Reviewed: Bella Green, Happy Endings, Pan Macmillan; Rita Therese, Come, Allen & Unwin, 272 pp.
We’ve come a long way in the representation of sex work in Australian literature. In 2016 Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) programmed a panel comprising anti-sex-work campaigners to discuss the ‘devastating impact of prostitution’ without any actual sex workers present.1 And I remember—as a closeted sex worker wanting to be a writer at the time—watching the sex-worker community call this out, while for the most part people in literary circles did not seem to notice or care.
But thanks to the efforts of sex-worker organisers in so-called Australia, things started to shift. In 2019 Rita Therese was on the MWF program talking about her debut Come (2020), a beautifully written and darkly funny memoir about sex work, trauma and grief. Soon after that Bella Green published Happy Endings (2021)—a candid, hilarious memoir told through linked short stories about different points in her life, including her career in the sex industry: starting in peepshows at 18, to being a stripper, dominatrix apprentice, brothel worker and private escort.
For a long time, sex workers have been shown as either the powerless, trafficked victim (or, worse, as the unnamed dead woman of a lazy subplot) or as the empowered secret-diary-of-a-call-girl goddess, who lives in designer stilettos and eats caviar when not fucking millionaire men. But neither of these facile depictions represents most sex workers’ experiences.
What is refreshing about both Happy Endings and Come is that they are written by regular working-class queer women who neither demonise nor glamorise sex work. Rather, they show it for what it is: labour. In these books, sex work is simply the job these women do as part of their lives.
These forthright looks at the realities of sex work will surely be elucidating for many non-sex-worker readers: yes, hookers do kiss. No, it’s neither the most degrading nor the most empowering job in the world. Some of the men are fine and some are the worst. Sometimes the sex is good, sometimes it’s bad; mostly it’s boring. These books include the token, intended-to-shock, ‘so-what’s-the-weirdest-thing-you’ve-ever-done’ brown shower story: Green gets the runs on her client who acts like a baby about not receiving his dream shit; Therese recalls watching a client cleaning up her faecal remains, melancholic that his fantasy was over. But, as Green writes, the sex is not usually the most interesting part of the work; ‘it’s the scrap [the workers] had over the hair straightener that’s the real story’.
Happy Endings is really funny. Green is a trained comedian and natural storyteller, with a keen eye for humour in even the darkest moments. Her cool, no-bullshit voice shines throughout the book. Green captures archetypal details of the brothels she works in, artfully weaving them into piquant scenes: the brothel manager’s passive-aggressive written signs to the ‘Ladies’; the sea sponges on hand for periods; the one black dress allowed per shift; the professional shoplifter who visits the brothel to sell the women their pre-ordered Aesop products.
In one of the funnier stories, the brothel is taken over by a group of baby queer hookers—gender studies students in Kill All Men T-shirts—whom Green dubs the ‘Empowerment Squad’. They wear mismatched underwear and don’t shave (‘and that’s how you can tell they don’t need the money’) and break every rule and tradition of the brothel: disrespecting older workers, lecturing everyone on identity politics, stealing food and clients and ‘treating hooking as a novelty part-time job for cred in the queer community’. A veteran sex worker hisses, ‘Back when I started, all the dykes found out I was a prostitute and shunned me.’ It’s an important reminder for all sex workers—especially those who are newer and/or more privileged—to remember what has been endured and fought for, and to show some respect.
Some of the clients are more memorable than others: there’s one who requests a Christina Aguilera album be played throughout his booking. (‘It’s my favourite, he says.’) Another client comes to see Green just before his court appearance to smoke ice and fuck, in what turns out to be one of the most funny and tender stories of the book—they connect over a shared childhood trauma, and he texts her afterwards: ‘even if I don’t go to jail, u really gave me a good night’.
But for the most part the reader is reminded that, at least for Green, sex work can be just as mundane—and just as tough—as any other customer service job. At various points Green leaves the industry and works in cafés and call centres, only to experience worse working conditions (‘I had the same requirement of being nice and on my feet all day, but for $10 an hour’). At one stage, after a brutal experience stripping, she even tries on a SWERF-y identity, deciding that sex work is exploitative: ‘I’d mistaken the fact that stripping was not for me with the idea that stripping should not exist […] until I realised that my call centre jobs felt just as exploitative, but the feminists didn’t care about that.’
