Sunday, July 26, 2015
Sex and Power Control in
Raewyn Alexander’s Fat
R. K. SINGH
Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad
Raewyn Alexander is a remarkable New Zealand writer. A poet, publisher, editor, novelist, an actor, Raewyn, with the publication of her first novel Fat (1996), makes a path breaking entry into New Zealand’s literary world of fiction. With her, emerges a new paradigm of women's writing, which is not anti-male, but probably indirectly pities men. Prior to her, no novelist has dealt with the issues related to both sex and drug industry, the life of men under surveillance, and woman “living off the earnings of a prostitute” (Alexander 1996: 52) with so much of boldness. Fat reveals the unexplored life in a red light district of Auckland, New Zealand. Raewyn, through her sharp vision, memory and senses, perhaps with a feigned tribulation, brings into focus something real, to expose “a world New Zealand keeps quiet about” (p. 51). In Fat:
Raewyn Alexander structures several strands of the fiction about women and men in the sex industry and its sub-culture that evoke a universal condition through their particularity. (Singh 1998)
As a sequence to Raewyn’s work further light has been thrown on the industry of sex and the life of “happy hookers,” in Being and Being Bought (2013) by Kajsa Ekis Ekman (Croft 2014). Apart from this, there are few other novels where girl power is taking on a whole new meaning in the reading world. That is to say, Raewyn Alexander has made way for subjects which are otherwise kept in darkness and hence, she may be called as a transitional author. The journey of Fat’s protagonist from Candy to Poppy, which is revealed through first person narration peel every layer of this hidden world of sex and power control. With an excellent sense of objectivity and audacity, Raewyn peeps into the psyche of women who are working as hookers, and into the psyche of men as their clients. We encounter women who are “supposed to be confused...” (Alexander 1996: 113) and who are “waiting, simmering, turning.” (p. 38), to open up. Fat paints a new silhouette of women, releasing them from the patriarchal grip. Poppy left Avondale for completing her degree, but enters the industry of sex as she does not want to go back into the “desert life in Auckland” (p. 49). Her entry to this world of sex, exposes the precarious life of women in leather high heels, their freedom and fear, luxury and austerity, security and danger, and affection and affinity. We meet women who are not only in control of their own body but of everything that was earlier under the control of men. Through Poppy, we see the world of porn parties organized by Sir Arthur, involvement of the government officials, bureaucrats in the business of sex and drug industry, the way pimps and drug peddlers work, the insight of the sex workers, the estimation of men and her understanding of fellow sex workers. Through nicknames, which are based on the client's activities on and off bed, she ridicules the men of civilized society.
Drug Industry and Politics
Raewyn’s novel is significant for yet another reason. She has taken a walk around the Auckland's red light area and drug industry, when sex industry in New Zealand was illegal and forbidden. Even after the publication of Fat most of the novels written, for instance, LaidBare (2008), Naked Truth (2012) by Rachel Francis, are based on story were women have history, addictions, bills to pay, or a situation to come out off. There are very few books out there written with a protagonist who has empowered herself through prostitution, who has been an assistant to a hooker, worked with bureaucrats, big businessmen, lawyers, doctors, judges, and yet has not had a conviction, drug addiction or gang affliction or anything else society suspects about a working lady, which in itself defines the uniqueness of Fat. Contrary to prevalent and narrow stereotypes of young, drug addicted prostitutes, most studies of sex workers comment on the diversity of those working within the industry.
Moreover, in New Zealand very little research has been conducted regarding drug use amongst sex workers, the client of sex workers and the way whole set up of the sex industry is controlled and handled (“Ministry of Justice” 2005). This study intends to investigate all that has not been done before, in terms of sex and drug industry, the psyche of hookers and their clients and the reason why women are willingly participating in this world of sex, as viewed by Raewyn Alexander. Her novel is also about choosing one’s identity, embracing one's inner strength, and do what to do, no matter what others may think or say. Even if Fat is about women in sex industry it is remarkable as they stay true to their conviction. Unlike the earlier novelists dealing with the subject the characters of Fat, or for that matter the novelist herself, do not have any moral qualms about what they do or experience.
