Elevate Difference

The Little Black Book of Grisélidis Réal: Days and Nights of an Anarchist Whore

Writing a review for a book like The Little Black Book of Grisélidis Réal is not a simple task by any means. On the one hand, I want to be as straightforward as possible and simply give my impressions of this one particular piece of writing without going into the issue of prostitution and whether or not it degrades women. On the other hand, it seems impossible not to when taking into account the fact that Réal was a world-famous and revolutionary “whore” and writer who argued that prostitution was not only a choice, but a free-will decision. In my opinion, all sweeping generalizations ever do is discount legions of women whose experiences don’t fall in line with a particular argument; it’s as if they’re being told they don’t exist. So I stay out of it the best I can, though I am supportive of sex workers—no matter the circumstances or choices that led them to their line of work.

For such a fascinating title, The Little Black Book doesn’t pack much of a punch. The book is basically a series of interviews between Réal and journalist Jean-Luc Hennig, as translated by Ariana Reines. Réal’s “whoring” is discussed in great detail, though none of her anarchist activities are. She mentions writing papers and being politically active quite casually several times, though it’s usually only in reference to one of her clients asking about papers she has posted on her bedroom walls. The last portion of the book is quite literally Réal’s little black book, in which she’s written down the names of all her customers, what they’re into sexually, what they look like, and how much they pay her.

Nothing that Réal says in the interviews is politically charged in any way; there are no arguments about prostitution, no defending of her life’s work. For the most part, it’s just account after account of client after client. Did you know that many men secretly like getting a finger up their ass when receiving oral sex? Did you know that men need to be pampered and mothered and showed affection when seeing a prostitute? Yes, no? Don’t care? Me either. I was hoping to get a feel for this woman, the famous Grisélidis Réal who was a survivor and took to prostitution in order to support her children; who earned her living on her back until she was in her sixties.

But you never really get a sense of her; just hints of her personality. I would have liked to learn more about her opinions on her work and her life and less about her depressing decades long relationship with a severely abusive man and the boring sex she endured for years with men who Réal believed simply needed to fulfill their sexual desires—because apparently sex with a woman is a God-given right, and men will be damned if they go without.

In several interviews, Réal contends that the men that come to see her have something wrong with them; that normal men do not go to see prostitutes. She says that prostitution is lonely, heartbreaking work. She says that “fundamentally what [men] want isn’t to hurt you or kill you or bore you; what they want is for you to be nice” so in turn the women “must be totally amorphous, emptied of their substance, emptied of all their strength…” I don’t know why a women would defend and even champion a line of work and lifestyle that requires that of women, but then, prostitution is a complicated issue. After reading The Little Black Book of Grisélidis Réal, I can say—mysterious anarchism aside—that Réal was a complicated woman.

Written by: Tina Vasquez, March 4th 2010

(technical note: can people please stop disabling the incredibly useful "blockquote" tag in their comment-form code?)

It's pretty clear that being a sex worker is not a profession anyone would willingly choose if they had the choice or had a healthy upbringing

Clear to who? And who's defining "healthy" here?

It's telling that you wrote this in comments, when in your review you say In my opinion, all sweeping generalizations ever do is discount legions of women whose experiences don’t fall in line with a particular argument

Quite so, and yet you feel fairly happy doing so. There is probably an over-representation of people with particular kinds of problems working in the sex industry, but that's more down to the low barriers to entry + high profit margin + social ostracisation side of it, not because sucking dick for money ruins your life any more than sucking dick for free does. On the other hand, something nobody chooses? After reading this book in which a hooker explicitly argued the case of her own agency? Really?

I personally know very well two women who have willingly chosen to be prostitutes because they like sex and the money's good, and neither of them have a significant lack of choice or particularly unhealthy upbringings.

Real had a particular take on things, as do the women I know in the industry. In many aspects they don't differ: one of my aquaintances sees her job very much in terms of selling affection rather than sex, much as Real describes, but she doesn't have the same negative take on it that Real does. Some hookers hate their jobs, some love them, many are somewhere in the middle.

