This is certainly the most challenging review I’ve undertaken. Charlotte Shane’s book is not like any other I’ve read. This was a kickstarter project to publish the collection of her blog of the same name. She says of this effort: “I was lonely and isolated, so I wrote a lot.” But that is not what makes it difficult to review. There are two issues that make this a challenge for this reviewer (after the TL;DR).
In the first two thirds of the book, Shane presents her early and middle years doing sex work and it is a harrowing tale that would give any father nightmares. She depicts extreme sexual positions, pain, discomfort, and sexual torture with an air of sometimes wounded but defiant bravado. In the last third, she is in more control, yet still occasionally takes johns she shouldn’t – just to prove she can control them. Control is a big theme in this work; for example, she doesn’t like pain, but takes on as a sub in order to test herself.
The writing is episodic and, early on, often very disjointed with few clues as to setting and participants. Later, it is still episodic, but more context is given and becomes more reflective, though there is no overall theme to pull the book together. It does, however, depict in brutal honesty the trade of high-priced escort. Money, sex, saps who fall for her, the clients she falls for, kindness, degradation, glamour and adventure. Other themes are big cocks, sex, shared intimacy, pain, pride in her job, loneliness, depression (never explicit, but implicit in some entries), men who think she’s beautiful, but no, she isn’t. It gets a bit repetitious with certain themes (such as that last one) yet there is no closure; the sturm und drang is open-ended, a memoir-in-progress. The last bit (Volume II) is a series of vignettes, with more attention to construction, presentation and setting, yet not related in time or theme.
If the Boltons were real, Shane would be their huckleberry
The first difficulty in review is that this book is so raw. Shane is sometimes compared to Anaïs Nin, but I wouldn’t put this work in the same category. Yes, Nin brought us as close as her hand-mirror; she shared vast ranges of emotion (often contradicting) and deep thinking on art and psychology. She even shared the physical pain of her miscarriage. But Nin heavily edited her Diaries and even applied editorial awareness in the Journal of Love. She knew that at some point, even the unexpurgated diaries would be read, and Nin’s motivation was literary. Although there are some explicit love scenes, they aren’t the focus. Nin conveyed that her sex was pursued in the context of love and intellectual curiosity, and in that curiosity and investigation, she weaves an overarching story.
Shane is a different animal, and she presents a problem for the reviewer, in that the content is unrelentingly revealing. I have hundreds of quotes I’d love to use (see photo) but it would be patently voyeuristic to use most of them. I feel many are statements that are Shane’s and only Shane’s to share, so I’ll quote the barest few to convey what this book is like.
There are other aspects to rawness. Shane sucks the reader right up against her skin and into her accessible regions. Unlike Nin, she describes in explicit detail (to the individual movement) a sexual life which has few bounds. Shane does touch on the relationship of prostitute to client, which is a faded echo to Nin’s theme of love, but also on sex and money and her motivations for pursuing both. And when Shane gets explicit, she brings us to a new level. For example, in mirroring Nin’s depiction of a painful miscarriage in Diaries vol 1, N.B. depicts, in horrifying detail, the aftermath of Shane’s pill-induced abortion. In this scene and many others (mostly in the first 2/3 of the book), this reader found himself appalled by what Shane put herself through. You learn the level of abuse she reveled in, the punishment her body took in pursuit of her trade, and indeed in pursuit of her own gratification. It’s real. In search of a comparison I reach for Marquis de Sade but he was a potty brained middle schooler in comparison. How can I characterize reading N.B.? Perhaps thus: imagine a clueless, “food comes from the store” type meat-eater who is forced to visit a slaughterhouse. Pretty Woman meets the Texas chainsaw guy. Reality hurts. This reader hurt, just reading this book caused my chest to ache for hours at a time. On page 179, for example, my note is ‘degradation’. Shane would laugh at that. She revels in her toughness. For example, here from p. 244, after a sexual encounter with an ‘unexpectedly strong‘ man who abraded her genitals to the point that “my jaw fell open, my brain filled with one pure soprano of pain…like an animal in a trap,” she expresses her disdain for such discomfort:
“Where do we get our ideas of sexual fragility?… Why are women assumed to be so sexually unstable as to be blown to bits by even one unpleasant encounter? The mind is strong. It doesn’t have to be cowed by an ugly touch. Why would this ruin me? How could minutes or even hours of bad sex compare to something like the loss of a loved one?…This is just a body….It’s a miraculous body but it is temporal and it is not ultimate and it is capable of healing, capable of forgetting.”
Shane can be explicit about her often painful or degrading experiences because she’s just that tough. She revels in the physical discomfort she receives, as with a particularly large client:
“There’s brutality, there’s writhing. Writhing is the sexiest verb I know. It’s so full of suffering.”
