Review: Sex Money Power, by Sarah Pascoe
Sex Power Money
Faber & Faber, £14.99
Review by Shirley Whiteside
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, there has been an array of books investigating women’s lives and their experiences of sexism and misogyny, including the likes of Laura Bates’ influential tome, Everyday Sexism, and Do It Like a Woman, by Caroline Criado Perez.
Comedians have entered the fray, too, with Jo Brand’s Born Lippy: How To Do Female, and Kathy Burke’s Channel 4 series, All Woman. Brand and Burke come across like your favourite, potty-mouthed aunties offering sage advice with plenty of laughs along the way.
Bit in her second book, Sex Power Money, comedian and actor Sara Pascoe takes a more analytical approach to confront her own prejudices and ‘fear of the male libido’. Whip-smart and funny, Pascoe digests reams of research into an eye-opening journey through social, cultural and linguistic anthropology. She has an engaging, conversational style of writing and an intriguing supply of curious facts: mushrooms have thirty-six thousand sexes, a baby’s brain grows by 1% a day in its early weeks, penises are designed to remove competing sperm from females and Pascoe was once a backing singer for Robbie Williams’ musician father.
One of the big questions of this book is whether we will ever be able to escape what she calls the Conundrum of Heterosexuality, that is, women venerating status and men worshipping youth (though she carefully acknowledges that this does not apply to all).
Elsewhere, an illuminating comparison between the development of humans and apes highlights how and why certain gender roles came about; as human brains became larger, their hips became narrower and this led to babies being born smaller and totally helpless. So, a baby had a better chance of survival – sheltered from predators, enemies, cold and hunger – if it was part of a familial group. In contrast many animal species are precocial, dependant on their parents but mobile within minutes of birth.
Pascoe also poses some provocative questions around topics such as sex workers, examining her own preconceptions about them and the language used to describe them, also exploring the websites where men complain about sex workers who don’t smile enough and advise each other on the parking situation at their homes. She believes media coverage also influences the way we think about, the most infamous example being the coverage of the Yorkshire Ripper’s victims, with some being labelled “prostitutes” and others “innocent” victims. Somehow a perceived lack of innocence became justification for a lack of empathy, as if the prostitutes were complicit in their violent murder. Plus ca change, if recent media coverage of the Jeffrey Epstein affair, with its talk about “coercion” and “forced sex” is concerned.
Like many, Pascoe believed women working in the porn industry were somehow damaged and in need of rescue. What other reasons could there be for them to allow themselves to be filmed performing sex acts? This opinion, she admits, was formed without ever talking to a porn actor or researching the industry. If female porn actors are undertaking work and being paid for it, why is there such a stigma associated with women?
Pascoe uses the 1993 film Indecent Proposal, Hollywood’s idea of what happens when sex, power and money collide, as a sort of case study. The casting of Robert Redford as the billionaire who makes the indecent proposal is laughable, given his heart-throb status. Was anyone convinced his character had to pay for sex? The proposal is made not to the wife, played by Demi Moore, but to her husband, played by Woody Harrelson. The wife becomes an object to be borrowed, rented out for a million dollars, which – conveniently – will solve the couple’s financial worries. Back in the real world, Pascoe asks how poor you would have to be to resort to survival sex and looks into what sort of people take advantage of the desperate.
Pascoe covers a lot of ground in this meandering assessment of how humans handle sex, power, and money but she manages to lasso the result into a fascinating and cohesive exploration of the human condition.
While it primarily considers how women are affected by changing social mores, it is by no means an “all men are bastards” study, with Pascoe readily admitting that they also suffer from societal expectations.
The book is dedicated to Arminda Ventura, who was murdered by her ex-husband when she divorced him. Educational and highly entertaining, Pascoe’s book is a fitting tribute.