"Sex work and sexual exploitation are two different things". - Nalini Jameela This was such an awesomely candid read by a sex worker activist. What a pity that it is two years after leaving academic gender studies that I'm coming across such a nuanced work on and by a sex worker devoid of savior complexes. It was refreshing.
Nalini was fun to read. To be honest, I don’t know if I found her so relatable because I have lived in South Asia and can pick up the subtle contexts or because I found aspects of our stories mirroring each other. There was a part in the book where she was describing one of her clients and I had to put down the book because I felt like she was describing one of my own clients. It wasn’t a horror story, just a quirky story and a quirky client and it made me laugh.
I love that right at the end, Nalini boldly takes on her critics. That the critics of this book want a piece full of a heart wrenching tale of an exploited woman and Nalini refuses to give them a sob story. But the best part (or the most ironic part) is that Nalini has flushed out the nuance of labor and the nature of "work" even though most readers only see her writing as "glamorizing the profession" (peep the Goodreads reviews). When Nalini breaks down the nuances of “labor” and erotic/sexual labor in plain language, she helps further contextualize the trauma that exists for sex workers around sex work.
Which brings me to Karen Memory.
I think most people picked up this YA book because they were looking for something steampunk (maybe sci-fi or Western too?). And I’d slightly agree with the majority of the reviewers who were disappointed with the steampunk elements though I think the machines described were cool. They weren’t necessarily made seamless to the story. That aspect was a smidge-bit awkward.
But what I loved about this book was that it revolved around sex workers very matter of factly. Sex workers who fell fluidly on the LGBTQ spectrum too. The author did not rely on graphically describing sex scenes or the workers’ bodies as plot devices. There was a story to be told - it just so happened that the characters in the middle of this story were sex workers.
I think what I also liked (and something I may need to revisit), is this balance between telling the story of a sex worker and someone who has been trafficked into the industry. Sometimes it feels like a lot of civilians assume that sex workers fall into two categories - those who are trafficked and those who are sex workers browbeating trafficked victims into silence. And so it was really refreshing that the two parties in this story did not have any imaginary angst towards the industry. They all accepted each other, helped each other, were badass together. No long philosophical debates about if this work was #empowering to woman or not.
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