In comparison to Nin, Shane shares her experiences and emotions often undiluted by more than the faintest touch of editorial artifice between the reader and her most intimate feelings. There is conquest, sadism, masochism, despair, sadness and pathos so deep the reader is compelled to stop now and then and howl at the page. I found myself yelling inside my head, “Charlotte, why are you doing that?” and also “Why the hell are you writing about it?!” Yet there is no unifying theme. Yes, by the end she is conveying tiredness in dealing with episodic affection. She states she cannot stand the thought of being loved by a man (p. 365) and lists on page 357 a number of items which reflect (as do many other parts of her book) the loneliness and essential misanthropy she feels. Yet Shane never ties together these feelings to the fact that shortly after the events in this book, she did find love – with a man.
Why is she writing this bare-to-the-heart confessional of what many would call degradation for any dope with twenty bucks who’s wandered into Powell’s? The self-exposure would leave most folks feeling terrifyingly vulnerable. Shane is not a sentimental person. She did what she did for adventure, excitement, fulfillment. But we never find out why she shares these things that are achingly personal. Outside the book, on social media, Shane is insouciant. Here she is on Twitter responding to an encounter at a reading with a horrified (male) reader:
N.B. is not all raw. There are many passages where Shane was in an introspective mood. She always writes well, and these more poetic passages are outright beautiful. They are often melancholy and touching. But like most of the vignettes, they are disjointed. The rhythm of the book is unpredictable. Slice of life at a macro-granular level. Even when artistic, there is no artifice to bind it together. Blog to book raw.
Actually, Shane would flay the Boltons
In fact, the content that became N.B. was Shane’s blog, a place for her to vent and unload angst, anger and sadness. By making it public, she made the depiction of her life a challenge. In this reviewer’s opinion, that’s her deal. She’s throwing open the kimono, stripping off her skin, opening her body, her organs, ripping herself down to the little pink, beating primal thing that sits at the nexus of her most base emotions and saying, “I dare you to hurt me!” Yeah, she’s laid it all out. Well, almost. A few times she hints at stuff she would not write about. (I gotta think, if Charlotte Shane would not write about it, it has to be horrifying.)
This brings up the second reason why it is hard to write a review of her work: the outright challenge. Shane is extremely intelligent, loves to mock, and she messages (via Twitter and Medium) her extreme disdain of anything that men, particularly white men, think. That would be me: middle aged, white, middle class family guy – the patriarchal enemy. She’s an assiduous Googler of herself, so she’ll probably find this review. I can imagine her amusement that one of the tedious white guys would attempt to understand her book. That said, I read the book, so it gets a review.
What is the point
Why did Shane publish N.B.? Is it just to make a buck — she sold her body, now her soul? Or is N.B. a political statement? A challenge to the status quo of sex workers as comedians’ punching bags? A celebration of what she was? Maybe all of the above. It’s hard to tell, due to the lack of editorial substrate, but there are lots of hints from her Twitter stream.
There are some political and many philosophical musings in N.B., but they are scattered and the book is rife with contradictions. Let’s start off with the most profound: in this passage, she refused to write a screenplay about herself because:
“‘It doesn’t interest me at all. I can’t think of anything more boring.’ I could barely speak for all the anger gathering inside me. Sick of the suggestion that I should purposefully spread out my tired history…for palatable consumption and probably sick too of knowing it all the time...”
And yet…we have N.B. and Prostitute Laundry. With no explanation of how she went from there (anger at the thought of relating her life) to here — the ‘tired history’ spread out, in excruciating detail*, from her teenage years to her early 30s.
More unrequited contradictions: she loves what she does (p.279), it makes her sad (p. 294). Clients that fall for her are saps (p. 68), she falls for clients (p. 199, p. 212 etc.). She’s tender, a kind healer to the men (p. 144), she acts with indifference (p. 42) and anger (p. 94). Men are alright (p. 223), except when they aren’t. She doesn’t need money (p. 33 “I’ve never needed money”), but she does mention it a lot – more than big cocks and enjoying sex (and those get a lot of press). She hints at the generous sums she earns, bringing enough to three different banks that a teller thinks she’s saving for a house. (And she doubles her income later.)
Nin vacillated a lot as well, but tied together her experiences into a narrative of personal growth. Perhaps there is a message in the themes that reoccur the most in N.B. (enough that the repetition begins to wear on the reader): making money, big cocks, enjoying sex, kindness, how annoying it is that men find her beautiful.
The first three are easy to understand. Who doesn’t like money? And a big cock equals a satisfying feeling, fine. Some would be surprised by how much she continued to enjoy sex – even some of the women she doubles with appear surprised. Her kindness, her approach to understanding many of her clients and delivering the gentleness they lack in their straight life is touching and shows a generous heart. And yet, in this last theme, being annoyed by how men say she’s beautiful (she’s quite humble about her appearance and ability to enhance it via artifice), Shane brings in another contradiction. How can she understand men as much as she says, and miss this point so completely? After good sex (and Shane is clear, she’s very good at sex and the GF experience), men do tend to spout about how lovely they find their companion. It’s normal for us to find you beautiful – we look for the lovely arch of your eyebrows, the cute curve of your lips, and we ignore the faults. Hey, blame oxytocin. (You would think a pro prostitute would have researched that.) Having resolved some of the contradictions would have made the book more complete.
