"God’s Callgirl" by Carla Van Raay, 2004
Review by Candi Forrest
Carla Van Raay spent the first 12 of her adult years in a convent, as a nun, before at the age of 34 embarking on a 10 year career in the sex industry. While the title of this book focuses on the ‘convent to callgirl’ theme, the book is actually a comprehensive autobiography of a Dutch-Australian woman, incorporating much more than her convent and sex work years. This chunky book is composed of 3 parts. Part One details her traumatic early childhood and very strictly religious family life, the period of her childhood in Holland, the migration to Australia as a girl and her introduction to convent life as the daughter of the resident gardener. We don’t even begin her postulancy as a member of the Faithful Companions of Jesus until Part Two. The glimpse inside the convent is fascinating and she relates well her perpetual difficulties with obedience, silence and sexuality. Part Three starts with her leaving the convent, so if you are mostly interested in the sex work memoirs you’ll be disappointed. I wasn’t. Although the book is a tad too detailed, it was interesting enough to keep me reading but there was little that I could really relate to because I am a very pragmatic and not at base a very spiritual person. Throughout Van Raay is concerned to maintain the theme of her psychological development and her continuous search for spiritual transcendence is always present. She spent most of her sex work income on alternative therapies and New Age workshops.
I was fascinated with the moral transition the author makes; how does one go from devout Catholic nun to sex worker? It helps to know that between the convent and the escort agency she was married, had a child, and conducted a sexually-liberating affair. However, there is something of an explanatory deficit here. One is left feeling that the transition from extremely sexually naïve nun (at age 24 she thought that pregnancy occurred via kissing) to prostitute just isn’t fully articulated. Of course Catholic ideology and imagery is a source of much fetishism and Carla does adopt for herself a personal concept of sacred whoredom (after viewing some Medieval Italian vases depicting nuns in sexual poses), but this is some time after first starting sex work. This lack of articulation occurs again, I thought, at the period when she decides to stop sex work. Much of what is going on in Van Raay’s day to day and year to year psychology is manifested (and depicted in the book) through detailed descriptions of her health and bodily functions. While these are enlightening I would have preferred more discussion about what she was thinking, rather than how her bowels were moving.
Carla Van Raay’s sex work was conducted in a very solitary way, since she switched fairly early on from escort to private (massage focused, rub and tug style) work. She is not particularly generous in her descriptions of fellow workers and the section on her early escort work is somewhat flat. Given that she came to think of herself as a "sacred whore", though, it is understandable that she did not identify with most other sex workers, and she seems more inspired when discussing her attempts to create a spriritual sexual connection with her private clients.
Ultimately, Van Raay’s account does not end with the positive portrayal of "prostitution as sacred whoredom" that she began in part 3. Although she does not quite go so far as to totally denounce sex work she decides that it is a rather seedy exchange and not the spiritual one she had earlier believed it to be. The last section of the book rather tediously conveys her disillusion with sex work and her continuing journey to find some spiritual peace of mind. According to the spiel on her website www.carlavanraay.com she has found it; she is now celibate and in love with life! It’s a pity that to get there she had to write a book which gives more fuel to the anti-sex work ideologues, but I suppose Carla Van Raay is entitled to her own truth.
This review was published on the Scarlet Alliance website in July 2006