Full War For the Sex Workers Against Work
A Review of Cassandra Troyan's Freedom and Prostitution by Rachel Rabbit White.
Freedom and Prostitution, Cassandra Troyan's new full-length poetry collection, is a vigil. It’s a book that belongs on an altar, or kept in your work bag like a good luck charm, carefully tossed in with all the essentials. Next to the pepper spray and the lipgloss. Beside the sponges and the PrEP, the Adderall and the oxy, the baby wipes and the lube, the female condoms and regular condoms, smaller condoms and gold foil condoms.
The book is a prayer, a divination, a spell to keep each other safe and to protect us from death. Because to talk about sex work in a culture that criminalizes it, that moralizes it, that alienates it, has always been to talk about death.
Troyan opens Freedom and Prostitution with a transcript of Aileen Wuornos’s final interview before her death by lethal injection. In the interview Wuornos says: “You sabotaged my ass, society. And the cops, and the system, a raped woman got executed.”
From here, Troyan moves into a series of lyrical poems, or maybe it’s one long poem, in which stacks of cash command the air, in which the speaker tries to speak but realizes she no longer has a tongue, in which you work everyday of your life and the client can always be described as a dead man. A dead man whose mouth tastes of string cheese, of sour fermentation, mothballs, martinis, nut chunks—always a cheese.
The dead man is always already dead, maybe due to the sex worker’s muted fantasy to murder him, or because he’s separated from tenderness. He is excluded from the true tenderness and care of lovers and friends who live off his tab, emptying the minibar in boredom. He doesn’t experience the secret current of complicity that ties criminals and lovers alike, because he’s been complicit only in the system of privilege and oppression that generates his wealth. He is excluded because he demands love by reminding the objects of his desire of their worth and worthlessness, and they in turn fantasize of his death, of a world liberated from him. A just world is a world without the dead man.
Or on the days it is too much
you are almost crying
you are holding back tears
as you fantasize about his death
to get you through
to get him off
to get you off
and remember you can do almost anything
for an hour
You are holding them back but you do not regret this
You do not want to be saved
You want the end of work not the end of sex
When one woman’s death is another survival
In popular narratives, the inescapable dilemma for a sex worker is always between renormalization through the family (marriage) or death. Troyan writes of this trope: “The whore has a nature that choses prostitution. She should be punished for her nature.” Her death has to be exemplary, she has to be isolated from her social context so that the narrative will attain maximum clarity, so that she will be the only one responsible for her actions—she has to die alone. To die tonight to die in this bed, Troyan repeats.
We’re told the story again and again: as her beauty fades, her suitors diminish; as her riches end, her friends abandon her; as her body is consumed by sickness (always infectious), society withdraws; as her murderer drives her into the woods where he will kill her, society forgets her. We are told: She will die alone.
Those who will not make an example out of their death, will instead become a statistic, “a list of names on a wall without faces.” Like Antigone, sex workers suffer a symbolic death before their real death, having not only their bodies attacked, but their individual lives erased. They are subjected to what Troyan calls the “metaphysical presumption” that to be a whore is to be seen as nothing more. Their deaths become “deaths outside time // without a body // or less than a body // less than human.”
Troyan tries to resist this movement by enacting a remembrance of the dead. As if in a vigil, she lists their names: Wendy Lee Coffield, Gisele Ann Lovvorn, Debra Lynn Bonner . . . ending with Unidentified White Female (Jane Doe B-17), and Unidentified Female (Jane Doe B-20). In paragraph-long prose pieces she vividly depicts them in their being, lovely and full of life, in the fragility of their body, and in the tenderness of their affection. Of Mary Bridget Meehan (18) Troyan says: “Brilliant young woman, so intelligent and sensitive, a genius.” Opal Charmaine Mills (16): “Chubby cheeks, sweet girl, innocent, strong-willed, kind, charismatic.” Of Cynthia Jean Hinds we are told that she recorded an original song for Fantasy Records titled “Let’s Fall in Love Again.”
Their sin is not that of a crime that hurts others, but that of impropriety, of having lived and exercised freedom in ways that were deemed to be not appropriate. Like Greek tragedy, Troyan introduces a chorus of sex workers to sing:
Every time we fuck we are saying we will not punch a clock.
Every time we fuck our body belongs to us even if we are paid.
The chorus flows throughout the book (to fuck is to win / the joke’s on him) suggesting that with community, with our loving one another, that even if we all die alone, we don’t die without love. Only the dead man dies truly alone—without ever having truly known what love is.
The oldest profession in the world is waging a “full war” against work. Full war / for the sex workers against work, sings Troyan’s chorus. Even as work has become synonymous with respectability—to the point that even the insanely rich feel compelled to give the impression of working by taking up space in creative fields and holding vanity titles—sex work is still denied recognition, safety, and protection. In the exclusion of this original profession there is a disavowal of the fact that we, all of us as workers, are being always whored out. (Every story is the same because it is not / you sought the cause and lost the plot.) They don’t let you forget that a whore is a whore, but don’t think you’re not being whored out too.
And the chorus sings: We say tonight is a great night to refuse death in the veils of power.
Freedom and Prostitution
By Cassandra Troyan
136 pages. The Elephants. $15.