These guys. Their sex is the most boring.
That’s why they are bored.
50 Euro is a new collection of verse and prose from Irish writer Karina Bush, published by the Canadian indie BareBackPress (who I’ve encountered before). The book contains about 100 pieces (by my count, not the contents’), which range in length from less than a sentence to a couple of pages, all of which deal with the same topic from the same perspective: the sexual encounters of a white, non-trafficked, woman working as a prostitute in the red light district of Amsterdam.
These pieces are highly sexualised but rarely sexy, even when the sex they’re describing is sexy for the man, the john, engaged in the act. The performative and repetitious nature of sex work is documented in detail, and it is this – the similarities between all johns – that is the powerful core of the book. 50 Euro is not so much “anti men” or “anti sex” or “anti men who use sex workers”, it is more “anti repression”. The johns are almost all repressed in their own individual ways, their desires are broadly similar. They want to feel like successful lovers, they want to feel desired, they want to feel like their cock and their come is wanted by the attractive young woman they’ve paid for company, and a lot of them get off, too, on paying that money for the privilege (“His eyes excite, come alive when I take his money – this is what he goes to work for” from ‘Touch Their Gold”).
The hint of violence – a common occurrence in literature about sex workers – is only present in the now of the pieces once (“There are two types of men. / Those with self-control. And those without.” ‘Sadface’.), though several johns have scars, and the sex the narrator enjoys the most seems to be the most aggressive, the most animalistic.
These are poems and stories about power as much as sex, and we are regularly invited to laugh at the johns, from the book’s dedication (“For john”), past the one sentence pieces (“Quan from Vietnam – 10 seconds”, “Vanni from Milan – car noises”, “john from Germany – come back”) and into more comical longer pieces, such as ‘Haribo Paul’. ‘Haribo Paul’ is about a newly-retired man who asks for gelatinous sweets to be eaten off his condomed dick, then announces that he will soon be travelling to Cambodia: “With some Haribo I’m sure”, thinks the narrator.
As well as humour, there is darkness, especially in the projections the narrator imagines for her johns outside her room (one piece, ‘Little ChickenBurger’, sees an old man forcing his uncomfortable wife to engage in sex while unhappily dying (is “unhappily dying” a tautology? No, but it’s probably a good title for something)). In ‘Superman’ we witness a bullied groom on a stag party who does not want to have sex with the narrator though she is happy to tell his friends that he did; in ‘Ultraviolet’ we see her engage in an enjoyable fuck with a man: “We do it properly. / No condom. / The world starts to sparkle.”
Throughout 50 Euro there is a complex and engaging attitude to sex and sexuality evoked, which I – as a deeply repressed man – cannot understand. (I’m so repressed I once went to a doctor to ask why it sometimes hurt when I ejacultated and was told that it’s apparently a common occurrence in repressed men, caused by being too physically tense during sexual contact. I didn’t get any advice on what to do differently and am no closer to a sexual awakening than I was then. Lolololololol.)
50 Euro appealed to me (in spite of my inability to empathise with the experiences of either the sex worker or the johns – other than the stag who preferred playing with his phone to playing with a sex worker’s body) because of the way it presents sex, as something unrefined, something unsexy and something deeply animal and deeply human. This is a book that looks in brief detail at lots of similar interactions, where money is exchanged for sex, sometimes with the hope of purchasing intimacy too.
Sex is, so often, something that people do against or to other people, rather than with, and in these encounters with a sex worker that distinction is important. If the john’s fantasy includes the pleasure of the sex worker, that will be faked, but if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter; what matters is the paid fantasy, the paid need, the paid desire. The fucking and sucking and everything else isn’t intimate, it often isn’t erotic, but it fulfils an erotic function in the mind and the life of the John. It is one-sided sex, where one side is required to provide an erotic service, and usually expected to imply they find enjoyment in giving that service, too. Maybe all sex is transactional, maybe all sex involves a shift of power and a shift of desire, and in this collection it is male desire we are regularly asked to be amused by (understandable because male desire is often amusing).
I’m not a sex expert, but I enjoy literature about sex that is graphic without being erotic (I used to write some myself), also literature about sex that chimes with my own feelings that most erotic experiences are deeply, deeply regrettable. I enjoyed 50 Euro, despite being too repressed to ever engage, from either side, with the transactions described in the text. It is funny, it it sometimes harrowing, it feels realistic and frank and I – a sexual naif though not a books about sex naif – would recommend it.