(REVIEW) Freedom & Prostitution, by Cassandra Troyan
Marina Scott investigates a poetics of resistance to kyriarchal systems in Cassandra Troyan’s Freedom & Prostitution (The Elephants, 2020). In doing so, Scott reveals the weft of rage and hope enacted in Troyan’s re-contextualising of sex workers and the historical and present-day structures that stand stacked against the body, teasing out textual ambiguities that teeter on the edges of what is and what could be.
[cn: sexual violence / gendered violence / murder / serial murder / whorephobia / victim blaming]
Fantasies of harm and the form it gives to desire— you question this. To drink from deleterious power and ask what can you make of me, this wreckage of attachment? Which pieces of your body reject the rest of your body? How is your body in conflict with your own politics? To stage a total revolt, completely unimpressed with social barbarity The body that eats its body
This–the image of body cannibalising its own flesh, of rejecting and dispelling its composite parts, of existing in paradoxical opposition with its own politics–is in many ways illustrative of the locus of Cassandra Troyan’s poetics. True to their academic project, which is concerned with ‘reconceptualis[ing] sex worker histories of lived struggles, not as historical moments of the past, but analytics of the present’, their lyric exists at the contested and knotted meeting of sex, capital, and the violence entailed in the categorisation of ‘woman’ under capitalist hetero-patriarchy. In the same vein as many feminist and Black feminist scholars, Troyan regards the process of citation as ‘always a world-building and political act’, recalling Sara Ahmed’s Living A Feminist Life (2017):
Citation is feminist memory. Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow.
As such, their most recent book, Freedom & Prostitution, urgently pulls together fragments. These comprise theory, political text, the horrific and often near-forgotten experiences of the sex workers murdered by the Green River Killer, which exist alongside homage-like vignettes of their personalities and lives before their deaths.
Reading Freedom & Prostitution will affect anyone who has experienced sexual or gendered trauma. Troyan’s deft ability to intersect the detailed horrors –  both archival and contemporary – of violence against sex workers with a tender yet forceful solidarity gives the collection an unflinching honesty and urgency. Calling the text a ‘collection’ seems disingenuous; it embodies more of a single long narrative piece, more a crescendo-like manifesto than a collection of dislocated or delineated poems.
For Troyan, to be seen or used as ‘woman’ (or, in other words, to enact your prescribed sex and the gendered violence that accompanies it) is intrinsically yoked to capitalism and markedly not natural. As they note in their paper ‘Sexuality and Resisting the Right’, delivered in 2018 as a part of London-based conference ‘Historical Materialism’, sex workers or ‘prostitutes’ are ‘not transhistorical figure[s], but those who have been marked as gender outlaws.’ Thus, the sex worker exists in a space of gender deviance, subverting ideas of passivity and financial dependence often associated with their sex. ‘You believe women were made to be punished, / but there is no such thing as a woman—the limits / of violence created and held within this category, / woman.’ The poet presents the image of
A flying stack of cash breeding fantasies of freedom and domination the guilt allayed in this seduction the cause and response of your femininity
There is an ambiguity here or an intentional double entendre: whether the ‘flying stack of cash’ or ‘the guilt allayed / in […] seduction’ exist as ‘the cause / and response’ of ‘femininity’ is unclear. The lack of punctuation across the lines strengthens this zeugmatic ambiguity, as either and both the ‘cash’ and guilt in seduction become a simultaneous ‘response / and cause’ of femininity. Troyan, rather than untangling these ideologies, re-tangles capital, gender, and sex, challenging the reader’s expectations regarding conventional links or taxonomies of such.
The notion of ‘nature’ is repeatedly brought under question throughout the piece via quotes from Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981) on the nature of the whore (‘The whore has a nature that chooses prostitution. / She should be punished for her nature’). Freedom & Prostitution exposes that sex is not a natural given; to become gendered within systems of capital is to be engraved or minted as a coin:
You cannot save a whore from herself, you can only see that she recuperates and fulfills the patterns graphed onto her.
