Jenny Hedley reviews Body Shell Girl by Rose Hunter
Body Shell Girl
by Rose Hunter
Reviewed by JENNY HEDLEY
I first encountered author Rose Hunter late in 2020 when I wrote about the decade I sold lingerie in strip clubs, hinting at but not claiming my own experience on the pole. Rose called me out on social media, furious at seeing ‘yet another conversation go by about sex workers, without a sex worker in it.’ She wrote, ‘My experience comes not from strip clubs but other areas of the sex work industry.’ I replied, ‘In truth, I have been on that side of the curtain, on your side and in various places in between.’ We had each outed ourselves on a platform that never forgets.
We were stepping into an unknown space, fraught with doxing and trolls. As Dr Brooke Magnati of Belle de Jour renown explains, ‘Having been a sex worker at any time in your life strips you of any other permissible identity and defines you absolutely. It makes you open to ridicule, regardless of your credentials in any other sphere in life.’ 
Unlike cyber bullies hiding behind avatars, Rose’s criticism of my essay was thoughtful. We slid into each other’s DMs, sparking a friendship divided by politics, bound by commonality, and sealed with an agreement to disagree. ‘It would not be sustainable at all for the war machine if everybody ended up respecting all points of view,’ writes Sand Talk author Tyson Yunkaporta . Instead of sticking our heads in the sand, Rose and I began to engage in rhetoric that is trauma-informed, based on deep listening.
When I say I love Rose Hunter’s memoir-in-verse Body Shell Girl, which chronicles her first two years as a full-service sex worker in Canada, I say this in spite of the cover blurb being written by the director of the Nordic Model Australia Coalition, which seeks to criminalise sex workers’ clients. (More on my decriminalisation stance later.)
In the tradition of Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem or Anne Carson’s ‘The Glass Essay,’ Rose Hunter takes us on a narrative journey in Body Shell Girl, proving that poetry need not be esoteric to be coded with feeling and meaning. She flirts with high and low-brow culture, crafting stanzas with artistry and care, like where she circles an ad for ‘Masseuses wanted! / $$$ / cash paid DAILY’ (3).
it was my hand that held the pen
I watched it join the curved edges of the line
a tiny red moon formed
which I smudged into a red comet (5)
In the first of three sections, as Rose stumbles into the massage parlours of Toronto to pay for film school, she meditates on her ‘freakish inexperience / for the ripe old age of twenty-five’ (8), hinting at her asexuality and hoping that ‘maybe this strange gig would cure me’ (22) and that ‘everything would be different / in my life from now on’ (14). We witness the one-sidedness of a client’s desire through language that is lyrical and lush—
my cheeks a rising warmth
his face a clearing house of amaze
seashells rattle-pulled with the retreat of a wave (14)
—contrasted with an uncanny detachment that results in a carnivalesque portrayal of her clients’ bodies. We witness a man like a ‘floppy white seal’ guiding her hand ‘to this gelatinous part of him / like a small pink sea cucumber // how strange how strange how strange’ (15).
Rose’s lack of self-worth and history of disordered eating follow her into the industry. The binge–purge cycle is captured in exquisite, painstaking detail—‘the teeth-grabbing heaving / the warm mouth-filling gushing’ (33)—in ‘Hungry Ghost Poem,’ which is the most visceral, arresting and relatable account of bulimia nervosa that I (also a recovering bulimic) have read.
Men who for sure ‘had more than two hands’ (29) and men with ‘hands like feathers / that felt like tarantulas / or tonnes’ (41) grope at Rose in poems like ‘This Gets Messed up Pretty Quickly’ and ‘Rick,’ as she appears to watch her body from outside of herself. Hers is a dissociated ‘bird’s eye view’ (25); she is both there and not-there, a sensation which is visited upon us by her prose.
think of my body as a shell
that I could vacate, not as metaphor, or symbol
but as real possibility (42)
Last year I’d been reading Katherine Angel’s powerful work on consent, where she describes how current models of desire view sexuality as a trade-off, something exchanged for intimacy at the risk of being devalued . I’d messaged Rose, ‘After being used and discarded so often by non-paying men who only valued me for my body it was like, fuck it, may as well get paid,’ and Rose responded, ‘An exact line in one of my poems.’
In this poem, ‘In Dreams I Can’t Remember, Imagining a Better World,’ Rose is sexually assaulted on a public bus, an experience to be categorised under—
as I called them, filed away as one-offs
(one one-off strange occurrence after another) (39)
—in which case she ‘may as well get paid’ (40).
The second part of Body Shell Girl takes place in Vancouver where Rose finds only brothels instead of massage parlours. ‘Red Velvet Suite’ is a haunting story of a client who refuses Rose’s ‘no.’ In earlier versions Rose had ‘added two men, added roofies, you know / to make [the rape] not my fault’ (68).
