Books are never far from a scholar’s hands, just as songs are never far from a singer’s lips. - Chinese proverb
Though I was a voracious reader from the age of four until my early thirties, I’m just so very busy these days writing that I don’t have nearly as much time for reading. More accurately, I don’t have as much time for book reading; I still spend plenty of time reading articles online. If I didn’t set aside about 15 minutes in the morning and a similar amount at bedtime, however, I probably wouldn’t get to read books at all any more (which is why it takes me so long to get through the rather large stack of books generously sent by my readers). These four books have something else in common: they were all written by people who read this blog (at least from time to time). Three of these are my most recent reads, but I read Sex at the Margins about a year and a half ago and just recently realized that I had neglected to review it.
Paying For It: A Comic-strip Memoir About Being a John by Chester Brown
By the time I go to bed in the evening I am often so exhausted that I fall asleep over whatever book I’m trying to read, even if it’s something I like a lot (such as reprints of Silver Age sci-fi comics). But I had no such problem with Paying for It; I repeatedly found myself saying, “I’ll just read for a few more minutes,” and finished it in a very few days. If I had to sum up this book in a single word, it would be “sincere”; it’s an honest and frank illustrated journal of Brown’s experiences with Toronto hookers, starting with how he came to prefer paying for sex over the serial monogamy he had (like most people) previously practiced, and ending with his becoming a long-term regular of one exceptional lady and planning the book. Along the way he shares his thoughts, impressions, joys, concerns and misgivings, and also his conversations with friends who had internalized prohibitionist propaganda; he depicts several arguments, discussions and debates with them in comic form, and also includes 23 appendices in which he effectively refutes prohibitionist arguments. For me, the most fascinating aspect of the book was its revelation of the author’s internal monologue, which is presented so matter-of-factly that its honesty is irrefutable; it’s one thing for a client to say “this is what I was thinking” when speaking directly to me, and another thing entirely for him to share with the world even those thoughts which could be perceived as unflattering to himself. Though die-hard neofeminists will continue to believe that all clients are evil exploiters no matter what evidence is presented to them, I believe this book is powerful enough to sway many of those who are “on the fence” about the subject, and I really hope it gets the extensive exposure and brisk sales it deserves.
The term “groundbreaking” is regularly and carelessly thrown about in reviews on books which cover controversial topics, but in this case it is wholly accurate and entirely deserved. Regular readers are already familiar with Dr. Agustín, whose blog The Naked Anthropologist I have often quoted and linked, but what you may not realize is how much those of us fighting “sex trafficking” hysteria owe to her and especially to this book. She started studying the intersection of migration and sex work back when “human trafficking” still meant the smuggling of undocumented immigrants across international borders, and hers was among the first voices raised in protest when the moral panic around it went into high gear in 2004. Sex at the Margins doesn’t only challenge the mythology of millions of passive, helpless, exploited victims, but also clearly and thoroughly explains what is really going on with most of those labeled “trafficked”, how their actions are viewed through a sexist, racist and colonialist prism to interpret them as some kind of global disaster, and why it’s so important to listen to what migrants (in sex work or otherwise) have to say about their own experiences rather than forcing an ignorant, biased interpretation onto them. Furthermore, the book has not only helped many people (including me) to understand these phenomena, but has also given us the language to talk about it: for example, the term “rescue industry”, now a common one in sex worker rights discourse, was coined by Dr. Agustín and first widely disseminated herein.
The Sex Myth: Why Everything We’re Told is Wrong by Brooke Magnanti
Dr. Magnanti, as the big yellow sticker the publisher has pasted on the cover reminds us, had already published a number of books as Belle de Jour, the stage name she used as a London call girl while working on her PhD in Forensic Pathology. But this is her first written specifically as a scientist and statistician, and I hope it’s at least as successful as her previous books because she thoroughly and effectively debunks nine myths about sex (including “sex addiction”, “premature sexualization”, “negative secondary effects” and myths about porn, prostitution and “sex trafficking”). She does this not only by presenting facts and studies which disprove the myths, but also by demonstrating how the entire approach of those who create, define and spread them is designed not to discover the truth, but rather to promote a predetermined agenda by picking and choosing only those facts, pseudo-facts and opinions which can be made to fit the desired pattern and excluding the rest. Her writing is sharp, clever and compelling, and she has a gift for coining useful terms like “constellation maker” (one who chooses which data points to include in the desired “picture” just as the ancients chose which stars made up a constellation). Though she is generally more polite to the prohibitionists than I tend to be, let that not be mistaken for her being soft on them: she convincingly demonstrates that those who manufacture and define sex myths are fully aware of what they’re doing, and in fact her last chapter refutes the claim that prohibitionists are largely well-meaning, if deluded. The book has not yet been released in the United States, but is available from a number of British vendors who offer international shipping for a competitive price.
You Will Die: The Burden of Modern Taboos by Robert Arthur
Rob Arthur defines a taboo as “a topic that a culture prevents its people from discussing freely,” and this book is based around the philosophy that “taboos are a burden on society…[and] hinder progress toward greater happiness.” Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while knows the truth of that statement: if it weren’t for the general ignorance about sex in general and sex work in particular, an ignorance maintained by sexual taboos, no reasonable person would accept laws against consensual sexual behavior and the ridiculous lies about the harms which supposedly result from sexuality would be widely recognized as the ravings of miserable prudes. Arthur also discusses taboos against drugs and bodily wastes, though the latter doesn’t get nearly as much space as sex and drugs because there is no vast, expensive and oppressive “War on Poo” whose chief result is human misery. In a sense, You Will Die is two books in one; it is written in a pleasant, conversational style and presents fascinating, often obscure facts in such a way as to make it a great pleasure read, but is both exhaustively researched and so extensively footnoted that it will make an important addition to my reference library. Note: I read this book in the third edition, but the link and picture are for the fourth, which will be available in a few weeks; Rob consulted me while updating the section on prostitution and sent me a copy as a thank-you.