On the point of brutality, Gira Grant offers many examples of the abuses committed against women in the sex trade in the name of regulating prostitution, and if anyone is foolish enough to think that policing around the globe is an inherently feminist institution, this is a good book with which to disabuse yourself. The Indian sex workers who say they suffer more abuse from police than punters, the accounts of Cambodian round-ups: these are horrific. (They’re also examples of why end-demand campaigners are opposed to the policing of the women who sell sex.)
It’s unfortunate, then, that Gira Grant demands the reader accept her feminist-complicity hypothesis along with the fact of state violence. The women’s movement has long spoken out against police misogyny towards sex workers, on the understanding that as to prostitutes so to all women: the 1977 Reclaim the Night march in Leeds, reacting to the introduction of a curfew on women (not men) during the Yorkshire Ripper’s savage spree, is a totemic example of that. You don’t have to accept the legitimacy of the sex trade to stand against the abuse of those involved in it, and given Gira Grant’s embrace of a harm-reduction ethic elsewhere, it’s strange to see her adopt a moral absolutism that excludes collaboration with potential allies on immediate and life-saving goals.
The book’s grasp of history comes up short in other ways. In the second chapter, Gira Grant tries to show that the identity of the prostitute is a culturally unstable one, invented that it might be controlled: “It’s the nineteenth century that brings us the person of the prostitute,” she writes. [p. 14] This is a welcome rejection of the tedious conservatism of the “world’s oldest profession” argument that is so often made in favour of sex work by self-proclaimed radicals with a blind spot for irony. But in chapter 6, discussing the use of technology by sex workers, she tells us: “In ancient Greece, certain classes of prostitute attracted customers by scoring the words ‘Follow me’ on the soles of their sandals […]” [p. 70]
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim that the prostitute is a Victorian innovation for the governing of sexuality, and then subsequently claim a continuity between the prostitutes of ancient Greece and those of Craigslist. There is one interesting observation to draw from Gira Grant’s commentary on prostitution and the wider economy, though, and that’s how much it resembles Gail Dines’ account in Pornland of a sex industry entwined with the hospitality, service and communications industries. Dines’ intention is to horrify readers with the level of capitalist complicity, Grant’s is to present sex work as a normalised part of the economy: both seem to agree that we live in Pornland, but only one is willing to imagine that there might be a better existence for women beyond it.