As is my custom, I’m featuring these reviews of new additions to my review pages in order to call the attention of regular readers (who have presumably already looked at those pages) to them.
Aphrodite’s Trade by Lochlainn Seabrook
Thanks to its ambitious subtitle (“The Hidden History of Prostitution Unveiled”), its beautiful cover art (The Pearls of Aphrodite by Herbert Draper) and its endorsements from a number of luminaries in the prostitutes’ rights field, I was really looking forward to reading this book and was hoping to find in it a supplement to Nickie Roberts’ Whores In History; alas, I was badly disappointed. Even now I wish I could recommend it to you; the author’s heart is in the right place and some of the points he makes are bang on target, but both content and execution are so critically flawed that I can’t in good conscience recommend it to anyone who isn’t A) already an expert in the field; B) an obsessive collector of all things whore-related, and C) able to find it cheap.
The book starts out strong with a presentation of the roots of prostitution in biology (such as we’ve discussed here before), and Seabrook even postulates a “prostitution gene” along the same lines as that suggested by Amanda Brooks. Furthermore, he points out that since marriage was made possible by human females evolving beyond estrus – essentially making ourselves sexually receptive all the time – that it is reasonable to state that marriage evolved from prostitution rather than alongside it; again, no quibbles here. But rather than stick to his strong point (which appears to be biology), Seabrook then wanders off into some very unconventional (and unsound) notions about history, describing as fact highly dubious New Age ideas about Neolithic social organization and portraying what he calls the “Patriarchal Takeover” as a monolithic event at a specific time, which it absolutely was not; what’s more, he can’t make up his mind about when it was supposed to have happened because he gives three different dates! And his notions of etymology are even worse; Seabrook appears to believe that because two words resemble each other they must be linguistically related, and the houses of cards he builds from these pseudo-cognates are quite remarkable.
The structure of the book is as flawed as its content; though externally it appears to be a typical small-format trade paperback of 256 pages, it is printed in a large type-face with excessive white space and the essay itself (I hesitate to call it a book) occupies only 75 of those pages; there follow several appendices (only two of which are arguably useful), then a 40-page bibliography and a 75-page index (printed with even more wasted space than the text). In the final analysis, this is basically a deeply-flawed 30-something page essay padded out to book size. Save your money and buy Whores In History instead.
Heart of Gold by A.K. Smith
My experience with Heart of Gold was almost the opposite of that with Aphrodite’s Trade. I was interested in it because of the subject matter and because I like the author’s blog, but I don’t generally care for detective novels and, though I’m not a technophobe, I fully admit to prejudice against e-books because (as you might suspect from my having been a librarian) I’m a bibliophile and I like the experience of reading a physical book with paper pages I can hold in my hands (I especially like the slightly-musty smell of old books). So when I sat down with it a couple of weeks ago I intended to read just a chapter or two a night; well, that didn’t happen. I was drawn in almost immediately and found myself saying, “I’ll just read one more chapter” over and over again until I had finished half the book; I only stopped because it was almost one in the morning and I usually go to bed around midnight. The next day I started reading soon after posting my column, and didn’t stop until I was finished. Smith’s characters are interesting, her plotting is tight and she managed to keep me guessing as to which of the suspects was threatening the heroine and what his motive might be (I guessed wrong). Since (as I said previously) I’m not much of a reader of modern detective fiction, I can’t compare it to the work of well-known mystery authors, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and Smith managed to work in a good deal of detail about the realities of escorting in such a way that outsiders will learn some things about our lives without feeling preached to or distracted from the action. All in all this is a very good first novel, and I look forward to future works.
My husband recorded this documentary, an episode of the National Geographic Channel’s Taboo series, on his computer while on the road and brought it home for me to watch. I believe the producers were trying to present a balanced view on the subject, but unfortunately this effort was undermined by two things, namely the narrative voice and the presentation of statistically disparate forms of prostitution as though they were equally common. The show depicted four kinds of prostitution, each for about a quarter of the time: Australian brothels, Bangladeshi prostitutes in a shantytown adjacent to a ferry landing, European brothels and streetwalkers in Washington, D.C. I’m sure my readers are astute enough to have noticed one major omission: the single most common form of prostitution in the Western world, namely escorting, was entirely ignored in favor of lurid concentration on a very small fraction of the American market. The director seems to have leaned a little on our side; though roughly equal air time was given to the two pro-decriminalization experts (Ronald Weitzer, whose papers I have referenced before, and Jill McCracken, a fellow member of Sex Workers Without Borders) and the one anti-prostitution fanatic (Sheila Jeffreys), the spectacle of Jeffreys pronouncing that a paralyzed man who hired a legal prostitute at a Dutch brothel was guilty of “violence against women” made her look like the hateful monster she is. Unfortunately, the writer leaned the other way: Every negative statement about prostitution was expressed as a fact, while every positive one was said to be an opinion. Statements about the terrible conditions of their lives made by the Bangladeshi prostitutes and the American streetwalkers were reported with the word “is”, while statements made by the legal Australian and Dutch prostitutes were reported with the word “claims”. In other words we hear that the streetwalker is miserable, but the Aussie brothel girls only claim to be happy. It’s a subtle bias, but one a less-critical viewer would absorb without noticing. And in the end, despite eloquent explanations from Weitzer and McCracken that most of the problems of sex work derive from criminalization, I think the overall tone of the program comes off as somewhat anti-prostitution.