In Come, too, Therese never glosses over the more horrific experiences she’s had on the job as a topless waitress, brothel worker, private escort and porn actress. ‘We weren’t always going to be safe,’ she realises while working a bucks party. But these moments show the horrors not of sex work but of male violence—and the need for better working conditions.
These writers never feel the need to prioritise the oft-perfunctory lesson that everyone should respect sex work as work, or hold a reader’s hand through sex worker 101 politics; it’s simply assumed that one has the basic idea, or will soon. Equally, it’s clear that both writers speak only for themselves and their own experiences of sex work—rather than for all sex workers—and they’re stronger for it.
Happy Endings also gives glimpses of a painful childhood, gently showing the aftermath of childhood trauma—especially the enduring imprint of feeling ‘bad’ or different to others. Green recounts being kicked out of home at 16, getting herself a social worker and a commission flat and having to learn quickly how to survive by herself. She battles ‘the constant hangover of a childhood void of love, a life of living payday to payday without a safety net or family home to go back to’—something most of her peers can’t relate to. There is something about being a sex worker or being heavily traumatised that instantly places you outside the category of ‘normal person’, and Green details her search for belonging throughout the book.
In one chapter, Green recounts studying to become a paramedic at TAFE—wanting a career change to impress a ‘normal girl’ she has a crush on who she assumes ‘would never date a hooker’. One day another student in Green’s class proudly announces that her parents are paying for her tuition, joking that ‘otherwise I was gonna have to become a stripper!’ and everyone laughs. Meanwhile, Green is working at the brothel to pay for her studies. This moment reminds us that at least in the ‘civvie’ (civilian) world, being a sex worker is still seen as a joke and a last resort.
Throughout Happy Endings, however, Green is fearless in her retellings and never judges anyone more harshly than herself. A lesser writer could have easily painted herself as the victim of others, a potential trap in any memoir, but Green is sharply self-aware and doesn’t shy away from noting her own self-seeking or paranoid moments, making Happy Endings all the more genuine and moving.
Therese has a similar ability too, writing powerful, heart-wrenching scenes in Come with both grace and frankness. She recalls fleeing domestic violence and client assaults, and survives unthinkable personal tragedies. At one point, in a line that’s since stuck in my brain, Therese writes: ‘I can’t believe you managed to come out of that, people would say to me. It’s unusual to have one older brother commit suicide, let alone two within an eight-month period. I smile and say, I didn’t have a choice.’
Come is mostly written in the present tense, with certain scenes fragmented or looped in the same way Therese’s traumatic memories play out in her brain as if they’re still happening; harrowing moments interrupt and spill into scenes in the way intrusive memories and thoughts do. I remember a review criticising the book for being jumbled in structure, but it wasn’t hard to feel oriented in Therese’s emotional world—I didn’t need to know the order of events to be impacted by her story. I also don’t think it could have been written in any other way. ‘Here the timeline begins to get confusing,’ Therese writes towards the end of the book. ‘I can’t remember […] here are the fragments.’
Happy Endings is written in a similar fashion—vignettes are organised in a non-linear way, but feel effectively ordered; they nod to each other and build into something meaningful. Between more playful vignettes, space is left for readers to fill in the blanks and realise that painful things happened to Green.
Some of the tougher accounts venture into mental illness and self-harm, including a stay in a psych ward over Christmas. But the reader is never left in darkness for long; painful moments are frequently pierced with Green’s crackling humour. Humour is of course a survival tool for many people living on the margins, and I don’t know many hookers who aren’t also really funny.
I’m not suggesting all sex workers had bad childhoods or are necessarily traumatised, but people who do what others see as being the worst possible thing they could do for cash often have something in common. There’s often a higher level of intimacy and solidarity created between sex workers compared to other professions: ‘a profound kinship and sense of belonging, a rare and valued feeling when you’ve got used to being the outlier’, Therese writes. In Come, she recalls a porn shoot gone bad: she masturbates on a swing set by a lake, missing her lines and falling off into the dirt, becoming increasingly upset by a pissed-off director. There’s a sweet moment between her and the gay make-up artist (‘Oh, honey […] Fuck Director X’); after the shoot, the cast and crew eat together on a picnic table, feeling like a strange, close family.
