“I didn’t have an ego until I became a whore. I felt disgusting before. I was delighted when someone finally offered me money after years of being raped by my husband.”
-Drew, a San Francisco street sex worker, as quoted by Elizabeth Bernstein in Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex
At first glance, Notice by Heather Lewis seems like every sex industry abolitionist feminist’s wet dream. The plot concerns a street sex worker, Nina, who relives her childhood abuse through her work. Therapy and lesbian love in the form of the same person seem like they might save her. In the end, though, the protagonist’s only succor comes through the use of her self-determination–whether she uses that agency in the service of reenacting her trauma or not. The cogs of the mental health industry are laid bare, shown to be working in direct opposition to that freedom of choice. Beth, her lover/therapist, is revealed to be nothing more than a softer, honey trapped version of the psychiatric incarceration Nina experiences earlier in the narrative, and her betrayal of Nina turns out to be the worst of all the many betrayals she suffers throughout this slim book, if only because Nina has not quite prepared herself to expect it.
I’ve worked as an escort for the last decade, and I’m also the co-editor of Tits and Sass, a blog by and for sex workers. When Emily asked me to write something about Notice, I e-mailed saying that I was excited because I could never be quite so honest about a book like that in a sex workers’ rights movement venue. It’s not that we in the movement are a bunch of censor-happy Stalinists, I clarified, but it’s just that Notice presents this thorny question: “What would the anti-trafficking movement and the whorephobes think if we confirmed some of their assumptions, even if in so doing we added much more nuance to such an analysis than they ever do?” From the very beginning, Notice butts up against these considerations.
[W]hile it’s true I needed the money that’s not all I needed from it [hooking]. I don’t care what anybody says. I understand the reason for telling people that, people outside of it..What the extra thing is, the thing besides money? I’ve never pinned it down. I know it’s there, though.
That extra thing, that thing besides money, has always been a politically dangerous, incendiary element. Talking about it to the “people outside” precludes a purely economic analysis, one that situates sex work safely in the context of labor politics. It’s the thing that sex worker exclusionary reactionary feminists (not-so-affectionately known as “swerfs” in the sex worker blogosphere) always twist into looking like those bogeymen they constantly invoke–”trauma,” “false consciousness,” even “brain washing.” It’s a thing we all should be able to talk about, just like everyone else is able to talk about the nitty gritty of their working lives. A thing that’s sometimes not quite as flattering to us as we’d like.
Take my initiation into sex work, for example. Snipped free of my immigrant family’s purse strings as a 21 year old college dropout, sure, I needed the money, but who was I trying to impress with my toughness, my supreme lack of convention, when I told my then-roommate that I planned to start calling the ads in the back of the alternate weekly for an escorting job?
“What is escorting, exactly?” she asked. “You know, fucking people for money,” I answered, needlessly crass. Nina is similarly crass when Beth, her therapist and lover, asks what she did with the client couple. “I fucked them and they fucked me. Pretty thoroughly.” If you are the kind of person who fucks as coolly as all that, then you can make believe that nothing can hurt you–not being alone and penniless, not being abused all of your life.
Money is certainly still a factor for Nina in her work. It’s intimated that she also works at a deadly dull, low paying straight job, which is of so little consequence to her we never even find out what it is, whereas street sex work means that she can “work maybe twenty minutes…[g]et twenty dollars, which was good compared to what I made at my job across the street.” It starts a “calculation in [her] head…’why am I keeping this stupid job?’ “ Throughout the narrative, Nina worries about staying solvent whenever she’s stayed away from the street for a time. But what really matters is control — control and distraction. Nina tells the reader that she started turning tricks because she didn’t want to go home.
