I’ve decided to go for a controversial choice. Scarlett O’Kelly’s Between the Sheets (Penguin Ireland, 2012) is an account of a middle class woman’s year spent as a high-class escort. The book has caused quite a stir in recession hit Ireland, with reactions ranging from outrage to censure to disbelief. The book has hit a nerve with people, who, like Scarlett, are lumbered with huge mortgages, negative equity, increasing taxes and a decreasing job market. The writer nominates herself as a spokesperson for this generation:
‘Ireland was lifted to dizzying heights during the boom years, but now we’ve been dashed hard on the rocks. I think people feel it socially and personally – like we’re all little wrecks, washed up and with no prospect of being repaired’. (129)
Between the Sheets is not high literature, but it is a political memoir. At a time in Ireland where prostitution is increasingly seen in essentialist terms as victimising women, this book argues that escort work can be empowering and enjoyable. Scarlett is pragmatic about this:
‘I think of it as a normal job where you have your professional self and then your weekend self. If I’d been any other committed responsible professional from Monday to Friday, would you have expected me to feel guilt if, on Saturday, I wore a mini dress, drank ten cocktails and had a one night stand with a stranger? (158)’
She points out the hypocrisy in a society where licentious sex is now the norm but prostitution is stigmatised and written about in a sensationalist manner. Scarlett is unafraid to be provocative, speaking explicitly about her sexual encounters with clients and her own sexual desires, with a chapter dedicated to advising women on sex toys. This is an important feminist book for modern Ireland, which challenges the sanctimony of a country where the law continues to criminalise women involved in prostitution, punishing those society deems to be ‘victims’ of prostitution. Scarlett of course acknowledges the terrible crime of sex trafficking as a separate issue, but her sex-positive approach and argument for the legalisation of the sex trade provides a refreshing read.
‘I don’t think the world – certainly not my world – is ready for the escort who enjoys what she does and makes it work well for her. Most people either couldn’t believe it or wouldn’t want it to be true because it would challenge their notions of women and female sexuality. (242)’
I advise you all to read this book, and let it challenge your assumptions about modern prostitution and the men who use them. This book deserves to win the Pineapple Prize because it is brave and feminist, and very much a part of the zeitgeist.
Cat McGurren, Queen’s University Belfast