Fat delves into women's psyche, explores their sexual power and demonstrates their ability to control. It begins with the description of the Sex industry and the ways women enslave men. At the same time, it brings to notice the dubious and precarious life of people, especially of those attached to this industry of Sex. From outside, furnished and embellished with glitters, bright colors, flowers and “neon sun” (Alexander 1996: 27) on the roof, it has a dark world inside, that “New Zealand keeps quiet about” (p. 51). This world of Sex Industry is “...like an overripe mango. You know, when the fruit looks firm, the skin tight, the colour strong, then you pick it up and your fingers sink in and a rotten smell comes out” (p. 9). Similar is this world of body. The novel exposes the bitter truth of the industry where the prostitutes are thought as “a fruit cut for eating...” (p. 52). However, it is just one side of the coin, which brings forward the point of view of the society, the customers and the illusions they remain in, where they think that prostitutes are undignified. “He” (Arthur) “... didn’t say lady, but then he wouldn’t, because Iris was a whore through and through... just that Irish wasn’t one, therefore wasn’t one either” (p. 12). While the other end comes with mockery and irony and it tells us the story from a women’s point of view working in the world of sex and drugs. It comes with a satire on the high class society and politicians, enclosed with light humor where story moves with the moment.
The novel, through first person narration of Poppy, reveals everything and everyone. Poppy, an expert on facades, is the protagonist of Fat who begins her journey as waitress, enters into the drug industry, packs wedding dresses, entertains tourists, sells dildos and ends up as a hooker, Iris’s assistant. In this journey she meets many people and lives many lives. She stands for all those new post-modern women, who enters this industry not out of pressure, violence, or economic reasons but out of boredom. As she herself says, “... I wouldn’t be back.... I hadn’t forgotten the desert life in Auckland, and how hard it was to have fun” (Alexander 1996: 49). About her job, where she lives off the earnings of a prostitute she admits, “My life is interesting... I take a day and shape it according to my wishes” (p. 82).
Poppy’s transformation from a university student to one counting condoms re-defines this industry of sex and the workers. In real life, the sex industry is said to be pretty murky world. Prostitution is therefore marginalized in most of the countries, either illegal or on the fringes of what is legal and what's forbidden. But for Raewyn’s heroine, prostitution was a ticket to the world. It empowered and liberated her. She goes with the flow and ends up juggling her life as a successful businesswoman with a career pleasing and controlling rich and powerful men. A new pattern has emerged: now hooker stories are about young women making choices that empower. It's true that prostitution has a dark and seedy aspect, but perhaps it's best looked at as a spectrum in this novel, rather than a single thing that can be Good or Bad.
The first person we are introduced in Fat is Sir Arthur, owner of factories, land and horses. In Iris’s word “an overflowing cup” (Alexander 1996: 16). Through the character of Mr. Arthur we are introduced to the world of porn parties, the drug industry, tricky attitude of women and their presentation as an “object” of entertainment and of course how sex is being used as a tool to tame men. His parties extended across the reserved country life. Blue films and snuff videos from South America covered the big screens. It sells sex. It has girls to entertain males by their performances and curves.
Next, we meet Iris, a woman with “more attitude and less personality” (Alexander 1996: 10), who fell pregnant to Arthur for security and later sold as fresh for years by Ho. Various shades of modernization and commercialization are seen through the character of Irish. She knows well, how to flatter and handle her customers.