Nina’s early trauma is another thing that is never described in detail, but it’s present in her every dissociative reaction, in the lingering presence of what she refers to as “home with a capital H,” her parent’s temporarily abandoned house.The book is not just an abuse survivor’s’ story, it is written in the language of surviving trauma, composed entirely of calculations about which coping mechanism will work best for the moment. The thought process Notice explores in harrowing and repetitive detail is: how do I numb myself out or go along with it, bend in order not to break, in order to survive the next few minutes? It’s all happening no matter what, but how best to bear it–should I open my eyes or close them, go loose or struggle, agree or disagree? Every stimulus—whether internal or external—is seen as a potential abusive assault. She starts working because, in the various dangerous situations she puts herself into to forget her abuse or relive it–or just live through it–she’d rather be the one “paid instead of paying, or trading.” Staying inside the bar buying drinks and cozying up to the bartender for coke keeps her vulnerable, whereas waiting outside the bar for men to pay her for the same services she provides inside at least allows her to be the one in control of her abasement.
The money might not mean much in and of itself; in one passage Nina even contemplates burning one of the hundred bills she just got paid with, singing it at the tip. But the money gives Nina the reins. The client who truly ruins her is established as dangerous from the beginning not because he fucks her in the ass and likes that it hurts her, not because he fucks his wife in the ass in front of her, but because Nina allows herself to bend her rules for him, establishing bad precedent when she lets him shortchange her for it and not give her the money up front. Even those of us who hate the work often see it as an improvement on the free floating abuse that is life in relationships outside commercial sex. My friend Red noted wryly in a piece we co-wrote that, “I cannot be the only girl who found out about stripping and thought, ‘That sounds ideal,’ and not in a ‘So sexy deviance!’ way but ‘Time and money for things that already happen for free!’ “ Sex work allows Nina to dictate the terms of her victimization, given that her life is an exercise in victimization anyway.
Elsa Williams interprets this need for control as “bravado” in her essay, as tough talking, but I see what Nina is doing when she explains her need to be on top at work as explaining the means of her survival. You don’t let a client know that he is your first, even if he is–save that trick for when he’s your thousandth and needs to feel special, save it for when it is a performance, not the extreme vulnerability of your reality. You don’t let the clients see you as afraid. The two clients who are part of Nina’s ultimate undoing, the couple, unmake her not because they are clients but because, in allowing her to replicate her developmental hell too faithfully by standing in as her parents, they allow her to fall back into the passivity that sex work had just started to lift her out of: “[A]lways running the game had begun tiring me, and so why not let [them] do it?”
Sex, for Nina, is more than a defense mechanism. As a sexual abuse survivor and now as a sex worker, it is the function with which she’s framed her value all her life: “I assumed sex was why I was here.” It puts her back on familiar ground to be related to sexually, allows her the safety of that familiarity: “Being turned on…allowed me to feel things I otherwise never felt safe with.”
But Lewis also takes pains to show that even if sex work isn’t purely structural, even if it is well nigh pathological, it is surely not as sick as the standard attempts to extricate the sex worker from it. The cops who arrest Nina on the way to bringing her to jail, the hospital, and ultimately to mandated therapy– which is the usual progression for arrested street sex workers, at least on the first offense–gangrape her. That’s true to life, too.They claim that she violently resisted arrest, which prompts the hospital to put her into seclusion, where the hospital staff also rape her. She is committed to the mental hospital in the first place because a powerful abusive client puts her there. I read this as shorthand for the ways politicians, psychiatrists, and policemen are hypocritical clients in one role and attempt to exert control over the whores they cannot buy with their money alone in another, “rescuing” them against their will.This, then, is treatment. Nina herself uses the language of treatment as parody, already aware of that treatment’s violence and futility, as when she observes, dry as dust, at the close of the first chapter, about her first few weeks of working, “I guess you’d call this a transitional period.” The reader already knows what a hilarious understatement this is. Never for a second does Nina believe in the benevolence her psychiatric incarceration comes couched in. She is sent to a place where the women are lobotomized, “cut,”
a holding pattern…The perfect place to lose someone forever…Once they get you in a place like this people don’t believe you so easy. But then I guess that’s a big part of the point—making sure you’re walking uphill with each thing you say…The point was for me to be forgotten.”
