Fiona Mozley’s ‘Hot Stew’ Ain’t So Hot: Sex Work Outsiders Are Enlightened
As a feminist writer who occupies the dual domain of academia and the sex trade, in my experience, writers rarely consider the impact of their writings on the sex worker communities they write about. Women in prostitution are so hijacked by society that editors will hire lawyers to avoid legal action, but not editors from the sex worker community to ensure that the narratives and characters of sex workers that they publish are accurate. This nonchalant recklessness reflects the undeniable class brutality that underlies the argument that in the 21st centuryst-century, should write about sex work. There is an inherent problem with foreign writers, like Fiona Mozley, author of Hot stew released on March 18, 2021, who have actively chosen to take their place on the topic of sex work in the publication spaces.
Contemporary sex workers are tired of the snobbish class warfare in bourgeois academic, artistic and literary spaces. Women are so altered in society by the stigma and shame surrounding sex that privileged middle-class writers feel compelled to write about prostitutes. They do this without worrying too much about professional sex writers and the implications for the actual versions of their literary iterations.
Hot stew by Fiona Mozley is all that is wrong with the contemporary literary landscape of sex work. It is the epitome of the mind-boggling tale created by foreign writers enjoying considerable privileges; that there is room for everyone to write about those who walk our streets. Books written by strangers take up this strange space of how they think about the subcultures of transgressive people. The characters of prostitutes written by writers, such as Mozely, are strangely masculine in their aesthetic. There is an obsession with casting male gazes on the bodies of whores who trap sex workers in well-known literary representations. We think we know the lives of sex workers because we know their portrayal in art, film and media; it traps sex workers in a pathological repetition of crude representations.
Hot stew is the second book by Fiona Mozley (born 1988), a young British writer whose first novel, Elmet (2017), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The cover of Hot stew is splattered in hot pink, a nod to the tacky aesthetic of seedy Soho brothels in London, a glowing neon sign synonymous with sex work. Ironically, Hot stew criticizes the gentrifying class wars that seek to eradicate the prostitute within Soho, but the book is sold by a gentrifying visual facade of sex work. Dehumanizing stereotypically disfigured limbs of a sex worker adorn the cover, lazy artistic tropes I would expect when it comes to the visual representation of sex work in popular discourse.
I want you to consider the cover of Hot stew in stark contrast to the cover of The service by Frankie Miren, published June 21, 2021 by Influx Press. Miren, writer, journalist and sex worker, has written a book that explores complex and controversial accounts of sex work without resorting to the stereotype of a baffled body of a whore on its cover. Miren and Influx press hired a sex worker to do the cover and hired a sex worker to photograph the cover image; it takes to know one, as they say. The cover of Hot stew is a visual reduction of the 1970s feminist war on sex that portrays the sex worker as empowered or exploited. Trapping of prostituted women at age 20eThe depictions of the century’s pop-cultural art cleanse the class wars that silence sex workers and reduce prostitutes to the sum of their limbs.
Being a sex worker is notoriously difficult. This is especially difficult if you are a sex worker trying to occupy space in a publishing world, who is often more interested in the voices of strangers than in actual writers working in sex. Suddenly, prostitutes like me are curious creatures of otherness and fascination. Typically depicted as supersexual beings, nothing more than a man-made construct that exists as the absolute embodiment of patriarchal male privilege. Often reduced to just a pair of legs, not too different from the blanket of Hot stew.
There is a problem with contemporary writers, who blatantly ignore sex workers and the sex worker communities they write about. I often marvel at the mind-boggling apathy of middle-class writers towards the sex workers they write about. For example, on her now defunct Twitter account, Mozley noted that she had lived in Soho for three months, although in Esquire she claimed four months. The now deleted tweet implied that she was claiming to write about sex work, after receiving well-deserved reviews from real sex workers who had read advance copies of Hot stew. Indeed, Mozley did not contact the English Collective of Prostitutes until after a sex worker complained about the horrible prostitute signage inside Hot stew.
The inference being Mozley’s brief encounter with Soho and his momentary proximity to the lives of sex workers who work in Soho establishments, allows him to write about sex work. Unfortunately, this upright attitude makes Hot stew nothing more than a free piece of raw middle class poverty pornography. In doing so, Mozley is causing damage to real sex workers by erasing the voices of sex workers in literary spaces.
Hot stew is far from precise and is reflected in a stranger’s perception of how she imagines prostitutes. Mozley’s imaginative interpretation of the lives of sex workers translates into a missed opportunity because Hot stew failed to displace the heteronormative white western male gaze that portrays sex workers as anything other than attractive gendered women who always carry a moral message. The moral message of Hot stew is that the eccentric characters living in a Soho ripe for modernization can be sluts, and the accidental activist’s society must fight against the gentrification of neighborhoods.
The two prostitutes, Precious and Tabitha, are reduced to obvious bitch character tropes and are afraid of appearing stupid. The mundane characters of prostitutes reflect the impossibility for writers to see sex workers other than in a sexualized context. Mozley attempts to write about the forced solidarity of those who live in transgressive sexual subcultures. Obviously, Mozley is influenced by the lives of actual Soho prostitutes who struggle with the stigma, shame, violence, and endless problems of policing their bodies by the state.
Sadly, Mozley continues the tradition of sex workers as public women for public consumption. By appropriating the transgressive nature of the prostitute, Mozley has gone the mundane route by publishing a work of fiction, inspired by the real life of sex workers. Hot stew further propagates the global societal obsession and unease with sexuality. The sex worker symbolizing a paradox, possessing her sexuality while being objectified, rejected as a sexual object with notions of ostracism, shame, depression, victimization and repressed desire. Seen as the hypocrisy of respectable society, wealth, class, bourgeois sexuality and capitalism.
however, Hot stew is not the most recent book written by a foreigner, nor by a young British author who has received critical acclaim. The is a long story of foreign writers, those writers with no lived experience of sex work, writing about sex work. Matthew Sperling (born 1982) recently published a book on online sex work, a world I know well because I have been selling sex online since 2005. Viral, like Hot stew was inspired by contemporary real-life sex workers. Degenerate women like me who sell sex online through directories and social media platforms. Viral focuses on a cast of middle-class characters drawn to the dark and shady world of online escorts, the belly of the Internet. Mozley is just the latest version of the writer who views sex workers as curious beings ripe for literary mockery. Simply put, it would be nice if writers like Sperling and Mozley stopped writing and enjoying the lives of marginalized women. The service is dedicated to sex workers everywhere, I cried when I read what Miren wrote in the acknowledgments section;
“My book owes everything to the many sex workers I have known over the years; I am so grateful to all of you. I have been doing sex work in a traumatized secret for a long time, and finding out about a community was revolutionary.
Like Sperling, Mozley missed an opportunity in the book’s acknowledgments to thank the community of sex workers who inspired Hot stew; Sperling, however, at least thanked his dog.
Just because outsiders like Mozley can write about marginalized communities doesn’t mean they should. Rather, their questionable ethical approaches and jaded attitudes about writing about sex worker communities should be held to higher standards, given the devastating real-life consequences for sex workers. It is telling that Sperling and Mozley have deleted their Twitter accounts; I imagine the retreat of real sex workers angry at their literary middle-class interpretation of sex worker lives has been hard to bear.