is cinema finally demystifying queer sex work?

After decades of misrepresentation, movies like 'Sauvage' are finally getting to grips with the nuances of an occupation dismissed as seedy and exploitative.

by Douglas Greenwood
27 February 2019, 8:00am

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

In the opening scene of Sauvage, a 22-year-old queer sex worker named Leo is splayed across an examination table being prodded and probed by a man we assume is his doctor. “Breathe in, mouth open,” he commands, before asking Leo to strip naked for further inspection. It all seems normal until the doctor’s professional facade fades: foreplay ensues, and a short time later Leo is accepting a wad of cash from a man whose fetish he’s just catered to.

There’s no shame in the exchange, instead there’s a kind of mutual, carnal beauty to it. As Leo heads for the door, the “doctor” asks a question most people in his field hear: does Leo kiss his clients? “Yes,” he replies, “[but] it has to be natural.” Even when sex is solely a transaction, Sauvage’s protagonist seeks pleasure and satisfaction in it too. That feels so rare in depictions of sex work on screen.

You don’t need to look back far to see sex workers in movies and television -- whether they’re queer or not -- being used as sign posts for seedy behaviour and nothing more. For decades, they’ve been parts of a backdrop; a hint that the viewer is about to enter into a shameful and oppressive underworld. “The first instances of me seeing queer sex workers in the media were when gay male prostitutes were introduced as a joke in a TV show,” Fawn, an 18-year-old non-binary cam model tells i-D. “When I was growing up, they would joke about arresting gay prostitutes.”

Of course, there are elements of that discomforting, semi-cliched underworld present in Sauvage -- a film that tells Leo’s story as he tries to run away from it. But it’s there in almost every film that are part of that subgenre (Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin included); the trick to success is navigating that space respectfully. In the case of Sauvage, sex work is seen as both a trap and a release. As much as Leo wants to escape, as a young man separated from his family and friends after becoming an addict, where will he find that potent connection if not with a client?

To date, the interpretations of queer sex work in movies have been cursory and oversimplified. Mainstream cinema has a habit of painting queer -- particularly trans -- sex workers as lowly figures with no agency over their own bodies. You can see that in films like Dallas Buyers Club, the AIDS drama in which the only visible trans woman is Rayon, an HIV-positive sex worker whose addiction to drugs, paired with her illness, kills her. It was a performance that (controversially) won Jared Leto an Oscar, and palpable proof that queer sex workers’ stories are only interesting to the moviegoing public when their life is shaped by suffering; when the risks and realities of HIV or hardship makes these stories interesting to those who haven't lived that experience. That’s something Fawn has taken note of too: “They end up falling into the trope of being either someone who’s battled addiction or abuse, or as the butt of a joke,” they say. To see one thriving or living a “normal life” is far less common. But that’s a stereotype that contemporary cinema and television is starting to shed.

20-year-old Elin has been an online sex worker since the start of the year, and her first fully formed exposure to queer sex work in the media came via the Golden Globe-winning sci-fi series Orphan Black. In it, a gay artist named Felix plays the sidekick of the show’s rebellious cyborg protagonist, Sarah. At just 23, he’s her trusted voice of reason. He also happens to be a sex worker. “I have friends who watched the show and missed the fact that [when he had sex with other men], he got paid for it,” Elin says. “It’s a very small part of his character, and there are more important things about him, like his art and his relationship with his family.”

But while Orphan Black and Felix successfully detach the sex worker from the human being who exists, fully formed, outside of their occupation, there’s another film that pushes the conversation forward in a different manner. Sean Baker’s Sundance sleeper hit Tangerine adds dimension and livelihoods to trans sex workers: people who are so often reduced to mere statistics. Released in 2015, the film follows Sin-Dee and Alexandra, a pair of transgender sex workers who, after Sin-Dee gets cheated on, band together to track down the shitty ex-boyfriend that wronged her.

Even though he’s a gay man unlike the movie’s lead characters, Bruce, a London-based fine art student who funds his degree through sex work, still thinks that “it’s an important movie for [him], because it focuses on the friendships you make with other queer sex workers, and the support that comes with it.” It’s a comedy, first and foremost, but gets to the heart of how important alliances are in the sex work industry. “It’s a different kind of alliance that’s never really spoke about,” Bruce adds, keen to stress that he uses his own art as a medium of expressing that same unsung message, calling it “a beautiful support system that we all need”.

While solid representation of queer men and trans people in sex work is, generally, on the rise, there’s a strange gap in the movie market for a film that tells the story of cisgender lesbians in the same space. Alongside trans women, they are arguably the most fetishised members of the queer community, but filmmakers seem to have ignored that need for a clearer and more honest depiction of those women.

An anomaly in the queer sex work genre, Concussion is a 2013 film about a middle-class housewife who, after experiencing a mild head trauma, decides to become a lesbian escort. Her clients are abundant, but they’re all, somewhat fantastically, femme, conventionally attractive and exclusively women. In an interview with site After Ellen around the time of the film’s release, lesbian sex worker Andi said this was the most improbable part of the film’s plot line. “There are tons of lesbian hookers, but very very few real lesbian clients,” she said. “If you see a woman, 99.9% of the time her male partner is present, and likely involved.”

It’s an example of how, despite an increasingly eclectic array of complex characters, there’s still work to be done when it comes to the stories that are told and the people who are telling them. Half of the profundity surrounding Sean Baker’s Tangerine was that he, a cisgender, straight, white man, managed to tell the stories of two black trans women sex workers so well. The most obvious reason was that his brilliant lead actors, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, did most of the legwork to make the movie fly. In a similar vein, Sauvage works because those who made it -- first time feature filmmaker Camille Vidal-Naquet and his award-winning lead, 120 BPM Felix Maritaud -- aren’t so much voyeurs, but partial participants in their own subject matter. When queer people head up films about queer people, the end result is always infinitely more authentic, simply because there’s less of an excuse for hypothetical plots or bare-faced fiction.

So with films like those attempting to demystify the lives of queer sex workers, are we on a solid path to seeing greater films about the community as a whole? “More or less,” Elin says, knowing that an acceptance of films about the queer community as a whole will help its lesser-seen subjects get there too. But that relies on one point she hopes we all remember: “It’s important for people to realise not only that we are humans deserving of empathy, but that doing sex work is not rock bottom,” she says. “There’s people who choose this career not only out of necessity -- but because they want to do it.” As soon as cinema fully captures that, we’re sure to have won.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

sex work