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what purpose did i serve in your life (2013)

mariePrior to the publication of her debut novel, Marie Calloway was best known for the stories “Adrien Brody” and “Jeremy Lin.” There’s been a lot of commentary on the sexual themes in Calloway’s text, but no discussion by sex workers of Calloway’s treatment of her month escorting in London. Charlotte Shane and Caty Simon rushed to fill that void.

Caty: I guess I should start with full disclosure: I have chatted a bit over the past few months with Marie Calloway on the internet and she seems to be really sweet for a literary enfant terrible. But I didn’t know her from Adam when I first read her work in 2011.

Charlotte: I feel strangely protective of her in spite of never having met or corresponded with her. So it’s good to air out our biases.

Caty: I’d like to focus on the parts of her book examining sex work, because otherwise we could be here all day having the same debate that’s consumed the rest of the media about whether she’s a worthless narcissist whose very existence is endemic of essential problems with confessional writing, women and sex, and internet culture, or whether she’s a brave, feminist descendant of Bataille and Jean Rhys, who galvanizes strong responses from her readers because people are uncomfortable with her brilliance and…blah blah blah, you know where this is going.

Charlotte: Right, we’ll stay limited to T&S relevant moments.

Uptown Thief (2016)

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.

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.

To Live Freely In This World: Sex Worker Activism In Africa (2016)

tolivefreelyA version of this review originally appeared in issue 19 of make/shift magazine

In March 2016, South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa made a historic announcement of a nationwide scheme to prevent and treat HIV among sex workers, proclaiming, “we cannot deny the humanity and inalienable rights of people who engage in sex work.” Though Ramaphosa remained mum on the topic of decriminalization, the rousing endorsement this statement represents can’t be underemphasized. It’s impossible to imagine a U.S. politician of any importance saying something similar. The credit for this sea change in attitude goes to South African sex workers’ rights organization SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce) and sex worker peer organization Sisonke. In her book, To Live Freely In This World: Sex Worker Activism In Africa, Fordham University law professor Chi Adanno Mgbako covers SWEAT and parallel organizations in seven countries.

Mgbako deftly and concisely goes over sex workers’ rights 101 material. The epilogue’s history of global organizing comprehensively places the African movement in its broader context, from the 1970s—Margo St. James’ COYOTE and the French Collective of Prostitutes—to the 2012 Kolkata Sex Worker Freedom Festival. Mgbako explains the importance of not reducing sex work to “a single story” of victimization, the necessity of respecting human agency, and the need to understand sex workers’ rights activism as a labor movement. She traces the connection between violence and criminalization as represented by police abuse and client violence and the structural violence of social stigma, labor exploitation, and healthcare discrimination.

To Live Freely also transcends respectability politics and actively includes the sex workers often left out of our histories. One of the book’s seven chapters is dedicated to the multiple stigmas navigated by queer, migrant, trans, and HIV-positive sex workers. Mgbako makes sure to discuss sex-working queer women, trans men, and gender nonconforming people, who because of their lower visibility are too often excluded.

Many times throughout the text, Mgbako provides long oral histories from sex worker activists. In an admirable and sadly rare move for an ally, she explicitly connects this choice with the fact that she is not a sex worker herself, “and too often, non-sex workers take it upon themselves to speak for sex workers when the latter are fully capable of speaking for themselves.” I found these sections of the book and the solidarity they represented perhaps the most valuable. Kenya Sex Worker Alliance’s Phelister Abdallah’s harrowing account of gang rape by police, the moment representing her personal awakening as an activist, was particularly affecting. Yet, Mgbako never allows these stories to become tragedy porn for non-sex-worker readers—in her introduction, she avers that she only included narratives of abuse when those narratives illustrated the sociopolitical realities of sex workers’ struggle against criminalization. “There are no broken people in this book,” Mgbako declares. Instead, the author’s interest lies in displaying the “radiating strength” of African sex workers.

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.