For the release of La Fantasia di Beba, a porn for women that challenges the way sex workers were portrayed on screen in the 70s & 80s, I reached out to Isa Mazzei, screenwriter and co-creator of Cam, one of the top Netflix movies from 2018. I thought she was the perfect person to write about the narratives assigned to sex workers and she decided to write this essay.
Let’s be real. A lot of people want a sex worker in their film. It makes your movie feel edgy and cool. Risky. Sex workers are interesting because while they are everywhere in our society, we prefer to ignore them, relegate them to the margins, and speak about them in whispers. But you’re a filmmaker. You don’t listen to taboo. You’re not afraid to go there.
Or are you? Because if you put a sex worker in your movie and do a poor job representing them, all you’re doing is making their livelihood more dangerous while waltzing directly into cliché. You’re not being edgy, you’re not being risky, and you’re definitely not cool. When we make the interesting things about sex work the same things that kill sex workers, we only encourage a system that perpetuates violence, shame and stigmatization.
So let’s do better. Here’s some easy rules to follow when representing any type of sex worker in any type of media.
Don’t derive stakes from your character’s decision to do sex work.Not only does this pander to the expected morality tale of the sweet, pure, innocent being corrupted by big, bad sex, it’s also boring. We’ve seen this story a million times. We’re past it. Audiences are past it. Sex isn’t bad. Sex work isn’t bad. Find your stakes elsewhere. Your sex worker protagonist can do literally anything in the world. Don’t punish your character for their personal or professional sexual choices.
Do hire a crew that shares your vision. It’s imperative that you constantly question framing/shots/lighting/gaze. Make sure every single person on your crew is on board with engaging in dialog about how to keep your project authentic and respectful. How are you shooting your sex worker character? How are you lighting them? Are you framing their breasts without their face? Don’t force them to sexualize themselves in situations where they wouldn’t perform sexuality. What about nudity? Forcing actors to be naked when they don’t want to be is not only unethical, it also shows. When an actor feels uncomfortable, they look uncomfortable. Make sure the nudity is coming from a place of character, not from a place of wanting to make your film “sexy” or “flashy.” Gratuitous nudity and objectification isn’t edgy, it makes for reductive, simplistic films.
Don’t rely on stereotypes. This one is pretty self explanatory. The stripper with the heart of gold? Nope. The single-mother call-girl who only works to pay for her son’s tuition? Nope. The disposable sex worker whose death is a simple plot point to bring us to the real victim (usually a sweet, chaste innocent)? Nope. The sex worker who gets gruesomely murdered by a client? Nope—this only normalizes violence against sex workers and paints them as victims that need saving. Don’t save your sex worker from sex work. Don’t use your sex worker as an object to be killed off or as the butt of a joke. Find something new, and honest, and real. Sex workers are human. Many of them have families and spouses that are supportive of their careers. Just like you wouldn’t write a chef and just imbue him with all the characteristics of Chef Boyardee, don’t do the same to your sex workers. A sex worker’s entire identity isn’t just sex work. What else makes your character your character?
Do listen to actual sex workers. Everyone likes to refer to their “one friend that stripped that one time” or their “crazy night at Sapphire Club Las Vegas” and use that to justify their portrayal of sex workers. That’s like saying I know an uber driver so I’m qualified to write about NASCAR. If you want a film that feels authentic and respectful of sex workers, you need to be authentic and respectful of sex workers. Hire sex workers that work in the world that your movie takes place to help you with your project. Ask them questions, and listen to their answers. They know better than you. Trust them. Also, pay them. Just like you would any other professional you’re hiring to consult on your project.
Don’t exoticize, glamorize, or victimize. Sex work isn’t easy. And it’s harmful to portray it as an industry where simply taking off your top will make it rain. If you’re making a character a sex worker to glamorize them, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re making a character a sex worker to make them exotic, you’re doing it wrong. Sure, parts of sex work can be glamorous and exotic, but for the most part, sex work is work. It’s a job. Make sure the job-y parts of sex work are included in your movie. If your sex worker is a survivor or has a substance abuse problem, make sure you understand the interaction between those life experiences and their job. One does not necessarily beget the other. One does not necessarily negate agency in the other. No one type of sex work is inherently better or more respectable than another. All sex workers deserve respect, from the person selling $900 photos of their feet online to the person standing on a street corner trading sex for survival.
Do humanize clients! Consumers of sex work are pretty much anyone—yourself included. Judging or painting sex worker clients as “creeps” is also cliché and inaccurate. Most adults consume sex work in some form or another, from porn to strip clubs to those .gifs on Reddit you check on your phone while standing in line at the airport. If you need a client as an antagonist for your story, make sure they’re the antagonist because they does something actually wrong, ie, crossing a sex worker’s boundaries. Clients should not inherently be bad characters just because they consume sex work. Portray respectful clients, who listen to boundaries and pay up-front. This is the behavior we need to be normalizing.
Don’t yuck anyone’s yum. Kinks, fetishes, the way you might get slightly turned on when you floss your teeth too hard––everyone gets turned on by different things. And, as long as you have consent and are not harming anyone, all turn-ons are totally valid and okay! If your sex worker engages in kink/fetish play, or if their clients do, respect that. Don’t use kink and fetish as a way to shame, judge, or signal to an audience that a character is “bad”, “weird” or “creepy.” And, as usual, ask questions of people who engage in that kink. And listen. You’re going to learn something.
Do pay attention to how your project is marketed and spoken about in the press. Because we live in a world that stigmatizes sex work, many journalists, marketing heads and that-one-guy- with-the-loud-opinions at your production company are all going to want to portray your sex worker character in problematic ways. Your job isn’t done when the movie is. Make sure that everything, from the posters to the headlines to the film festival blurbs are vetted. Make sure they treat your character with respect and dignity. Call out inappropriate questions and correct journalists seeking out sleaze or stigma for clicks. Make sure they aren’t using slurs or offensive terminology. It’s 2019. We are better than this.
Sex workers run their own businesses, creating intimate, complex brands that wield everything from social media marketing to promotional photography to networking at events. Sex workers are entrepreneurs, and struggle against terrible discriminatory laws and banking practices. Sex workers have always been on the cutting edge of society. Want to know where technology is headed? Look at porn, which predicted both the film industry’s shift to VHS and its move to streaming video. It’s time that media representation of sex work become equally as cutting edge––that it does justice to the achievement, sacrifice, and passion that sex workers exhibit every day of their lives. It’s not that hard. And the best part is it makes for a great story that feels fresh, real, and interesting.
If you haven’t watched Cam yet I highly recommend it! It offers an honest depiction of sex work and introduces audiences to the world of camming. Alice, played by Madeline Brewer (The Handmaid’s Tale), represents the passionate drive of the women making their living through online sex work.