cryptic truth through ambiguous art.

The Invisible Men Project is a propaganda project that fails as a creative project. They have painted the “faceless” sex workers with the words their clients use for them. As if the client’s opinion even matters. As if the sex worker’s worth weighs solely on their clients opinion about them. They haven’t even thought to use the words of the sex worker in question, they just assumed that the client’s opinion about their work resonates similarly.

Bravo to the Invisible Men Project for creating a space to glorify the misogynist attitudes of these men. And they are glorified. Highlighting their words does nothing but promote their behavior. They’re not ashamed—if they were, they would never had posted their reviews in the first place. The curators are completely aware that attaching a price tag to each piece will further shock their audience, especially if that price seems low. They don’t bother to put the prices in a context that allows for regional or socioeconomic differences.

The sex industry is competitive in its very nature. It’s not odd for fake reviews to be written, especially from the direct competition. Or for them to be exaggerated by a disgruntled client. This often happens because these business dealings are not in the economic mainstream (depending on the type of legal framework the country functions under). Every sex worker and every punter knows to take reviews with a grain of salt. The public doesn’t always know this, and the Invisible Men Project doesn’t bother to mention this.

Sugarbabe: Kat Commiserates With A Friend

I was introduced to Sugarbabe by my friend Charlotte who received the book from a client. I was able to track down one used copy at Powell’s after a few weeks of keeping an eye on the sex worker section. It was obvious from a dog-eared page toward the beginning of the book and the way that the spine wasn’t cracked and that the previous owner hadn’t made it very far. It’s a shame that he or she didn’t stick it out because it’s kind of the greatest bad sex work memoir ever.

Holly Hill finds herself 35, out of work, and dumped by the married rich boyfriend who had been supporting her. She decides to make a career out of being a sugarbaby and places an ad online. As soon as she gets her first response, she is already so turned on that she moans aloud in anticipation before even opening the email. It only gets better from there as she navigates the tricky business of being a full-time sugarbaby, taking a tour of multicultural dick and learning about herself (maybe? Not really) along the way.

More like, “The book that will be on everyone’s flaps”