She’s creamy, voluptuous marshmallow. It’s obvious she does something dodgy, I think. So few woman look as confident as she does. When she sulks, a real two-year-old’s pout, she crosses her arms and sinks into her chins, her breasts almost up to her face, she’s a courtesan opera star. (Alexander 1996: 104)
However, it is Ho “Auckland’s most notorious madam,” who is the real controller and the one who keeps her work and people attached to it well hidden. Her staffs enter from the back door. The house has a brass plaque carved with “LANDSCAPE CONSULTANTS. By appointment only” (Alexander 1996: 57). She serves the money men. The customers who have been visiting Ho for years, feels like home at Ho’s place, because of the environment mixed with fantasy and mess. However, her entry to this world also brings a new side of this profession. Her access to this world of Sex and Prostitution itself re-defines and lay bare the transmutation the industry is getting through. It proves the point that it's not the people who are impoverished or underprivileged enters to the world of body. Daughter of the Harbour Board Chairman, Sir Horace McLaughton, Ho was not intended to be a street girl. “Procuring women wasn’t something she did knowingly, the first time.” As accepted by Ho herself in presence of Poppy,
One of their bigwigs asked me to make a party of girls up to go out for the evening with the officers. There were all these old school friends of mine, all from good families. We dressed up and spent the night quite wild, some of us. When I got home I found an envelope on my table, from the captain. He thought I was a woman of that type, you see. Word got around the South Pacific, about this woman who could find company, and, well Poppy, the phone's not stopped ringing since. (Alexander 1996: 107)
Other important characters are Gary, who has been Irish's boyfriend for some time, and is later murdered, Henry, with whom Poppy has an affair and a child (Carson) and Harold, the caretaker of Sir Arthur. Poppy has made money by selling drug for Henry and Tama, though later Henry ends up in jail for selling drug to an undercover cop. Then we meet Rachel in a Chelsea Cafe. It is Rachel who introduced Poppy to Irish and Ho as an “asset” (Alexander 1996: 51) and to the “business of sex,” and the exploration of the sex industry, and all sort of organized crimes, control begins from here onwards.
Sex is a domain of life, theory and research, particularly in the case of female sexuality, constantly torn between danger and joyance, between objectification and empowerment. Social, gender and erotic justice have been de-constructed. In Fat we see a complete set up of sex industry. From entry of the workers to the clients, all are shown in a systematic way, every little step is organized, monitored and controlled by women. After all the “body loves routine....” (p.57). We see group of three stakeholders in this industry: those who produce a sex industry products (adult entertainment retailers, brothel owners, sex workers, porn parties organizers, strip club owners), those who consume a sex industry service (consenting adults), and those who regulate the sex industry (government and high officials). We see Poppy being interviewed before her entry to sex industry, Ho has collected every details of her and asked for her CV and passport. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a diversity of discourses on sexuality in the fields of criminal justice and social work emerged. This occurred as sex become increasingly an object of administration and management through government inquiry as well as a tool to control and procure. In the novel we have plenty of instances where this power of body and its language has been used by women. Men are flattered and lied and laughed at. The girls at work are always protected, the activity of sex inside the “velvet rooms” is always under surveillance. Fire extinguishers and cans of mace are kept under the bed to hit a trouble making man.
There’s a quick control in fear. Our clients know I’m always in the flat somewhere, anytime they start to grow fangs or they discover a carving knife in their briefcase, I’m in the room... turning into a werewolf. (Alexander 1996: 114)
That is to say, men are under the authority and empire of women’s world, where they have to follow the rules as prescribed by women. To quote, “... We pretend we’re silly girls but we're Medusa monsters and we turn men to stone...” (Alexander 1996: 53). It is in fact Poppy's job to listen out the clients, their desire for sex, monitor the client’s sex sessions on the screen, and tape their talks- it is important for every client to speak about themselves, their real identity before seeing Iris. Men have to follow each and every rule.