In this sense, hookers are quite like accountants. Some people with various axes to grind point out that sex work is not entirely similar to accountancy (although it is not totally dissimilar to, say, being a freelance artist, for reasons explained in detail in [this seminal work](http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Llhvil_GiDk" rel="nofollow) by noted Chicago sociologist Pat McCurdy), but the axes to grind are rarely well hidden. Generally, the biggest axe is a desire to cast sex workers en masse into some large subclass of the "victim" category, where they become more comprehensible. We know, as feminists, how to deal with people who have been harshly treated by the patriarchy and need our tolerant understanding, don't we? Not so good at people who have negotiated the rapids of a patriarchal society and found a way to exploit and thrive in the environment that doesn't mesh with our own paths of western feminism, quite often, but they're probably just wrong, right?

The thing is, Ms Vasquez, I could have told from your review that you would be the kind of person to hold the opinion I quoted above to start this comment. The tone of the review was a shibboleth for people who hold onto this remarkable piece of common knowledge as gospel. Your "sweeping generalisation" of whores as victims has distinctly coloured your reading of Real, such that those parts of her life that support this view have been grasped and those which suggest otherwise are flirted with but never truly comprehended. It is a complex issue, you're right, but your review never seems to understand the ways in which it is complex, or indeed the ways in which it is all quite simple. You take an (admittedly fairly standard) political line almost as soon as you declare yourself above the politics of it all. Such is the privilege of the non sex worker, of course, but it does strike me as a slight disservice to the work of a fairly bright light in the world of literary hookers to review it with such a dim philosophical bulb.

It doesn't matter what you call me, you feminist are still responsible for violence against prostitutes like myself and our clients suffer. Feminist were responsible for passing the anti prostitution laws 100 years ago and your responsible for maintaining the state of criminalization and passing more anti prostitution laws now.

It's not my responsibility to confirm your version of the "truth" when the burden of proof is on you and you've already been proven wrong about several things. It's unfortunate that the commentary you continue to offer is pure conjecture and unfounded accusation. If you're not going to engage on any other level, why do you continue to comment?

excuses excuses to not take responsibility.

With people like you at the mast of building support for the decriminalization movement making enemies out of folks who are your allies, it's a wonder prostitution is still largely illegal in the US.

god your lazy. google anything to do with prostitution and it has your feminist hate bating prostitution blashing fingerprints all over it.

Um, read closer, Maxine. I didn't write the review nor did I take any shots against Grisélidis Réal. I've only asked for you to produce evidence of your claims about feminists being responsible for the criminalization of prostitution b/c, historically, it is more tied to Christian morality than women's rights.

Your statement about supporting decrim pales next to cheap shot you take against this prostitute.

When one's lily white and middle class face is all over the internet, one should reserve throwing the same stones that will bring down one's own glass house.

Here's a video of Maxine as she speaks at Yale: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=273769478079225849#

Hi Will. The two posts we have in our history from you are both published here. The only explanation I have is that perhaps a Blogger glitch nixed it?

Maxine - I guess you could be right about the class oppression were you to be talking to someone with class privilege. One funny thing about assumptions is that they put you in the unenviable position of having to retract them when they're wrong. I've lived below the poverty line for most of my life, and if you'd read any of the above comments you'd know that Tina is neither white nor middle class either. Also, I support the decriminalization of prostitution and believe sex workers shouldn't be devalued for their profession. But I'm sure you'll come up with some other hackneyed excuse for why you're right and continue trying to win these oppression olympics that you seem so keen to play.

Asking for evidence to back up a hyperbolic statement that one has evidence to the contrary of is gracious and open minded. I could simple continue to offer more evidence that contradicts what you're saying. Obviously, you don't have to take the opportunity and you can continue to simply rant about your beef with feminists instead of talking to one who is actually trying to listen.

I'm not your 'love' and the fact that you take such license to refer to me as such is yet another example of your class oppression of prostitutes. And discounting my credibility to avoid taking responsibility for your actions to oppress our class is again another example of women like you who use 'feminism' as their weapon of choice to relegate us beneath your lily white and entitled bourgeois feet.

(Somehow an earlier post of mine got trashed. Is there a way to resurrect it?)