In one Happy Endings vignette, Green falls in love with Laura—a goth trans woman from a regional town, a fellow sex worker who also survived a tough childhood. There’s a rare and easy understanding between them and they create their own new family together. In another, Green and a friend become ‘bonded by sex work and suicidal ideation’, taking turns caring for each other. After looking for a sense of home in all sorts of places, it is with other sex workers that Green feels she most belongs. She goes back to the brothel, ‘back to my fellow weirdos and misfits. I was sure that I belonged there now.’
Some of the most moving moments in both Happy Endings and Come happen between mother and daughter. Green receives a phone call after years of estrangement where her mother tacitly acknowledges for the first time things that happened in Green’s childhood; Therese and her mother reconnect on a walk in the cemetery to visit Therese’s brothers’ graves. This was when these books hit me the most: small moments showing women trying their best; women surviving.
Allow me some sentimentality: while others will surely read Happy Endings (and Come, to a certain extent) as a dishy romp about sex and sex work, I read it as a love letter to ‘the other misfits in life, sex workers and […] other people so loaded up with childhood trauma that regular life doesn’t fit anymore’. These memoirs feel meaningful to me because they say it’s okay to be a traumatised hooker, and that it can even be a shit-hot club to be in rather than a shameful one. They say that we need to love one another when others fail to see, understand and love us. But it’s also just cool to see the realities of sex work, trauma and drug use represented and written well by people who have experienced them. It’s cool to see sex-worker writers coming out and saying, hey, we deserve a place in literature too, and we should be the ones to write these stories and to write them well.
I think it’s possible for other writers to do justice to such stories, but there’s often an odd taste in the mouth—at least for me—reading thematically similar stories by writers whose lives seem so far from what they’re writing about. I don’t agree a writer’s identity is more important than their work, or subscribe to the condescending notion that a book written by a hooker is automatically important or genius—and there are admittedly books by sex workers I do not personally think are very good. I note this because I do think, if anything—as Oliver Reeson recently wrote in the Sydney Review of Books on how books with trans characters are so often poorly reviewed—these new books by sex workers deserve to be regarded as literary works.2
I was disappointed but not surprised when I noticed that Therese seemed to be reviewed more for her moral choices in Come than for her prose. I barely saw any note of Come’s balance of bluntness and non-flashy lyricism, or the way she captures her small joys and various workplaces—like this moment in a Western Australian brothel: ‘I watch the sun rise over the red earth, pouring pink and gold through the eucalyptus and scrub. I take my heels off and hike up my Lycra dress and begin to clean my workroom. I play Fleetwood Mac and hum along as I empty the condom bin and strip the sheets from the bed.’
Therese has an ability to write throat-aching moments of grief, followed by belly laughs in singular sentences, but this was never mentioned in any other reviews. And I am yet to see Happy Endings reviewed at all.
• • •
In 2019 I watched a panel of sex-worker writers talking about their craft at the National Young Writers’ Festival. Sitting on the floor of the crowded art gallery I felt blood buzzing down my arms, waiting for someone to say or ask something fucked—but no-one did.
It’s exciting to witness this shift and to see more sex-worker writers emerging. Collectives such as the Intro Room are putting on storytelling events to introduce new sex-worker voices, especially those who might be more marginalised and silenced. During the pandemic, these events have gained a renewed sense of urgency as they also act as fundraisers for sex workers who have lost access to work and income. I can only hope that the publishing industry remains open to those stories too, and for all sorts of sex workers writing all sorts of works.
Underneath Happy Endings and Come is a deep love for fellow sex workers, and a recognition of what they have survived. Therese ends her acknowledgments ‘to all the sex work and queer activists—the people who made it possible and paved the way for a hooker like me to write a book’, and Green gives thanks to ‘sex workers everywhere’. As she writes, ‘we are the best and most resilient people on the planet’. •
Millie Baylis is a writer and arts worker, living in Melbourne/Naarm. She writes fiction, memoir and commentary, with work in Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue and Overland.
- Kate Iselin, ‘Sex workers are not invisible. We are just being ignored’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2016, <https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/sex-workers-are-not-invisible-were-just-being-ignored-20160726-gqe52k.html>.
- Oliver Reeson, ‘Not who but how’, Sydney Review of Books, 2021, <https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/silvey-honeybee/>.