Common rape myths imply that a woman should sustain injury and at least shout for help in the struggle to escape her attacker, as Dr Jessica Taylor writes in Why Women Are Blamed for Everything . The statistics disprove this rape myth: the most common response to sexual trauma is the freeze response, the victim unable to respond.
Over DM, Rose recalls how writing ‘Red Velvet’ tied her in knots, because she only really ‘recognised it as actual rape halfway through the writing (about 20 years later).’ When we’re unable to process our assaults in real time, we repeat our trauma through dangerous situations, trying to find another way out. Rose and I each lost ourselves in abusive relationships. Writing has been our escape.
The most terrifying poem in the book is ‘Gravel,’ where Rose hitches a ride with a ‘man in a mesh cap with a green fish on it’ (84) to sneak across the Canadian border after a disastrous attempt to renew her visa. This man says, ‘You realise no one knows you’re in this country?’ (91), crushing Rose’s giddiness into fear as he veers off the main highway.
Rose portrays this scene methodically, titrating between corporeality and headspace. An accomplished poet, Rose gives us a reprieve from narrative tension as her mind drifts to film school, before unleashing a cacophony of thoughts: reasoning, negating, self-talk (‘he’ll show you some duckpond or whatever’ (94)) then overarching terror as he cuts the engine and
clinked like champagne toasts then clackety-tack
of the door opening (94–95)
‘Gutter trash,’ (96) he tells Rose.
The final section of the book sees Rose transform from naïve to ‘a knower of truths // like what was really behind those offices / and suits and pretty words men said to women / whomp-da-whomp’ (133). Rose summarises the trajectory of her healing journey between 2008 and now in the epilogue, where she describes feeling dehumanised by the industry.
‘The dehumanization of sex workers can render us impossible to victimize, or else it can render us the ultimate victims,’ writes Natalie West in We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival . West stresses how seeing sex work as work means workers may be ‘seen as laboring subjects in need of rights, not rescue’. In the introduction to We Too Selena the Stripper describes how anti–sex work feminists co-opt sex worker’s stories, pigeonholing them into the role of victim. Even though Selena experienced sexual assault, she says it doesn’t give anyone the license to take away her workplace, her means of support or her financial independence.
Former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant discusses how when anti–sex work reformers ‘rescue’ sex workers, what they’re really doing is disciplining them, setting them ‘back into their right role as good women’ . This enforcement of what Jill Nagle calls ‘compulsory virtue’, which is ‘a mandate not only to be virtuous, but also to appear virtuous’ further entrenches the whore stigma . When sex work is driven underground, it inherently becomes more dangerous.
The anti–sex work response to these arguments is always: WHAT ABOUT THE TRAFFICKING THE MINORS THE DRUGS THE MURDERED PROSTITUTES. But when I speak about sex work I am speaking of consenting adults who choose their profession. I am not speaking of child sex abuse or forceful coercion that occurs at all levels of society, from church to boardroom, when I talk about sex work. These crimes are symptomatic of a society that has malfunctioned.
Even though Body Shell Girl is being marketed as a cautionary tale against sex work, I see it as a horror story about what it means to inhabit a woman’s body under patriarchal capitalism. Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday studied the matriarchal society of the Minangkabau and found it was virtually free of rape and intimate partner violence . We should learn how to replicate this lack of violence instead of re-victimising people who consciously choose to trade in sex. Because so long as women ‘are trained to believe it is next to death to be mistaken for [a whore]’, writes Melissa Gira Grant, ‘men will feel they can leave whores for dead with impunity.’
1. Magnanti, Brooke. The Sex Myth: Why Everything We’re Told is Wrong. Hachette UK, 2012.
2. Yunkaporta, Tyson. Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. Text Publishing, 2019.
3. Angel, Katherine. Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent. Verso Books, 2022.
4. Taylor, Jessica. Why Women Are Blamed for Everything: Exposing the Culture of Victim-Blaming. Hachette UK, 2020.
5. West, Natalie and Tina Horn, editors. We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival. The Feminist Press, 2021.
6. Grant, Melissa. Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. Verso Books, 2014.
7. Nagle, Jill. Whores and Other Feminists. Routledge, 1998. Taylor & Francis Group, https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203700655.
8. Sanday, Peggy Reeves. Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. Cornell University Press, 2002.
JENNY HEDLEY’S writing appears or is forthcoming in Cordite Poetry Review, Red Room Poetry, Diagram, Scum Magazine and other publications. She was a participant in the 2021 MAD Poetry workshop and writes about domestic violence and mental illness from a position of lived experience. She lives on unceded Boon Wurrung land with her son. Visit her website