"The most radical thing I could think of to do was to make it ordinary": Tyler Coates Interviews Melissa Gira Grant
Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work is an indelible text, both an incredible introduction to the world of sex workers and a radical examination of the stigmatization sex workers face. The most powerful aspect of Playing the Whore, however, comes not from Grant’s desire to document the experience of performing sex work; rather, she redirects the focus onto the economic and political factors that fuel an underground industry as well as the conservative and feminist forces that try to silence the voices of those who actually perform the work. Having known Grant for years, and having read her personal writing for nearly a decade, I was eager to talk with her about her interest in the culture of sex work, how she separates her own experience as a sex worker from her journalistic approach, and about the connection between performance and sex.
Tyler Coates: I know you’ve been writing about sex work and doing activism for years. Were you an activist first, and did your activism evolve into reporting? Or are your writing and your activism even separate things?
Melissa Gira Grant: I was writing about sex work way before I was an activist. In high school I made the mistake of trying to write a paper about Victorian prostitution for an English literature class, and I was very nicely told by my teacher, “Just because it’s written in English doesn’t mean it’s English literature.” This social study of London poverty was not an appropriate book for me to engage with in our class. But there was nowhere else for me to engage with that kind of book in my public high school in suburban Massachusetts. I submitted it with an application to the New School. I got in, but I couldn’t afford it. I went to a public university instead, and sort of cobbled together an education on sex and writing and things I was interested in.
I started doing activism as an undergrad, as part of a campus occupation when UMass cut affirmative action. I also got involved with a group of women who were setting up a food bank and an underground syringe exchange, and some of them were sex workers. There was some trans activism at UMass in 2000, which was really, really early. It was a time when I don’t think there were enough of us — whoever “us” is: queer people, sex workers, feminists, people who didn’t fit into any other communities very well. I wanted to be working in those spaces. Ultimately, I dropped out of undergrad and moved to San Francisco. I thought, “If this is what I’m interested in, that is the place to be.” It was where people were having those conversations, and there was more opportunity to do sex work there. That’s the mystery behind putting the book together; I look at it as the culmination of the period between 2003 to 2013, about ten years’ worth of thinking.
What was your attraction to these stories and experiences? What drew you, as a teenager, to a book about Victorian prostitution?
It was something about women’s role in society, and the idea, as this historian understood it, that prostitution was a way for men to have an outlet for their sexuality outside their marriage that wasn’t disruptive to their marriage. Contrary to the thinking that prostitution was this sort of permissive, wild free-for-all, he understood it as very raw, very patriarchal — not in the sense that women are exploited, but in the sense that we don’t want to be honest about sexuality as a culture. This was another mechanism that existed; good, bad, or indifferent, this is something that was going on.
My feelings have changed, but that idea was very novel at the time. I’ve gone though stages where I think sex work is interesting because of sexual politics. There have been times when I thought of it as a process of sexual liberation, which I don’t really believe anymore. Now I think of it as the canary in the coal mine: so many issues surround sex, and if you want to understand our society’s attitudes toward gender and sexuality, this is a good entry point.
It’s somewhere between identity and behavior. There are some sex workers who think, “This is who I am,” and some that say, “This is what I do.” That’s really confusing for many people! We want to believe that sexuality is something that defines you, and when you go outside the box — and sex work is outside the box — that’s just who you are.
You invoke the words of Sylvia Rivera, who was present at the Stonewall riots and described sex work as “the only alternative that [trans people] have to survive because the laws do not give us the right to go and get a job the way we feel comfortable.” It’s a play on the old narrative of why people go into sex work: there’s a certain sense of desperation there, but the same people who are against sex work and arguing that it’s exploitative are usually the people who are creating the desperation by discriminating those they are trying to save.
Right, because the world that we bring them back into is just as sexist and transphobic as the one in which they were doing sex work.
It’s bureaucratic almost, like the foster care system. We take children out of a dangerous situation, but then we don’t really put the same effort into keeping them safe and protected within the system.
I’ve read so many stories of girls who leave the foster care system to do sex work. It’s a different way of looking at criminalization, too. In the conversation about over-incarceration, there’s always a focus on men, and I wanted to bring sex work back into that dialogue. But it’s also a broader understanding of criminalization; it’s not just about the laws on the books, but also the laws on the streets. There’s social criminalization, such as in Sylvia Rivera’s case — the sense that you’re punishing me because of your attitudes toward me.
It’s dark, and confounding, and it’s part of the reason why writing about it is so hard. A lot of the popular, familiar narratives about sex work are usually memoirs that paint sex work as fun, hot, sexy times.
Or as wacky, or how awkwardly funny it is.
Yes. “My craziest client! My wackiest experience!” I definitely tried to write a book that had some wit to it so it wouldn’t just be a horror show. I wouldn’t have been able to write it if I didn’t, much less ask people to read it. But the humor is reserved directed toward the police, or the do-gooding women who remind me of people out of the 1800s. The criticism of the book has mostly been from people trying to qualify my right to tell this story on that trajectory. It’s not a story of abject victimhood, and it’s not my funny-wacky-time-as-a-sex-worker story. That was the most radical thing I could think of to do: to make it ordinary.
Do you think people are responding to your experience in that way because you didn’t feel victimized by the work?
Well, my own experience isn’t in the book, so they can’t vet it directly. The result is an indirect process of vetting that’s going on, and they suggest that I’m either insufficiently depicting the total victimhood of these people or insufficiently presenting an erotic, sensual narrative about sex work. There’s a massive crack between those polarities that my book falls into.
The book certainly acknowledges those extremes, but mostly suggests that sex work just is.
