Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work by Melissa Gira Grant

Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work by Melissa Gira GrantSummary: A jungle of confused polemics.

I’m not exactly sure who the author is trying to convince in this short book. She claims to want to argue that sex work (a broad category that covers prostitution, stripping, pornography, and anything else in the skin trade) is a perfectly legitimate moral activity. Unfortunately, most of the time she simply assumes what she’s trying to prove and then moves on to secondary arguments that simply aren’t controversial if the reader grants her premises.

Of course the solution to social discrimination and inconsistent enforcement of the laws against prostitutes would be legalization–that is, assuming sex work is truly just like any other banal activity, economic or otherwise, such as nursing nanny work, hair braiding or babysitting. She makes these comparisons often, yet there’s little content here to actually explain why sex work isn’t immoral, let alone why it shouldn’t be treated like any other economic act–apart from pragmatic soundbites unlikely to gain a hearing with any but those who already share her worldview.

The author does eventually asks a fundamental question: “What if being sexualized is neither liberating nor empowering, and is simply value neutral?” Now we’re getting somewhere! But again, the answer given (like the entire book) is one big question beg, and she doesn’t address or even seem to recognize that people can consistently oppose the legalization and normalization of sex work through principled moral reasoning and the (abundant) evidence of abuse, exploitation and other damaging social costs that it wreaks, rather than out of fear or bigotry.

The author expresses worry about the negative consequences of law enforcement and NGO actions, such as raids to “rescue” girls but which leaves a vacuum that results in even worse conditions. Of course, if sex work is immoral and dangerous, the solution is better enforcement and better follow-up care of the women and girls involved, not less. So we’re back to where we started–at the foundational questions.

“Opponents of sex work decry prostitution as a violent institution; yet concede that violence is also useful to keep people from it.” This sort of reasoning is of a piece with other such tidbits of pithy, reductionist liberal wisdom like “waging war to preserve peace is inherently a contradiction,” and deserves the same ridicule. Her calls to include sex workers in discussions of legislation is like arguing that drug dealers should be invited to board meetings at the DEA.

To top it all off, the book is riddled with incomplete and awkwardly constructed sentences, strained connections, and non sequiturs. I was hoping for something that would engage the brain, but instead ended up with a headache.

Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

A digital copy of this book was provided by the publisher through Netgalley for purposes of review.

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