If they don’t stop, I make them stop and we don’t see them again. We may send their description around town. The fear of discovery stops them, usually. (Alexander 1996: 114)
Moreover, we see various tricks through which women befool men. Clothes fool people. “I’ve approached the clients in the street. With my hair down, no glasses and my severe suit cut to show my waist... I test them.” (Alexander 1996: 112). Outside the rooms too the hookers are protected. Some defense moves have been taught to them. To quote Poppy:
One of the snotty young men Iris was dealing with put his hand up my dress one day while we were waiting in a basement for the others. I had his fingers bent back and my knee in his face fast. Rachel's bouncer/ minder had taught me some defence moves. Hercules had muscles and training, he would've laughed to see the smart-arse restaurateur groaning. (Alexander 1996: 68)
The term “queer” itself defines the strangeness of this sleazy world, where the body is at the centre of everything and sex and sexuality are both rhetorical aspects of communication and power. So it is not just sex and action but also the language that is used to communicate their action and need. Irish deops cheesy hints to get what she wants.
Oh, I just adore a liqueur after dinner but who can afford it... Oh, not a present for me, how fabulous. Look Poppeee, a marvelous bottle of brandy from dear Poopsie... if i eat choccolate you know I’ll do all sorts of naughty thins, aphrodisiac... oh look, Poppeee, a sumptuous box of... (Alexander 1996: 77)
In Fat apart from this world of women power, we visualize a different world as well where, people giggle on the death of a woman, a world where women are auctioned and men “buy their kids plastic guns and laugh when little Kevin is caught throwing some girl down for kiss, all good fun and just the way it should be” (Alexander 1996: 103).
In terms of Queer theory, the physical body becomes the sight of meaning, that is the meaning that you are communicating is communicated through the body and the language that is used to present the body or the act of physicality. It’s often said that sex or, more precisely, a woman’s ability to grant or neglect it is the source of a woman’s power over men. And we see this power in hands of all these sex- workers. Moreover, so far, we have looked at various concerns regarding the wrongness involved in objectification. A number of thinkers, however, have challenged the idea that objectification is always morally problematic. Alan Soble questions the widely held Kantian view according to which human dignity is something that people have. He argues that objectification is not inappropriate. He writes:
The claim that we should treat people as ‘persons’ and not dehumanize them is to reify, is to anthropomorphize humans and consider them more than they are. Do not treat people as objects, we are told. Why not? Because, goes the answer, people qua persons deserve not to be treated as objects. What a nice bit of illusory chauvinism. People are not as grand as we make them out to be, would like them to be, or hope them to be. (Papadaki 2010)
So, in order to analyze the sexuality of consumerized society, we need to understand how consumer capitalism operates in the market. Queer theory is gendered in consumerism and capitalism. Body is expressed in terms of language or emotive. To quote Poppy:
Some customers told variations according to who they were dinning with, some embroidered a little extra with each drink. (Alexander 1996: 31)
Commercialization and Media
The commercialization of sex and drugs is probably one of media's most striking attributes. Of all these forms of new media, the internet is considered as the most addictive medium. The commercialization has always thrived on women's bodies, from skimpy clad cocktail waitress to the iconic images of show girls. Before this era of ultra modernization women and sex have always been shown as something violating, raw and angry. Although money is often the driving force, sex workers do not emphasize only the financial returns of prostitution. Interviews with women in the sex industry have revealed, for instance, that some have left well-paid jobs to work in the sex industry because it brought other benefits. Amongst those cited have been the relative freedom to work their own hours; the overall autonomy and independence they experience on the job; greater flexibility of hours to accommodate child care or study responsibilities; and the high levels of companionship they experience in their relationship with other workers. Some also mentioned the advantages of being in a position where they feel they have control over men, as opposed of being in a position where sexual harassment is a part of the terrain (“Ministry of Justice”). So for many, this world is not only for money, but for the freedom. “My various jobs before I met Rachel and Iris, didn’t stretch me at all. They were tedious and depressing” (Alexander 1996: 82)
Moreover, for many the nature of sex work promotes the development of dissociative mechanisms designed to assist sex workers’ survival within the industry. Learning how to “switch off” while engaging in sexual practices with a client is a trait which enables the worker to distance herself from the sexual acts being performed by mentally removing herself from the situation. That is when she is touched, she just feels like a piece of meat.
