Love for Sale

Sex workers on film, from fallen women to anti-bourgeois rebels
by Richard Porton  posted December 10, 2009
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“In various sex worker communities, one of the major points of discussion is how we’re represented” in films and popular culture, says Carol Leigh, the woman who coined the term “sex worker” in 1978 and the director and founder of the San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Video Festival. "Since many people think there are links between representation and criminalization and policing, we’re actually hypersensitive.” During a recent telephone conversation, Leigh explained that her festival was intended as something of an antidote to misrepresentations of sex workers that proliferate in the mainstream media and Hollywood cinema, as well as to provide a context to “critique these representations within our own community.”

Unlike other ethnic or sexual minorities that remained more or less invisible in films until fairly recently, sex workers, particularly prostitutes, have been front and center as protagonists in movies since the inception of the medium. From the silent era to the present, female prostitutes have been visible as protean figures that inevitably reflect contemporary mores and fashions (apart from notable exceptions such as Midnight Cowboy [1969], and My Own Private Idaho [1991], male prostitutes are considerably less conspicuous in the commercial cinema). Far from being an unproblematic, unnuanced stereotype, the prostitute protagonist is an inveterate shapeshifter who, depending on the vicissitudes of film history, surfaces as either fallen woman, lethal seductress, generous nurturer, audacious rebel, or brain-addled drug user. In ways that are both unexpected and occasionally disturbing, prostitution provides something of a master key for unlocking the cinema’s tendency to alternately enshrine, fetishize, and demonize nearly all female protagonists. In his comprehensive 2006 survey, Marked Women: Prostitutes and Prostitution in the Cinema (University of Wisconsin Press), Russell Campbell identifies “fifteen recurrent types and three common narratives” that emerged after 10 years of intensive viewing of prostitute films from disparate eras and national cinemas. To cite two disparate examples from Campbell's typology, there is an enormous chasm between the "siren" figure, who lures respectable men to their doom in such films as Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930) and the "comrade" archetype, "valorized for her defiance of bourgeois mores."

For sex worker activists with an interest in film culture, removing the “stigma” traditionally associated with prostitution is a central concern. Yet, given the muddled legacy of prostitution on film, many cinephilic sex workers recognize that rehabilitating the celluloid image of their sisters is not simply a matter of negating a reactionary past and substituting outmoded clichés with “sex-positive” narratives and refurbished heroines. Despite rightfully decrying the time-honored Hollywood tradition of fallen women who become irrevocably tainted or doomed by rejecting home and hearth and embracing “the life,” many current and former sex workers evince a great deal of affection for some of the more vibrant and less moralistic portrayals of unabashedly “happy hookers” that have enlivened films over the years. Lottie Da, for example, a sex worker and co-author of Bad Girls of the Silver Screen (Carroll and Graf, 1991) pays exuberant tribute to “vamps, flappers, and dance hall girls” (often euphemistic terms for prostitutes) in her documentary adaptation of her book, Starlets, Harlots, and Hollywood. In addition, Leigh points out that Pretty Woman (1990) continues to be the subject of much internal discussion within the sex worker milieu. Even though orthodox feminists railed against Pretty Woman for promoting demeaning stereotypes, many sex industry veterans preferred its glossy twist on the Cinderella myth to the naturalism of Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls (1986). As Tracy Quan, an ex-call girl and author of, among other best-selling novels, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl (Crown, 2001) and Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl (Harper Perennial, 2008) explained some years ago, “Where Working Girls tried to debunk some popular fantasies about prostitutes, Pretty Woman popularized the fantasy of many a real-life working girl.”

