In mid-August I was randomly checking my Twitter feed and I noticed a significant amount of my brothel colleagues enraged over a recent episode of the Showtime series, Ray Donovan. In the episode titled “Las Vegas” some of the main characters find themselves headed to a legal Nevada brothel after one of the characters had an encounter with a prostitute who ended up stealing a precious ring from him. Two of the main characters pose as a couple who are wanting BDSM services from said prostitute. They end up tying the working girl to a chair and threatening her with extreme violence if she does not return the ring. The working girl tells them where the ring is and the two characters leave the brothel. Many of my fellow coworkers in the Nevada brothels were discussing how the episode was not an accurate portrayal of first, working girls in brothels, and second, what the brothel experience is like when a client comes here. I, myself, was also enraged and disappointed in the show’s writers for representing sex workers as thieves and dishonest human beings.
Negative or inaccurate portrayals of sex workers and sex work are not new in the entertainment business. I’ve taken the time here to go through what other tropes Hollywood likes to put on sex workers and why these tropes are a problem to us and our industry.
Damsel in Distress or Needing to be “Saved”
(Examples – Pretty Woman, Moulin Rouge!, or really any sex worker character in a movie that does not have feminist ideals)
The damsel in distress trope is often put on women in Hollywood movies. Women in most societies are seen as the “weaker” sex and “need” strong, brave men to save them from the struggles of life. Unfortunately, our society also sees sex workers, especially prostitutes, as the ultimate damsel in distress situation. This is because there are many people who don’t believe that sex work is an occupational choice that women can make with a sane mind. We are labeled as women who choose sex work because we are damaged, weak, or desperate. This is certainly not the case at all for many women who work in the Nevada legal brothels. I personally chose this job because it allowed me to fund my undergraduate education without working a 40-hour work week in an office. Now, I have stayed in the business for going on five years while currently pursuing graduate school because it gives me the flexibility I need. I have also learned through this work that I adore and appreciate all the connections and intimate moments I share with my clients. There are so many women who love their sex work occupations, and Hollywood has a hard time showing that with any prostitute character. A lot of us don’t need or want to be saved at all.
Hooker with the Heart of Gold or “Tart with a Heart”
(Examples – Pretty Woman, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Moulin Rouge!)
Sure, we all like movies where the characters are lovable and charismatic, but the problem with movies that portray a prostitute as being the Hooker with the Heart of Gold is that it sometimes comes across as a perspective of sex work that has been shown through rose colored glasses. Whether it’s because the main character falls in love with the client, or there is never a hard day at work, or the work is all glitz and glamour, this is not always the case for sex workers. Furthermore, the characters are shown as soft and good-natured women, but not necessarily strong women. They are often times shown as not being able to defend or take care of themselves. Most women I have met through this business are very liberated and self-sufficient women – that’s why we like this job because it allows us to be independent contractors. Hollywood depicting female sex workers as only having those stereotypical female characteristics (such as nice, kind, soft, warm), is a disservice to all the strong and independent female sex workers in the real world.
On Drugs or Sells Services for Drugs
(Examples – Requiem for a Dream, The Basketball Diaries)
Drug addiction is a serious problem all over the world, but there are many Hollywood movies that showcase sex workers having a drug problem, whether they are main characters in the movie, or just background characters. It’s a nasty stereotype that drug addiction and sex work go hand in hand. I am not trying to claim that there are not women (and men) in this industry who have addiction problems, but most research that is done on drug use in relation to sex work is done using data collected from street work prostitution, which only makes up about 10% of all types of prostitution (others being brothels, agencies, independent escorts, etc.). The drug addicted sex worker trope is not only disrespectful, but Hollywood should aim to break away from something that is terribly overused.
Sex Trafficking or Sex Slaves or Underage Sex Workers
(Examples – Taken, Taxi Driver, Blue Velvet)
There is a moral panic about sex trafficking in the United States right now. While sex trafficking has always been an issue, there is a societal focus on it currently because of media attention. While I and many other sex workers care about this issue deeply (I participated in anti-sex trafficking movements and organizations for a whole year in 2016), many feminists, media outlets, and anti-prostitution activists do not differentiate between forced entry into prostitution and women who have chosen this line of work with complete autonomy.
Unfortunately, Hollywood has followed this path in the past by choosing to focus on women characters who are either forced into prostitution by being kidnapped, women who are actual “sex slaves” not by choice, or under-aged girls who are engaged in prostitution. In a Nevada legal brothel, the ladies have to be over the age of eighteen, and in some counties twenty-one. We are only sex slaves if that is a part of a specific roleplay fantasy that is agreed upon by both lady and client, and we are certainly not forced into doing this by anyone, since we are the ones who have to sign the paperwork with our own signatures. Furthermore, there are many documentaries about sex trafficking that is happening all around the world, and while I agree that we should all be educated on what’s going on around us, even when we are not affected directly by it, I wish there were more documentaries on the positive side of sex work. Instead of showcasing prostitution as only something ugly, bad, and evil, there should be equal amounts shown that tell the stories of the women, and men, who thrive in this line of work.