This is our truth, tell us yours
Hollywood (the film industry I am most familiar with, unless you want an essay on the Chinese horror film industry, complete with bouncing ghosts) is fascinated with sex work. It seems to project its own fears, failings and blind spots onto an industry, which like it, is concerned with selling a performance. It’s the overlapping intersections which no doubt lead to so many actors being anti sex work. They belong to the industry of the casting couch, where the merest wrinkle makes you unemployable, and where your life rests on a glossy 4×4. Is it any surprise that they see sex work as the darker twin, when they are fighting with their own demons around working in a job which demands perfection and pits you against your peers in gladiatorial combat to see who is the thinnest, the youngest, the most desirable
That sex work has a far wider hinterland than hollywood, is accessible to non mainstream bodies, to older bodies, to brown bodies, to trans bodies, in a way Hollywood never is, is of course ignored. This is not to erase the very real problems, and dangers trans sex workers, disabled sex workers, sex workers of colour face. However it is a fact that you can be a successful sex worker at 60, when Hollywood is determined women over 30 have no erotic capital and must relegate themselves to mother or comedic. Sex, when it is exchanged for money, takes place between all types of people, sex when it is portrayed on-screen only takes place between those whom hollywood has deemed acceptable.
So, whorephobic actors make whorephobic films, closing their eyes, and their minds to the real parallels between sex work and hollywood. They see sex workers as the also rans, the people who failed to be them, to be glamorous enough, sexy enough, even whilst the job proves sex workers are by definition sexy enough for someone. I wonder how many of Hollywood’s whorephobes are motivated by fear, fear of the casting couch, fear of the blow job given to get a part, fear of the fact their allure and erotic capital are controlled, measured by outsiders, never their own. This fear darkens their attitude to sex work, as they project it outwards. When you have little control over how others view your sexual self, is it any wonder that you assume those who sell sexual services are also living in your darkness?
Historically of course it was a very thin line, often non existent between sex worker and actress. Perhaps in a less hypocritical era it was not considered a huge step from the one performative trade to another. It’s also the case, as I discuss here, that patriarchy has found ways to ensure that women had as little access to capital as possible. Capital brings freedom, and by designating any working women as whores then the class of women is frightened away from achieving financial, and literal, independence from men. Actresses, nurses, barmaids, flower sellers, any job we coded as female became a euphemism for sex worker. Indeed the very term “working girl” shows how historically all women who worked were seen to be suspect, tarred with the label whore, seen as unacceptable. Economic independence must be resisted at all costs.
In the race to be separated from “those” working women it seems actresses have decided that taking the line of patriarchy is the answer. So we have the likes of Gillian Anderson supporting hysterical anti trafficking campaigns and multi millionaires opposing Amnesty’s attempt to bring basic rights to some of the poorest and most oppressed women in the world.
Every so often however a film comes out which does manage to portray sex work with nuance, and some understanding that Taken is not a documentary. Usually this is more by chance than design. Either the sex worker is male (and hollywood has had a long fascination with men who sell sex from Midnight Cowboy through to AI) or her sex working identity is somehow redeemed. LA confidential is a great example of a sex worker sneaking through, however the twist is that the police are so corrupt that even a whore is ethical by comparison.
Lynne might be there to show just how low the low can go, but at least she is shown as human, more humane than almost every other character in the film, and she gets her happy ending. Its pretty much as good as it gets as far as hollywood is concerned, since death must always come after dishonour. The usual ending for the whore is for her make up to be wiped off by the coroner, to reveal the person beneath the make up, a person who can only be seen, be redeemed by their death.
Possibly the only film I have seen which fully escapes the desire to write the sex worker narrative of one of death and dishonour is Tangerine. Of course it is not a Hollywood film, even if it is filmed on the streets of LA, the streets which the anti sexwork actresses fear as a final destination. This is not the place for a conventional review, but one scene stands out for me. Alexandra is wanking a client in a car, but he can’t get hard. Her face, a face every sex worker I know has worn, she isn’t degraded, or disempowered, she just wants him to get on with it, so she can get on with her life, with the things the money will bring. It showed sex work at its most raw, in a way the most over the top Hollywood film would never dare, and it left the sex worker neither dead, or dishonoured.
Perhaps mainstream cinema can never portray sex workers as anything but happy hookers or dead victims because it would mean looking at its own darkness. Perhaps one day a film will be made which understands the fine line between fucking on film and calling it art, for money, and simply fucking for money.