Yes, I read the book and while many other things could and should be criticized in Réal (i.e, her constant racialization of "The Berber" and other North Africans), it can't be said of her that she didn't choose prostitution as a career. While you might think evaluating other women's decisions based on past violence is a feminist enterprise, I think it stinks of the worst kind of presumptuous bull-shitting. As a survivor of abuse and homelessness I not only resent your use of other people's histories like so many props in your Mary Poppins bag, but I find it decidedly "un-poised" (to reverse FR's limp defense of your review). Not only that, but the constant "feminization" of this issue completely undermines the reality of this entirely mixed-gender industry, with straight-identified men just as likely to sell sex as gay men and a huge number of transwomen involved, while the number of men serving women is increasingly on the rise. Why don't you tell those straight men they're deluding themselves into dehumanizing work? Go patronize somebody else about their profession.

How about you provide citations, Maxine, so I can get my education on then? All you're providing now are vague, unsubstantiated claims, and while I'd love to take your word for it, that simply isn't enough evidence, love.

go read your (his)story books, manday. the morality was layed down by christian educated daddy's monied women on women.

Maxine - Where and in what context? In the US, the push to make prostitution illegal wasn't a part of the feminist movement, if for no other reason than the criminalization of prostitution had already taken place. One of the first widespread legal measures in the US to outlaw prostitution is the ironically named Mann Act of 1910, which was more about morality than women's rights.

Still feminist have to take responsibility for their support of the criminalization of prostitution laws that are responsible for the violence against this prostitute.

Holla! (And I say this despite disagreeing w/ Tina that sex work can't be a freely chosen profession for women.)

I'm just curious as to whether or not any of the commenters have read the book. It's pretty clear that being a sex worker is not a profession anyone would willingly choose if they had the choice or had a healthy upbringing. Once I get the book back from a friend, I can cite the specific pages and paragraphs in which the author blatantly says that the men who come to see her have something wrong with them; that normal men do not go to see prostitutes. She says that prostitution is lonely, heartbreaking work. She also describes how many of the prostitutes she has known over the years have gone mad, killed themselves, or died violent deaths as a direct result of their line of work. She even discusses her multiple suicide attempts. I love that this is a subject that brings about passionate opinions, but I can't personally support a profession that brutalizes women. I am, however, in favor of laws that protect these women.

Growing up I was good friends with many girls who became sex workers in some capacity. Though I've never done the work myself, I've seen firsthand how the industry eats women up and spits them out. I've seen girls who grew up in abusive and unhealthy environments turn to sex work, only to end up addicted to drugs, hospitalized, or worse. I think people are quick to intellectualize prostitution and I'll be the first to admit that my opinions on the subject are based on what I've seen and what I feel in my heart to be true, not on what I've read in textbooks or studies. I'm sure many would consider that a fault, but many of the prostitutes I've encountered grew up poor and uneducated and I doubt they enjoy being intellectualized by those who've had more privileged, comfortable lives.

As one reader pointed out, my opinions may very well be "uncomplicated." I understand that prostitution is a very complicated subject that is not black and white; my opinion is just one of many. That being said, I think the argument that the author was practicing a "humanist science" is complete bullshit and a cop out. Her diary wasn't an academic work. I did learn that she favored abusive relationships and felt sympathy for the men that took advantage of her. So, if her book was supposed to convince people of the validity of her line of work, I walked away from it even more set in my opinion and wondering how the author could still support a profession that has treated her and women like her so poorly.

I would say that I'm not your typical feminist: I don't say much that is PC, I often don't have popular opinions, and I don't think that a woman who considers herself to be a feminist can do or say anything that is anti-feminist. In that way, I believe Réal was a feminist, but I still contend that women don't willingly choose prostitution as a valid career path. I think they're pushed into it and Real's work in the sex industry was important in the way that she fought for women's rights and for the safety of those working women. Simply put: I think it was a case of her making the best and the most of the situation she was in.

FYI: I take GREAT offense to being referred to as a "bourgeois, middle-class academic feminist." I'm poor, Mexican, and dropped out of college. My opinions are my own and I don't claim to represent all feminists or the Feminist Review.

