girls on film: sex work and the silver screen

To what extent has Hollywood’s depiction of sex-workers shaped the way we view the profession?

by Billie Brand
07 September 2015, 12:05pm

"Every hooker that I ever speak to tells me it beats the hell out of waitressing," says Harry Block to his prostitute Cookie in Deconstructing Harry. Fictional it may be, but there could be some truth behind this Woody Allen quote. Students are increasingly turning to sex-work for extra cash, a three-year study conducted by Swansea University found that 5% of students work in the sex industry while 22% have considered it. And although Amnesty International have voted for decriminalising sex-work, the industry is still met with negativity and discrimination. "Sex workers are one of the most marginalised groups in the world, who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse," explained Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International in a recent statement. It might be the oldest profession, but the fact remains that sex-workers face significant prejudice for their line of work. Often associated with drugs, violence, sleazy strip clubs and women working street corners in teeny-tiny skirts and patent platforms, you have to question what's to blame for our sex-negative society's opinions on sex-work. Is it that our society simply censures people -- especially women -- who have lots of sex?

Whether we like to admit it or not, our perception of the real world is distorted by fiction and since the cameras started rolling, sex-workers have stripped and teased cinema goers. Let's not forget the film industry is one dominated by men, so it's no surprise that the on-screen sex-workers usually serve the male gaze. Throughout Hollywood's history, sex-workers are often portrayed as unattainably beautiful women -- for instance True Romance, Pretty Woman, Sleeping Beauty, Taxi Driver, Belle de Jour and Risky Business -- and it seems they're split into two categories: the demonised and the glamourised.

Let's start with Sleeping Beauty, where Emily Browning stars as Lucy, a student/high-class escort. In this beautifully directed twisted fantasy, there is no happily ever after. For each session, Lucy sips her tea laced with sedatives and then falls into a deep sleep, so wealthy, elderly men with erectile dysfunction can fondle her as she dreams. "Match your lipstick to the colour of your labia," instructs her Madam before her first customer. It's more eerie than erotic. Her financial struggles might parallel with those that students have in the real world, but in Sleeping Beauty no penetration is permitted by these big spenders. The focus on millionaires and mansions may glamourise sex-work to some extent, but pretty Lucy is emotionally scarred when she finds a client has died on the bed next to her during one of her slumbers.

One of the most disturbing depictions of sex-workers on screen has to be the final scene in Requiem for a Dream, when Marion turns to prostitution to fund her heroin addiction. This problematic stereotype that sex-workers are victims is one of the main reasons that the negative stigma has lingered. As a crowd of suited, rich men shove money in Marion's mouth, they chant "ass to ass" as she double teams a dildo with her co-sex-worker. Darren Aronofsky's direction is so dark it's depressing and uncomfortable to watch.

Alternatively, on-screen sex-workers opt out for a happily ever after. "I want you to know that I'm not damaged goods. I'm not what they call Florida white trash. I'm a good person and when it comes to relationships, I'm one hundred percent... monogamous," says the ever-so-cool, giggly blonde, Alabama to her future husband Clarence in True Romance. She's so bad-ass and so excellently dressed that the film stylishly sells the life of a call-girl. As does Pretty Woman -- possibly the most famous flick on prostitution of all time -- which has previously been criticised for glamourising sex-work. Vivian goes from her street corner in trashy thigh-high boots to a five star hotel, designer dresses and Richard Gere.

25 years on and an article titled "Think the fantasy of prostitution in Pretty Woman is harmless? Think again" was published on the Australian women's website Mamamia. Featuring images of sex-workers who were either drug-addicts or battered and bruised, the author criticised Pretty Woman for glamourising the sex-industry with its fairytale ending. In backlash, Sydney-based sex-worker Tilly Lawless posted a snap of herself smiling on Instagram with the hashtag #facesofprostitution, which then went world-wide as sex-workers all over the globe combined the hashtag with selfies to protest against assumption that all sex-workers need saving.

In The Creation of the Patriarchy, historian and author Gerda Lerner writes: "The division of women into 'respectable women' who are protected by their men, and 'disreputable women' who are free to sell their services, has been the basic class division for women." Her theory can be applied to these on-screen sex-workers who either manage to redeem themselves through a romanticised journey of marriage and motherhood -- like Alabama and Vivian -- or they're too emotionally numb and damaged by their chosen path of sex-work that their futures are too bleak for saving -- for example Lucy and Marion.

In 2015, the portrayal of on-screen sex-workers are changing. One of the most accurate portrayals has to be Sean Baker's superbly directed Tangerine, which features glittering performances from trans actors Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, who play African-American trans sex-workers Alexandra and Sin-Dee. Spending time working with Mya, Kiki and women who worked the corner in LA's unofficial red light district, resulted in a magically honest and charismatic representation of the chaotic lives of sex-workers. It depicts the harsh realities with humour and sass, and his film doesn't make the audience demonise or glamorise the sex-workers -- instead we empathise.

How can we prevent the discrimination of sex-workers in future? Sean Baker put it perfectly in an interview with i-D. While he's referring to American trans women of colour, his statement can -- and should -- be applied to all sex-workers: "This film just being one of many stories that are being told that will hopefully work towards change. And I think the change has to come about from people who never thought they'd have any sort of connection to people from the world that I was focusing on -- trans women of colour who have had to resort to sex work. My hope is that audiences in suburbia USA will connect with the characters of Alexandra and Sin-Dee, and that they then get on their computer and Google and start to learn more. That awareness will hopefully lead to acceptance."

sex work
billie brand