It is all of those things! But a lot of the time, it’s work. Work can be boring. And it sucks, but it sucks in a way that isn’t robbing you of your personhood. It sucks in the way that you have to go do something for someone else for money, and you know that they’re making more off it than you are, but that’s life under capitalism. What are you going to do, you know?
Let’s talk about the phrase “sex work.” It’s an inclusive term — it includes male, female, and trans communities — and it also runs the gamut from stripping and porn to someone working on the street. It’s definitely difficult for a lot of people to grasp all of those things as the same thing, and I imagine there are people who don’t want to see working in porn and prostitution to be in any way similar. But it’s even broader than that. I watched Nymphomaniac recently, and there’s unsimulated sex performed by “body doubles” — people who work in porn. Is that sex work? Is it acting, because it’s a legitimate film that premiered at a film festival? You write in the book about sex as performance, and I see a performative aspect to stripping or porn, but I wonder if many people can apply that to sex workers in other venues.
Well, a lot of work is performance. Arlie Hochschild wrote a lot about emotional labor in the ‘80s, especially about stewardesses. It’s another kind of labor you participate in: whether it’s fluffing someone’s pillow in first class or making sure the baby in business class has its apple juice, it’s done with a smile. But we don’t always recognize that labor as labor across the board.
I know people in porn who don’t want to be considered doing anything close to prostitution, and vice-versa. It’s more for when sex workers are organizing for political purposes; this is an umbrella term that’s useful. We all experience stigma in ways that are common, we all experience criminalization in ways that are common — but also in ways that are different. The thing that connects this group of people is that none of our work is considered legitimate work. The thing that’s tough is that it’s not a term people use at work. I can’t think of anyone who would say to a customer or to a fan, “I’m a sex worker.” Sometimes you don’t want to acknowledge with your customer that you’re participating in work.
Then it’s not sexy. It’s actual work.
They want to believe you’d be hanging out with them without money being involved, I guess? But sex work is a lot about marketing. People assume that sex workers are totally DTF one-hundred percent of the time because the way they must market themselves is based on how authentic your experience with them will be. There isn’t a corresponding text to go along with an ad that says, “Well, this is how I marketed myself, and this is how I really am.”
The Internet has made that even more complicated. I follow a lot of porn actors on Twitter and it’s interesting how much of themselves they put out there. I’m sure they’re keeping tons of stuff online.
As we all do! We’re people who write on the Internet!
Yes, but the audience sees the tidbits of their lives they choose to share and assume that’s all there is to them.
Yes. The ten-percent they see becomes one hundred-percent of your identity.
When [gay porn star] Conner Habib tweets, “I woke up this morning with a hard-on,” is that Conner Habib being honest, or is he performing? Or Stoya, when she Instagrams her cats. That’s interesting to me, the way people are fucking with those boundaries.
But that’s also where criticism gets tricky. When people read the book and say, “Oh, but you can’t forget about people who are forced into this,” OK, then let’s talk about what that means. Sometimes they mean people who are legitimately forced, and sometimes they mean people who are doing a job because they need money. Is everyone who is doing a job because they need money “forced?” Where does that stop? Then you’re basically saying these people believe they are consenting to something when they’re being forced into it. The suggestion is that they don’t actually understand “consent.”
And that also suggests that you’re smarter than them or know what’s better for them.
You can’t project people’s consent onto them, or their bank balance or their student loan debt. You literally don’t know. And they aren’t required to tell you.
But we do that all the time, especially with famous people. I’m not talking about movie stars, but reality stars that take advantage of their celebrity status because it’s one of the few things they have. We don’t discuss the systemic reasons why they are in the positions that they are in.
Look what happened to Belle Knox, the Duke student who was outed for doing porn. She embraced it, although I’m hesitant to use that word. She went on The View, but was that more about trying to control her own narrative? That happens to reality stars, too; everyone wants to weigh in on your existence, and your options are to either withdraw and let people say whatever they’re going to say about you, or get in there and try to figure out a way to redirect the attention. If this is their fifteen minutes, I don’t blame anybody for getting what they can out of it.
There’s the idea that the fifteen minutes is always about to run out. Couldn’t you extend that notion to sex work?
Very few people want to be doing it for a very long time. I know many people who have retired from sex work because they are just tired of living under the fear. You never know when your savings may be seized as evidence of a crime. You never know when your partner or family may be harassed because of your work.
Because you were once an activist and a sex worker, and because you’re now documenting the movement, you’ve become a face of it. How do you write about a group of people, who may not have the platforms through which to tell their own stories, without speaking for them? Instead, how do you speak with them?
What often annoys me when I talk to people is when they say, “Sex workers are so stigmatized… but aren’t they just normal people, too?” It really sucks to perform normativity for people. What you’re basically telling me that you don’t consider me to be as good as you are, and now my job here is to argue my humanity. It’s a hard place to be.
The place where I start is to say who sex workers are and what they want, and how they expect to make those things happen. That’s factual. I approach it by recovering history and finding things that have been left out, and then using what power I have to give those gaps attention. I don’t want to talk about how sex workers who are experiencing stigmatization, or criminalization, or whatever difficulty — I want to talk about the people who are creating those difficulties. Let’s report on them and try to figure them out! I don’t think we accomplish much when we try to reverse stigmatization. Why don’t we go to the source, and ask how we function as a society who is creating this group of people who are deemed to be others. They must be serving some function — maybe not a great one — but why else would they exist?
For me, it’s never been about accurately depicting a group of people. No one person can do that. What I can do is fill in the gaps that have been erased and then redirect the focus. I’m sure people love us — you and me included — and want the world to be better for us, but it’s a lot of work to perform for the acceptance and tolerance of others. That’s too much of a burden.
Tyler Coates is the Deputy Editor of Decider. He lives in New York City.