Troyan consistently collapses monetary and sexual exchange into one another (‘Passing coins of spit / the sex of exchange / that aligns you […] your ass is the sun / a currency of light.’ Constructed systems of capital even surpass the materiality of the body, with ‘cash’ afforded agency, ‘command[ing]’ the air around us: ‘A flying stack of cash / commands the air / its body more material than yours’. This metaphorical yoking of sex and capital undeniably speaks to and cements Troyan’s central theme – ‘Whether militaristic, imperialistic, or carceral, the violence women face in sex work or their intimate relationships are intrinsically linked by the force of capitalism.’
There is an urgency throughout the piece – a sense of why aren’t you looking where we are, directly asking ‘WHERE are YOU?’. ‘To die tonight, to die in this bed –’ is a stand-alone line that repeatedly punctuates the text. The dash here is violent; a cutting off, an unfinished sentence, fleshed out as ‘An aporia in time—/ To be killed without the dignity of death.’ Further, these grammatical fragmentations can be seen to suggest a sense of colliding voices, which, alongside the continual use of ‘chorus’ to refer to the victims, generates the text as an inscription of their lost voices and bodies whilst gesturing toward classical tragedy.
Though toying with tragic tropes, rather than existing as a part of any contemporary canon of tragedy, Troyan’s work is cautious of antiquated texts and narratives, resisting rather than partaking in their tradition(s). They write, addressing one of the women killed by the Green River Killer, ‘Your death is not a tragic spectacle. It is a reality’, and ‘You feel the threat of narrative’. There is a sense that Troyan is highly sceptical of these fatalistic narratives owing to the dangerous patterns of expectation they generate and the gendered violence they may sanction (‘Traditions of violence / ricochet / from your body’).
In the same vein, the piece moves away from narratives that centre individuals, characterising (or even caricaturing) them as stereotypical monsters, villains, or victims. In ‘Sexuality and Resisting the Right’, Troyan speaks of a project of reframing abusers not as tyrannical, remarkable individuals, but against ‘adjacent’ and ‘collaborating social systems’. In Freedom and Prostitution, they practice this reframing, or re-membering, of the Green River Killer and his victims, describing ‘a social phenomenon / a small, familial tragedy / to say their names’ and listing each victim. This is a deliberate and indeed political act of language, chiming with a W.B. Auden quote Troyan cites: ‘The words of the dead are modified in the guts of the living.’
To say their names and refuse his You don’t want to say the soldier’s name you’ll do anything to keep it out of your mouth the name of every murderer a public fascination a site of obsession that reverberates louder than the memory of the dead “the Green River Killer” like a myth, a monster
Structurally, Troyan juxtaposes the ‘public fascination’ of these murderers against the figure of Aileen Wurnos, referred to as the ‘first American female serial killer’. We have recently witnessed the public’s unnerving cacospectamania (obsession with staring at something repulsive) with regard to the notorious Ted Bundy, disgustingly heralded for his intelligence, as well as historically within a UK context with the Yorkshire Ripper. By opening the book with Wurnos’ final interview before her death via lethal injection, Troyan frames the piece and encourages the reader to consider the gendered double-standards that infiltrate and shape the cultural memory surrounding these figures.
