The battle lines among American feminists over selling sex were drawn in the 1970s. On one side were radical feminists like the writer Andrea Dworkin and the lawyer and legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon. They were the early abolitionists, condemning prostitution, along with pornography and sexual violence, as the most virulent and powerful sources of women’s oppression. “I’ve tried to voice the protest against a power that is dead weight on you, fist and penis organized to keep you quiet,” wrote Dworkin, who sold sex briefly around the age of 19, when she ran out of money on a visit to Europe.
Other feminists, who called themselves “sex positive,” saw sex workers as subverters of patriarchy, not as victims. On Mother’s Day 1973, a 35-year-old former call girl named Margo St. James founded a group in San Francisco called Coyote, for “Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics.” Its goal was to decriminalize prostitution, as a feminist act. In its heyday, Coyote threw annual Hooker’s Balls, where drag queens and celebrities mixed with politicians and police. It was a party: In 1978, a crowd of 20,000 filled the city’s Cow Palace, and St. James entered riding an elephant.
At the center of this story there is a terrible secret, a kernel of cyanide, and the secret is that the story doesn’t matter, doesn’t make any difference, doesn’t figure. The snow still falls in the Sierra. The Pacific still trembles in its bowl. The great tectonic plates strain against each other while we sleep and wake. Rattlers in the dry grass. Sharks beneath the Golden Gate. In the South they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history. In the West we do not believe that anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it.
The biggest surprise in this first collection of short stories by the bestselling novelist Mark Haddon is not that he can write compellingly in short form too. The shock of The Pier Falls is in the darkness of subject matter Haddon chooses to bring to centre stage.
Babies in art mostly look nothing like babies in life. This is especially true of the baby Jesus, but also of babies more broadly, and this is true even, and maybe most noticeably, in paintings and sculptures that are, apart from the oddly depicted babies, realistic.