One thing I expected in Shane’s writing available online, and did not see, was misandry. In her edited works in various online publications, there is remarkably little misandry. It’s in her Twitter feed, for the most part, where it comes out, and there are rafts of it. So, where’s the beef in N.B.? Of all the post-its and liner notes I scribbled, ‘anger’ only shows up a few times, such as in her reaction to degradation doing webcam work (p. 141) and in being slapped or overhandled (and yet, she took work as a sub, another contradiction).
We do learn she hates more than anything the sense of entitlement men have (p. 235 – 238). That wasn’t much of a shocker. But Shane misses a point here. Her clients were paying thousands of bucks for a good time. (Shane writes of the ‘stacks of hundreds’ a guy would need to withdraw for an appointment. Cheap, she wasn’t. Check out some competitive rates here.) They are men who can afford Shane sometimes for days at a time (that’s at least $5K per day, folks), and more so, they are men that seek a ‘paid for’ relationship. Her experience is, as we statistics geeks say, a non-random selection. There were the odd sweet or goofy ones, she had some favorites. Others were CEOs, billionaires. But the vehemence with which she fumes against ‘men‘ and ‘white men‘ these days is disingenuous. Arrogance is an equal-opportunity characteristic. Assholes abound. The trick is to avoid them. That might be hard to do as an extremely high-end prostitute.
And then you read about when she accepts a john she suspects is trouble, just because she thinks she can handle him. That happens a couple times and each was a me howling-at-the-text moment. But that defines Shane: she’s was (is) looking for a fight. She thinks she’s stronger than superwoman, can take a bleeding uterus, torn rectum, bruises, abuse, stuff the CIA can’t even do to prisoners any more.
What makes Charlotte tick?
I don’t remember how I started reading Shane’s stuff online. A twitter reference most likely. Her online writing is fascinating. (Yes, I hear you laughing, Charlotte: “never in the history of the world has a man ever been ‘fascinated.'” Sure.) The stuff she wrote with editorial oversight was insightful, even-handed, generous even. It begged the question: why did this (highly) educated woman become a prostitute? This is a woman who had a bright future in the world no matter what she did. She went to private school as a kid. Her undergrad education is not clear, but she describes being in a master’s program (perhaps higher) at a prestigious school (John Hopkins is mentioned in one article). She states explicitly (multiple times) that didn’t need the money when she started in sex work – she had a stipend (from parents? grad program?), a scholarship (OK she’s smart!) and she made money lecturing to undergrads. She was set!
Broken home? Don’t go there. She described a family almost banal in its level of modern middle class dysfunction – a divorce, but still in contact with both parents. I know a lot of folks who dealt with much worse. She’s adamant she’s no broken doll who needs sympathy (more disdain for folks who think that), and that has nothing to do with why she’s a sex worker. Her decision to go into her profession was fully willful. It wasn’t without cost. She writes of her isolation during this time (sadly odd, considering that she traded in intimacy), and there are some heartbreaking passages where she is truly sad or lonely – but just as many where she’s enjoying the adventure.
What comes across is that she liked sex, the attention, the money, and she was tough enough to make it work for a decade. N.B. depicts a woman who gets wet at a rate that would make a 19-year-old gleeful (p. 15, p. 36, many others), this self-exposé (now in a second printing) is as exhibitionist as one could write, and her mentions of the stacks of bills she pulled in (tax free, of course) is one of the most consistent topics in N.B. And she revels in her toughness, marvels at her acting ability. Her life was “a really good life” (p. 279) which was “a privilege” (p. 394).
In the end, I didn’t learn as much about human behavior as I’d hoped. Not much about the men that I didn’t already know or surmise; for example, a recurring factor was wives who wouldn’t give them blowjobs, long a dominating statistic for men who seek prostitutes. In fact, we don’t really learn that much about how Charlotte has grown as a person, though there are hints in her self-conflicts. She is almost a super-hero. Maybe she is. But is she still angry? Or kind? Does she still miss the drug-like thrill ride she describes on the back jacket of the book? Perhaps Prostitute Laundry is a more cohesive book.
N.B. is emotionally wrenching; Shane clenches the reader close for a harrowing ride through ten years of a job that demands intimacy, distance, arrogance, humility, resilience and determination. If you needed a ninja-sex-assassin character for a Hollywood blockbuster, here’s your woman. She is unrelentingly defiant about her life choice, the bad with the good. In the end, I think the point of N.B. is to legitimize her decision to be a prostitute. And that has been the main takeaway for me. Although I don’t use them, I’ve long thought (since my Army days) that prostitution should be legalized and regulated, the participants protected. I’m not so sure how we’d do that, given some the experiences of this well-screened, expensive prostitute, who said “the men I see are gentlemen” (p. 275). I don’t think many women are as tough as Shane, and given what she went through at the top of the pyramid in that game, regulating the profession would be more involved than I ever imagined.
*That term is often used but rarely so apropos as in this case. Shane’s detail is often excruciating in theme, subject, and delivery.