Parallel to concerns of narrativisation and genre, Troyan considers the shortcomings of language itself throughout the piece: ‘If you are a prostitute of the twenty-first century / metaphors are not enough’. They write
you think you might puke in your attempt to find a language without boundaries
A visceral frustration with language is evident here, suggesting a collective need for a way of speaking or expressing that is boundless, unshackled from the weighted historiographical and lexicographical baggage that words and their associations bear with them into contemporary discourse. This desire is not a new one, and of course, recalls the French Feminism(s) of the late twenty-first century – Hélène Cixous’ écriture feminine through to Monique Wittig’s revolutionary – at least within a European context – essay, ‘One Is Not Born a Woman’. However, Troyan’s work also speaks to a strong desire for destruction, as well as enacting a praxis of destruction/deconstruction. The text partakes in a destruction of systems that generate violence, with the boundaries and rules of language existing in a cyclical relation to those socio-cultural systems. Troyan has described their practice as writing ‘through constellation’, linking their form to a Deleuzian structure of ‘probe-heads’ – alternative modes of organisation for language. Essentially, they describe their work as ‘any form of practice breaking down regimes of the dominant discourse.’ They dismantle the gendered body:
The destruction of a body. A white body. A brown body. A black body. A body reconstituting its own glue, its own insatiable labors in a contract with foes that holds you beyond choice.
As the body ‘reconstruct[s][…] it’s own glue’, language, too, is stretched and twisted throughout the piece’s lists, repetitions, and mosaic-like splicing together of fragments.
The strong sense of de-/re-construction in Troyan’s work can’t help but remind me of Daisy Johnson’s ‘Deconstructing Old Stories to Tell Them in New Ways’:
I don’t want to build new rules with the debris. I only want to bring the bulldozers in again and again and again. […] I want to, somehow, redeem the ugliness of these old structures, and make something new from them.
In Freedom & Prostitution, there is a similar desire ‘to cross it all out’, and yet the piece still throbs with a particular anger (‘the weight of holding all the rage / that no one else can be bothered to carry’) and, correspondingly, hope. Troyan employs a near-identical lexis of construction, destruction, building and wrecking to Johnson, as they state:
This world must disappear without tragedy or irony fantasy not a threat but a conceptualizing force that builds the possibility of wrecking for and against itself
And, again, they bemoan the ‘old world and its codes / its blood sighs and its fractures’, insisting ‘you knew you could make a new one / and be better,’ elsewhere in the text imagining
a sublime sensation of never having to think of money again flying into the horizon until it is a mirage a fable vanishing into history
Freedom & Prostitution is not to be read lightly — Troyan doesn’t shrink away from the details and grotesqueness of violence. This being said, re(-)membering and re-narrating the lives of those lost to such violence is a crucial act in reshaping cultural memories and attitudes to sex workers within, or markedly alienated from, our communities. Troyan’s political project reverberates through the text, conveying not merely visibility or optics, but the need for ‘the abolition of work itself’, advocating ‘a world without work, without money, without gender’, and challenging us to imagine how that world might manifest.
Ahmed, Sara (2017) Living a Feminist Life. Durham, Duke University Press.
Higgs, C. (2015) What How & With Whom: Two Questions for Cassandra Troyan. Available From: https://entropymag.org/what-how-with-whom-two-questions-for-cassandra-troyan/ [Accessed 26th September 2020].
Johnson, D. (2019) Deconstructing Old Stories to Tell Them in New Ways. Available from:
https://lithub.com/deconstructing-old-stories-to-tell-them-in-new-ways/ [Accessed 11th October 2020].
Poetry Foundation. (2020) Cassandra Troyan. Available From: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/cassandra-troyan [Accessed 26th September 2020].
Troyan, C. (2020) /Freedom & Prostitution/. The Elephants.
— Reclaiming Abolition : Sex Worker Solidarity and Intersectional Organizing. In: Historical Materialism. Claps of Thunder: Disaster communism, extinction capitalism and how to survive tomorrow Sixteenth annual conference, Historical Materialism 2019, 7-10 November, London.
We Are Many. (2015) Capitalism, the Body, Struggle. Available from: https://wearemany.org/a/2015/04/catalism-body-struggle [Accessed 26th September 2020].
We Are Many. (n.d.) Sexuality and Resisting the Right. Available from: https://wearemany.org/a/2019/01/sexuality-and-resisting-right [Accessed 26th September 2020].
Text: Marina Scott