The Manhattan Madam
by Kristin Davis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Manhattan Madam / B001RCTA1A
I picked this book up after seeing an article about it what it says about Eliot Spitzer; I thought it might be interesting to read what appeared from the sample to be a sex-positive exploration of the sex industry from the point of view of a high ranking madam.
In that respect, the book doesn't disappoint. There's not a lot of explicit sexual details in this book, as Davis states that she did very little actual sex work herself and instead handled the marketing, phones, and other details of the business. But what she does dive into is fascinating and detailed; the reader gets walked through the ins and outs of marketing sex work, how to handle impatient and powerful men who don't like to wait even a few minutes for their 'date' to get to their home, and all the behind-the-scenes details that went into building Davis' lucrative sex empire from the ground up.
If there's a failing here, it is perhaps how detached Davis sounds from the sex side of the business. She has a lot of negative things to say about most of her workers, and the reader may feel torn between sympathy for Davis (who is being flaked out on by her workers in many anecdotes) and sympathy for the nameless, faceless workers (who are 'flaking out' because in many cases they are struggling with debilitating drug addictions). There's a point in there somewhere where, sex-positivity or not, it all starts to seem very sad. Davis is clear that she walks each of her employees through an orientation and explains that sex work isn't all dates and chaste hugs like in the glamorous portrayals in movies, but it's clear that for at least some of her employees, they held out a painful hope that it could be.
Probably the thing I enjoyed most about this book was the frank exploration of the johns who frequented Davis' business, though of course all of them (except Spitzer) have been given aliases. It's interesting to see how ridiculously demanding many of them were, and how Davis built her business by providing the emotional side while her workers handled the physical side. Davis rents cars for her clients, arranges their schedules for them, texts reminders to them, and takes their calls all hours of the day and night so that she can provide them charming conversation and soothing reassurances while they men wait for their "girls" to arrive. In return, more than a few of these ridiculously rich and powerful men try to coerce the girls to do unsafe or unwanted acts, or try to weasel out of paying the agreed-upon fee. To Davis' credit, she stands up numerous times for her workers, choosing to blacklist sketchy or coercive clients at the first sign of trouble rather than let her workers operate under unsafe or uncomfortable circumstances.
"The Manhattan Madam" is an incredibly quick read, weighing in at 112 pages on my eReader. I enjoyed the book, and the fast and breezy tone made it easy to whip through. Davis is pretty clearly in favor of legalizing sex work, and she makes a compelling case for it through her personal experiences, and it is deeply fascinating to see her side of the business close-up. Having said that, I'm not at all certain this is worth the (current) high price, but I would recommend checking it out at a library, if you can find it.
~ Ana Mardoll