Of course, films featuring effervescent hooker protagonists such as Pretty Woman and Blake Edwards’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) stand in marked contrast to, in Campbell’s words, “the sheer volume of films in which prostitute characters meet an untimely death”—a phenomenon he ascribes to the “cultural expression of a deeply rooted male hostility toward women.” Sex worker activists, however, are currently preoccupied with a more insidious, and superficially more “liberal” set of stereotypes: what Leigh terms the “conflation of trafficking and prostitution”—in other words, the blurring of boundaries between a coercive activity (trafficking) and voluntary sex work in various documentary and narrative films of recent vintage. Carol Leigh, for example, bemoans the fact that a recent anti-trafficking documentary, Justin Dillon's Call & Response (2008), includes what appears to be news footage of an American massage parlor, thereby giving the false impression that all Asian sex workers are sex slaves. Fiction films like Marco Kreuzpaintner’s Trade (2007) use an anti-trafficking agenda to recycle xenophobic fears concerning immigration. Within Trade's pulpy narrative, Mexico becomes the primary source of sexual slavery. Like the anti-porn crusade of the ’70s, this strand of the anti-trafficking crusade (sex workers are of course vehemently opposed to bona fide sexual slavery) reunites old strange bedfellows: fundamentalist Christians and mainstream feminists.

In a cinematic landscape where moralistic takes on prostitution still abound, Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience (2009, now available on DVD) represents a distinctly different tradition. More enamored of the Godardian tendency to employ prostitution as a metaphor for the consumer society, Soderbergh’s stance evokes Godard’s argument, as captured in a debate between the director and Jean Saint-Geours, a bureaucrat from the French ministry of economics and finance (which appears as an extra on the recent Criterion disc of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, 1967) that Paris had become an “enormous brothel.” Yet while Godard’s Marxism encompassed a full-scale assault on the inequities of capitalism (Godard remarks to Saint-Geours that advertisers should be deemed pimps and consumers labeled prostitutes), Soderbergh’s identification with his prostitute heroine is less ideologically driven and more straightforward.

In a clever bit of stunt casting, Soderbergh cast porn star Sasha Grey as a $2,000-an-hour call girl who snags clients through her website. Supremely self-conscious, Grey appears to channel her own interest in literature and art cinema (she once toyed with the idea of taking “Anna Karina” as her porn nom de plume) into her role. Just as the film relishes the house-of-mirrors paradox of a performer associated with one aspect of sex work impersonating a participant in another branch, its nonlinear narrative, which alternates between pseudo-documentary and faux-confessional anguish, invites viewers to reflect on Soderbergh’s sometimes coy efforts to convince us that modern sexual commerce is being authentically depicted. Similarly, Grey’s unemotive performance as Christine, aka Chelsea—her pseudonym as a working girl—successfully distances us from the script’s leisurely plot twists.

Since The Girlfriend Experience takes place against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential campaign and concurrent financial meltdown, a certain ambiguity arises concerning whether Soderbergh is merely invoking high-end Internet prostitution as symptomatic of an illusory economic bubble that finally burst during the film’s production. Any Soderberghian stabs at political commentary remain more or less opaque and, on the DVD’s commentary track, the loquacious director confesses to Grey that he is primarily fascinated by the romantic possibilities of “making out” with a call girl whose eagerness to simulate the circumstances of a real “date” has been made more feasible, or so he claims, by the sexual networking promoted by the Internet. In certain respects, Soderbergh’s empathetic depiction of upscale commercial sex coincides with sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein’s conclusion that contemporary prostitution, instead of being synonymous with mechanical, alienated sex, suggests “a reconfiguration of erotic life in which the pursuit of sexual intimacy is not hindered but facilitated by its location in the marketplace.” In a similar vein, the academic Laura María Agustîn summarizes a current consensus among researchers that “diverse services...replacing traditional street prostitution that offer “the fantasy of sensuous reciprocity’’ actually share a certain kinship with “helping professions” such as psychotherapy.

Many ex (and “out”) sex workers embraced The Girlfriend Experience with restrained enthusiasm. Writing for Black Book, journalist and former escort Melissa Gira Grant admitted that the film’s verisimilitude convinced her that Grey “must have spoken with escorts herself to prepare for her first mainstream-ish feature.” (In the DVD commentary, Grey confirms that she consulted with call girls—one supposedly in business solely for the money and another who maintained that she enjoyed the sex the job required.) In a far-ranging telephone discussion, Tracy Quan, the novelist and Daily Beast columnist, proved considerably more ambivalent about the film’s homage to the not-so-dangerous liaisons of the Internet era. A fan of romantic comedy who “worships” Audrey Hepburn, Quan complained that there was “not much to laugh at” in The Girlfriend Experience (she tabulated two laughs during the entire film). Quan also challenged the film’s implication that the so-called “new intimacy” of commercial sex in the age of the Internet results in greater autonomy for sex workers:

Who says you’re more independent as a call girl? You’re more bourgeois. This trope of equating upscale hookers with independence has to be approached with a sense of humor....It means you have an enormous nut to maintain every month. You have to spend an enormous amount of money on your appearance and your clothes. How does that make you freer? It’s just a different lifestyle. People who work out of a trailer near the side of the road, and I’ve known people who do that, are actually more independent. It’s funny that people who consider themselves so edgy become lily-livered cowards when it comes to prostitution. If Soderbergh’s sister was a prostitute, this is the kind of prostitute he’d want her to be: a college girl hooker.

Soderbergh’s waggish decision to cast ex-Premiere critic and blogger Glenn Kenny as “the Erotic Connoisseur,” an online prostitute critic with a sneering attitude to rival Addison DeWitt’s (or John Simon’s) venomousness certainly yields, as even Quan concedes, one of The Girlfriend Experience’s more amusing interludes. On one level, the Erotic Connoisseur’s scathing dismissal of Chelsea’s “flat affect” was almost certainly intended to deflect critical denunciations of Grey’s performance. (Unfortunately, this stratagem failed miserably; a wide range of critics eventually found fault with Grey’s lack of affect.) From another vantage point, the absurdly smug hooker connoisseur reflects Soderbergh’s own distaste for inflated critical self-regard—especially since many of his recent films have received lukewarm critical receptions. For Quan, this sort of critical abrasiveness also mirrors her frustration with the online culture of commenters, the often irascible participants in message boards whose vitriolic posts are the stuff of nightmares for many journalists.

As sex workers have become more immersed in their own form of identity politics, the call for “self-representation” inevitably embroils activists in the same debates about political correctness that bedeviled other racial and sexual minorities in previous decades. At a panel discussion held in conjunction with “Pay as You Go,” a recent evening of sex work shorts and videos, sponsored by Brooklyn’s ambitious “Union Docs” series and curated by Audacia Ray and Sarah Jenny Bleviss, the panelists’ insistence that sex workers should create their own agitprop to counteract mainstream bigotry reminded me of Robert Stam and Ella Shohat’s observation in Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (Routledge, 1994) that “issues of self-representation are…fraught with personal and political tensions about who speaks, when, how, and in whose name.” In addition, there is also the question of whether the injunction to create “positive images” of sex workers is simply a pragmatic political and aesthetic strategy or an overly didactic ploy that can sanitize as much as it illuminates the subculture of commercial sex.

Quite unsurprisingly, the shorts screened at “Pay as You Go” were a mixed bag. A few brief, extremely well-intentioned documentaries resembled the same kind of activist journalism one also encounters in nonfiction films emanating from anarchist collectives or the anti-corporate globalization milieu. The more intriguing work combined sassy defiance with a playful aesthetic stance. Jean-Michel Carré’s Sex Workers (and Proud of It) included testimonies from French prostitutes who assessed the merits of their profession with whimsical philosophical aplomb. Damien Luxe’s video Workin Girl Blues wittily compared the respective merits of “straight,” respectable jobs and well-paying, if underground, sex work.

In the final analysis, it is impossible, and unnecessary, to choose between the occasionally distorted, if occasionally entertaining, view of prostitution served up by Hollywood or art cinema and the earnest, if intermittently humorless, activist films and videos produced by sex worker activists. As Quan remarks, a preoccupation with the quandaries of popular culture’s representation of sex workers is “inevitable”; it is both important to be “suspicious of political reactions to art” and “unsophisticated to look at art as if it has nothing to do with politics.” One might also add that there is no such thing as linear progress in art, especially film: retrograde depictions of prostitutes will no doubt continue to coexist with movies that exemplify a saner and more tolerant view of the oldest profession. 

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THE AUTHOR

Richard Porton is one of the editors of Cineaste in New York. He is the author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination (Verso) and the editor of two forthcoming anthologies, On Film Festivals (Wallflower Press) and Arena 1: Cinema and Anarchism (PM Press).

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