I don’t usually like poetry much. It’s too much like hard work. So, when Rose Hunter contacted me to ask me to write a review of her “memoir in verse” about her first two years in the sex industry, my heart sank. Just a little bit. It would mean I’d have to read the book properly. Deeply. Not just skim through it. Could I really do that? A whole book of poetry? Yes, I said, but maybe not for a while. When I’m less busy. Perhaps.
And then there was a quiet day in July, when London was basking in one of its rare heat waves, when I had nothing much to do. I sat down on my comfy armchair and reluctantly opened the book that had been sitting on my table for nearly two months already.
I slowly turned the pages. Reading each one. The lovely photo of Rose. “Her poetry has appeared widely in literary journals in Australia.” Literary journals! That sounds earnest. I turn the page. Other books by Rose Hunter. Five books of poetry! Two chapbooks! What are chapbooks? There’s a quote from Cathy Caruth that I read several times and still can’t quite understand. The Contents page. And then I’m at the first page proper. Here goes.
Quickly I’m enthralled. Electrified. I am with her. She’s a young woman on a year’s working visa in Canada, desperate for cash to pay her rent. She’s reading the job ads in the local newspaper. We accompany her to the interview for the dream paid internship at a documentary film company. We feel her despair at the rejection. And her desperation as the other rejections pile up. The lure of the “masseuses” ads with their “cash paid daily” and “no experience necessary” strap lines. How long can they be resisted when all your other options amount to zero?
And so she calls. The response: the warmest she’s had since arriving in Canada. We go with her to the interview and the first encounter with a “client”.
I realise that this way of writing is just perfect. It’s not hard work to read at all. In fact, it feels utterly natural. We’re not walking beside her. We’re actually inside her head. And I’m reminded of Hamlet’s description of the human being:
“What a piece of work is man
How noble in reason
How infinite in faculty
In form and moving how express and admirable
In action how like an Angel
In apprehension how like a god
The beauty of the world
The paragon of animals”
Is that not the truth? The truth that the brutal neoliberal capitalist system wants us to forget, to deny, to destroy. That human beings are extraordinary creatures with astonishing capabilities and godlike consciousness. That we cannot and should not be reduced to units of consumption. That women are not and should not be reduced to instruments for men’s sexual kinks and curators of their egos. Human beings are worth more than this. But perhaps I digress.
This is such a clever book. Chapter by chapter, we get to know the personnel and learn the arcane rules and practices of the “massage parlour”. We experience bulimia, and the creep on the bus. The latter, we are only too aware, representing numberless other creeps that she and all other young women somehow have to negotiate in their daily lives. We can’t avoid the thought that these ubiquitous creeps are somehow inevitable in a world where “massage parlours” proliferate and countless young women have little choice but to endure them.
There’s a chapter about a “client” who became one of her “regulars”. He’s called Rick. Or she calls him Rick. Is there a difference? Does it matter? It echoes what we at Nordic Model Now! hear from so many women – that the “good” punters are often the worst. The most emotionally taxing.
“how the assholes were easier, mostly
than the ones I liked
enough to wish this was not how I knew them
but deep breath
think of the vodka I’d swigged in the toilet stall
(extra swigs because it was Rick)
wait for that to kick
think of my body as a shell[p. 42]
that I could vacate, not as a metaphor, or symbol
but as a real possibility”
In her brilliant book, Any Girl, Mia Döring talks of the ease with which her punters “produced and swallowed lies”. This is another theme that many women who’ve been in the sex trade also talk about. How could they not, when it’s a trade built on lies? And of course, Rick swallows them too.
“‘Don’t be sorry,’ I said. ‘I love to do it for you.’
(The key to saying this convincingly was no hesitation
no leap in this case; already in.)
‘Really?’ He fixed his gaze on me
as though waiting for an
‘Really.’ And I watched the furrows in his brow relax
like a rug shaken
on a sunny day with bluebells and squishy toys
guilt over my lie twinged me[p. 42-43]
even though I knew an honest reply
would have meant never seeing him again
and losing a good regular
(‘good’ meaning good tip, as well as a half hour
in which you knew what you were dealing with)”
Then there’s the punter who doesn’t get his way and threatens to kill her.
“‘You disrespect me!’[p.49]
Like speedboat stuck in mud
the jammer and the roar
and bulging eyes and neck
‘You’re a dead whore!’”
There’s a dissertation on traumatic memory. Memories of a childhood being told she’s stupid and worse:
“‘What you think doesn’t matter
what you feel doesn’t matter
you are a nobody.’
She moves to Vancouver to attend film school and is distraught to find there are no “massage parlours”, only brothels. She endures her first “full service” and the dissociation she employs to survive it.
“Leaning back, back
into a place where I didn’t have a body
(therefore nothing was happening to it)
I was just a mind
of pop songs or reciting things
the hook endlessly, playing
covering the puncture wounds in the silence deep as fangs”[p.63]
And before we know it, she’s “escorting” full time. From time to time, she blags her way into a “normal” job, but her alcohol habit is now a real problem and she never lasts long.
There’s a sense she’s spiralling downwards. It would be unbearable to experience this with her in the present as she makes us – if we didn’t know she survived and got out, because she’s telling the tale.
She brilliantly condenses what the punters say about her and about themselves into two successive chapters – ‘I am’ and ‘He is’.
“‘women should use their bodies as they please[p.119]
now where is that girlfriend experience?’ You know
the one who does everything he wants
whatever it is, always and loves it; that kind of girlfriend.”
What strikes me is her perfectly drawn innocence. Her lack of knowledge of how things actually work. She’s reinventing every wheel that has been perfected by endless women who came before her. And you wonder – why aren’t girls taught the truth? Why do we send them out into adulthood and independence, generation after generation, so woefully unprepared for the reality of living in our brutal patriarchal capitalist world? Why don’t we tear down the veneer of equality and tell them how it really is?
And the answer of course is because that would take away some of men’s power. And no one gives up their power easily. If all the young women on the bus understood that the shame belongs to the creep not the lone girl he harasses, where would the creeps be? And if girls understood what really goes on in brothels and “massage parlours”, who would staff them? And who would swallow men’s endless complaints about their wives not understanding them?
I feel a kind of rage.
The “sex work is real work” propaganda that’s promoted in universities is not for the benefit of the girls and young women. It’s entirely for the benefit of men – all men in fact – and the pimps, individual and corporate. Which makes it all the more disturbing that women are often the ones promoting it.
Early in the book, Rose mentions this propaganda:
“I’d heard about what they called ‘sex work’[p.5]
in university, and how it was a job like any other
they said. Also a bit radical
and daring and even cool
at least in the groups I tried to fit in with
although none of us actually did it, that I knew of”
Rose Hunter was ten years in the sex industry. Body Shell Girl covers only her first two years. But in the Epilogue, she tells us very briefly what happens next.
“in my case, exiting prostitution was only the beginning in terms of dealing with the damage that prostitution left behind.”[p.140]
I won’t spoil it for you by telling you any more. After the intense journey she so skilfully took me on, the Epilogue reduced me to great gulping gut wrenching tears.
Body Shell Girl is an important book. It blasts through the lies of the “sex work is real work” brigade and tells the truth in profound and unforgettable ways. It is a huge achievement. An act of great generosity. An attempt to equip succeeding generations of girls with essential knowledge of how to navigate this world.
Please read it and pass it on to all the young people in your life. And teachers, please put it on the school curriculum.
BODY SHELL GIRL by Rose Hunter is published by Spinifex.