Perhaps the debates would be more even-handed were they actually about the issues, as opposed to attacks and defense of the people involved in the debate.

Feminist Review has over 150 writers currently, and has worked with over 400 writers altogether in our three and a half year history. Some of them are/have been sex workers. We believe every voice is a valuable addition to every topic, regardless of the author's involvement or lack thereof in the subject matter (though, yes, there is something rich in personal expertise brought to the fore). Our intention is to generate conversation about complex issues, so I thank you for your comments and encourage you to add your perspective on the book and the subject matter here. That is what leads to a rich dialogue.

If you are looking for a space where sex workers voices are the only voices, [$pread Magazine](http://www.spreadmagazine.org" rel="nofollow) is an excellent publication.

FR, there is seldom "even-handed debate" in the media or academia in regards to sex workers. In many instances, current or past sex workers are not even allowed to be on discussion panels, lectures or debates about sex work. This is comparable to having a panel on engineering without any actual engineers on the panel. I refer you to this incident:

http://tinyurl.com/chutuh

This is an NPR debate about "Is It Wrong To Pay For Sex?" The closest person they had for a sex worker is Sidney Barrows, the Mayflower Madam. Her experience is valuable, but she was an employer of sex workers, not necessarily a sex worker herself, unless you count the time she spent talking on the phone to clients while managing her business. There was another member of the debate team by the name of Melissa Farley, who should have never, ever been there in the first place. This is because of her faulty, non-peer-reviewed research on sex workers:

http://tinyurl.com/57gwne

This woman, despite her obvious lack of profession ethics, is for the most part coddled by the media, her word taken without question by them.

So in my opinion, the debate will be more "even-handed" when the sex workers (of all experiences) are allowed to come to the table instead of paid hacks whose only mission in life is to distort the lives of the former and make them even more unsafe then they currently are.

The writer is explaining what is written in the book, Anon. This doesn't call for citations, as we are not an academic publication. The reviewer is also not middle class or academic, which also means she is not bourgeois (since the very definition is 'middle class,' making your classification redundant at best). Tina stated her opinion on the matter up front, and that is her prerogative. It also highlights any bias she may have in reviewing this book, which she nevertheless does with aplomb. If you come here to attack a writer because you disagree with her opinion instead of engaging in an even-handed debate, your comments will be deleted.

In several interviews, Réal contends that the men that come to see her have something wrong with them; that normal men do not go to see prostitutes. She says that prostitution is lonely, heartbreaking work.

Would you kindly like to inform readers where she said this? Or do you feel that you have the right to say anything you want to about a sex worker without any regard for truth and accuracy? I know that most bourgeois, middle-class academic feminists consider it their Goddess-given right to conduct faulty so-called "research" against sex workers, so why should you be an exception?

A dialogue cannot be self-contained and requires diversity of thought. Thank you for adding your perspective.

The Little Black Book is just what the title says: a compendium of Réal's experiences with her clients. What Réal accomplished in choosing to compiling her work log before her death (I know the word "choice" in this case disturbs you) is to showcase the "humanist science" she practiced. The Little Black Book, thankfully without the typically tedious frills and diatribes of political ideology, is a testament to Réal's immense capability, her meticulous and inspiring attention, the lonely commitment of our profession: "We know them like the back of our hand. As soon as they get in the door, it's like we'd made them ourselves."

Your review bemoans the lack of "arguments about prostitution," but have you considered that Réal's whole life was an argument? That every client was a case in point? Or that she was tired of fighting so-called feminists demanding a rebuttal? You say "who cares about the client wanting a finger up his ass," but who cares about your silly, uninformed, and uncomplicated judgments? As if you can simply allude to the complexities of the sex industry, voice your amorphous "support for sex workers," and call it a day. Réal took notes on her clients in order to document their incredible and secret idiosyncrasies, to become a better and more skilled worker, to keep a record for her own safety, and to provide a unique and lasting testament to the intricacies, and even mundanities, of working in the sex trade. In the future, please consider asking a sex worker to review a book documenting their profession.

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