And Nina understands the importance of discrediting victims, given that that’s been “part of the point” of her entire life.
Notice destroys another trope that abolitionists favor: the one about prostitution being a sin of the patriarchy. It does this by bringing in a woman client, and having that woman client, and later a woman therapist–generally a feminist hero figure–be the ones who bring Nina the lowest. “Women do everything differently, but not so much you can’t catch it,” is how Nina puts it. If sex work’s existence owes itself to an evil found in men, then women share that evil completely. Lesbian love, which second wave feminists valorized as a remedy to male domination, becomes the only kind of oppression Nina can’t survive: “The sort of jeopardy she put me in was worse…the men didn’t start this trouble, the women did.”
Nina actually believes Ingrid, her female client’s, protestations of love and her promises that they can run away from her husband together, for a few moments. Or at least, she is tempted to believe: “Hard not to get caught up in someone telling you the things you’ve wanted to hear your whole life, and so does it matter if what they’re saying is true?” This makes it still more difficult for her when Ingrid runs off without her.
Nina chooses to go with her clients, but she was court-ordered to attend therapy sessions. During one of these therapy sessions, Beth asks Nina to go for a drive with her, parking the car somewhere out of the way, replicating Nina’s usual business routine minus the element of choice. Then she becomes flustered when a man who orders them out of his property assumes she is Nina’s client. Throughout the novel, Beth fumes over Nina’s clients like the worst stereotype of the sex worker’s jealous boyfriend, eventually resorting to stalking her in her car so she can catch her backsliding, at one point even going so true to script as to beat her and call her a “whore.” Ultimately, Beth is the female version of the self-righteous client sex workers scornfully call “Captain Save-A-Ho.”
When Beth starts getting through to Nina, when she starts provoking feelings in her she can’t work through consciously, Nina finds it more threatening than anything the vicious, abusive men that roam the book can do to her. “Love and…being loved…of the whole lot of [feelings], those were the only two that could actually kill you.” Beth and what she feels for her leave her more exposed to the harm the men inflict: “I wouldn’t be able to push it away like before…It interfered with my capacity to sort things, to keep things cordoned off in my head.” But even Notice’s rape scenes are never as fraught as Nina’s desperate attempts to negotiate the emotions Beth coaxes out of her, whether during sex or during therapy.
Notice is brilliant at capturing the equilibrium the sex worker strives to maintain, down to the moment to moment adjustments I make, especially during a truly bad call, so I can keep my remove: How long can I keep the leering mouth breathing client happy just licking me rather than having him want me to go down on his pruney, old man smelling cock? There’s even a moment Nina records in which she talks about drinking her client’s liquor and smoking his cigarette while he fucks his wife in front of her, wondering “how long he’d let me do these things,” just as in a doubles call with a loathsome client “just as in a doubles call with a loathsome client I wonder how long I can take a bathroom break for before my doubles partner and my client both notice, how long I can take to compose myself before diving in again. In a sense, the entire book reads like my thoughts do during a call–should my body go slack or tight? Do I want to be on my knees or standing? What Fiona Duncan reads variously as the blankness, the nakedness, the emptiness of Notice’s text, its utter lack of descriptive flourish, is really a utilitarian attention to the details that matter to the narrator: the elements of the situation that directly threaten her. For Nina, life within her trauma means that living itself is intense physical labor focused on enduring the next assault or the next emotion. And the book’s tension builds as this work gets harder, as Nina starts “running out of ways to take it.”
By telling the prototypical abolitionist story in the first person, Notice turns its it on its head and allows us to the see the cracks in it. Lewis shows how, to a trauma survivor, the imposition of love and control by someone who’s trying to “rescue” her can feel the same as being raped by violent clients. From Nina’s beleaguered perspective, sex work makes some sense of the disordered and predatory behavior of everyone around her–until, at least, all attempts to impose sense become futile.
Caty is a small town escort/activist, and the co-editor of titsandsass.com, a blog by and for sex workers.