I guess we get conditioned... We get these imposed ideas all the time, at school, from TV, and we stop following our instincts and do so we’re told. So, soon we have no real reactions or feelings except for what we’ve been told. Operating in a void, robotic... (Alexander 1996: 46).
So, it is not the woman, but just the body with whom the client is having sex. And with this body she slaves men. “Dominica takes her slave to the leather club...She has a man in a hood chained to her wrist. He crouches at her knee like a runner waiting when Dom's still, follows her walking. The slave fetches her drinks, cigarettes and chair. He does all this silently. There's a zip over his mouth, on the hood... Dom’s a dominatrix in a dungeon, she spanks people for money, ties them up” (Alexander 1996: 96).
One of the most vexing and contentious issues regarding sex work relates to issues of power and control. It is a difficult quandary trying to ascertain the degree of control any worker can have in a situation where the client is paying money to procure services that are potentially so invasive of another person’s body and space. The emphasis on prostitution as work is one which many sex workers emphasize in order to encounter depictions of them as deviants, sinners or sexual slaves. To quote Poppy:
Outside my circle, I’m stared at or ignored. The world gets further and further away until it’s a TV show I haven’t seen and often don’t want to watch, but given time I’d fit in. The ones at the top, or who think they're king of the castle, are the most untouchable. Living with the illusion the world’s got barely enough for them and pushing people away unless they’re crown polishers, makes rulers into armadillos. (Alexander 1996: 95)
Prostitution in Fat has been presented as an organized work relation in ways it is not markedly different from how other kinds of women’s jobs are organized, particularly those of working class women.
To survive in the business and to flourish it, they blatantly use their sexuality as power. Moreover, they become skilled in the manipulation of masculine power. Female prostitution has become a situation, within the society where women have more power over men and sexual interactions than in any other circumstances involving both sex interacting. The novel chronicles the life of Poppy in different shades, and the way sex has been used by other workers including Dominica, Rachel, Celine, Athena, Billie, Kitten, Penia, Katy, Cheryl and Tamara. It represents and redefines the industry of sex from both the sides, that is from the point of commercialization and violence, freedom and anxiety, power and fear, protection and murder. It is a profession which is ignored “I think he’d (Poppy’s dad) be ashamed of me if he knew what I did and then I’d despise him” (Alexander 1996: 114), spat on and judged by the very people who seek its services; a profession that many women , including Poppy herself, entered into by choice and one that she is neither ashamed of or embarrassed about. Rather, it is their body that provides the basic of their identity and profit. The work does not define morality. It is neither supporting sex-workers nor is negating the wide developing sex industries throughout the world. It is only presenting the world of sex industry as it has been noticed.
Alexander, R. 1996. Fat. Auckland, N.Z.: Penguin.
Croft, J. 2014. Being and being bought, by Kajsa Ekis Ekman. 11 May 2014.
Francis, R. 2008. Laid Bare. 11 May 2014. New Zealand: Penguin Books New Zealand.
——. & Larsen, M. 2012. Naked Truth: Lifting the Lid on the New Zealand Sex Industry. New Zealand: Penguin Books New Zealand.
Ministry of Justice, New Zealand. Ministry of Justice - Tāhū O Te Ture 12 May 2014.
——. 2005. The sex industry in New Zealand: A literature review. 11 May 2014. Available online:
Papadaki, E. 2010. Feminist perspectives on objectification.Available online: 12 May 2014.
Singh, R. K. 1998. New Zealand Literature: Some Recent Trends. New Delhi: Bahri Publications.
M. Phil (English),
Dept of Humanities & Social Sciences,
Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad 826004.
R. K. Singh
Dept of Humanities & Social Sciences,
Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad 826004.
Published in CREATIVE FORUM, Vol. 27, No.1, Jan.-Jun 2014, pp. 17-28