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Why I'm Fed Up Of The Way TV Portrays Sex Workers

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Photo: Courtesy of House Of Cards
Last Friday, after a long week, my boyfriend and I sprawled on the sofa to eat pasta and watch TV. Scrolling through the home screen of viewing delights, I found myself veto-ing most of the suggestions. “I think tonight”, I told him wearily, “I would prefer not to watch a show in which sex workers get mocked or murdered.” That left us with very few options. Perhaps unsurprisingly, If you happen to make your money in the sex industry, a night in with Netflix can be a distinctly unchilled affair.

This may be the golden age of TV, but supposedly progressive platforms such as Netflix, HBO and Amazon Prime have yet to make any advancements when it comes to the depiction of sex workers. In the vast majority of their programming, sex workers are treated one of two ways: as punching bags or punchlines. Our lives are almost always sneered at, or pitied, or used as a symbol of inevitable tragedy.

If you’ve ever watched police procedurals, or crime dramas, or thrillers, you’ve probably been offered a salacious glimpse of violence enacted on one of our anonymous bodies. Rarely given any agency or backstory as characters, we’re merely used to demonstrate the high-concept murderous impulses of a serial killer, or treated as collateral damage in the mission to save the morally ‘good’ characters. I no longer watch shows such as Luther, True Detective or CSI. Even House of Cards, which did at least give escort Rachel a character arc, couldn’t resist the lure of the tragic ending that must eventually befall all troubled and vulnerable sex workers.

This is where we used to hold retirement parties. The balcony below is probably still littered with stripper bones

30 Rock
When we’re not being used as disposable symbols of violence, we’re normally presented as the butt of a joke. Queen of televisual whorephobia is Tina Fey, who, despite being so frequently championed as a feminist idol, litters her TV shows with constant digs about "hookers", "strippers" and "whores". These range from the basic conceit of "LOL, this respectable person has been mistaken for a prostitute, how AWFUL!" to the more pervasively violent misogyny. “This is where we used to hold retirement parties. The balcony below is probably still littered with stripper bones,” jokes Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock. But it’s not just Tina Fey: Arrested Development, Californication, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Game of Thrones all rely on nasty, spiteful humour about how we are simultaneously disgusting and vulnerable to male violence.

When you work in an industry as stigmatised as the sex trade, jokes which dehumanise workers and normalise violence have a considerable impact. As long as the viewing public continues to get a kick out of tropes such as "dead hookers in the boot of a car", the violence some of us encounter at work will be seen as inevitable, and, worse still, unchangeable.

In 1978, the "Green River Killer" Gary Ridgeway confessed to the murder of 48 women, most of whom were sex workers. He targeted them, he told police, because he thought he could "kill as many [prostitutes] as he wanted without getting caught… I thought I was doing you guys a favour, killing prostitutes,” he said. Almost 40 years later, and not much has changed; in 2015, former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was convicted of 18 counts of rape and sexual assault. Holtzclaw specifically targeted vulnerable women he thought would not be believed – namely black women with a history of sex work.

The media alone didn’t make Ridgeway or Holtzclaw, (or many, many other men) target sex workers. Of course not. However, their crimes can be situated firmly in a cultural understanding of sex workers as deserving of violence, and of our lives being less significant than "good women".

A lack of realistic representation of our lives on telly only contributes to this dehumanising attitude, and pushes us further to the margins when it comes to the way society sees us.

There are shows which claim to be accurate, narrative-driven dramas about sex work. US network Starz's recent offering The Girlfriend Experience claimed to be a realistic drama about a woman who escorts to fund a placement at a prestigious law firm. Predictably, the show focused instead on the supposed cost of living a double life, and the moral corruption that seems to befall all characters who make money from their sexuality. In her life as an escort, protagonist Christine is subject to a slew of high-stakes consequences – as if she must ultimately be punished for being such a (successful) slut.

Even Orange is the New Black, which has good form when it comes to representation and diversity, doesn’t feature a single sex worker – despite being set in a prison in a country where sex work is fully criminalised.

It offends me as a sex worker, but also as a writer. These tired old clichés about prostitution are as lazy as they are unrealistic. These shows are all so clearly obsessed about the sex component of what we do, when in reality, that’s the least interesting part. Like the fictional Christine, I have done plenty of "girlfriend experience" work. Mostly it involves pretending to be interested in rich men who believe they’re great at sex. Reader, you may not be surprised to learn that this is incredibly dull; labouring at the coalface of the male gaze is generally formulaic and tedious.
In reality, what’s interesting about the sex industry is not the sex, but the smart, hard working and multifaceted people that work in it. Against the backdrop of a culture that tells us we’re worthless, sex workers do a formidable job of juggling work, family and relationships. What’s more, many sex workers do this in the face of additional stigma and discrimination. People who are disproportionately affected by social marginalisation – such as people with disabilities, trans people of colour and undocumented migrants – find that the sex industry can offer them better financial stability and independence than traditional workplaces. The voices of these communities often go ignored, only to be replaced by reductive stereotypes.

It’s not exactly surprising that film and television so habitually mistreat and misrepresent sex workers, as most of the people scripting it have zero understanding of what it’s like to sell sex. As has been discussed in relation to the depiction of people of colour on our screens, it’s really in the writers room where diverse representation matters. If you want to tell realistic and engaging stories set in brothels, strip clubs or dungeons, you’re best off asking the people who work in them to be involved – rather than assuming you know better than us about our own lives.

The closest we ever got to sex worker-centric programming was ITV2’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl, which ran between 2007 and 2011. Based on former escort Brooke Magnanti’s blog Belle De Jour, the show, while far from perfect, was at least a step in the right direction for more accurate representation of sex workers on TV and film. After this, however, progress seemed to stall, and the same reductive tropes continued to dominate programming. Since then, television has developed into a more sophisticated and long-form medium, and it’s time that it tackled a far more nuanced representation of prostitution, with a character that is not just a white, privileged, indoor worker.

Our stories are more interesting than you can imagine, we just need a place to tell them.


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