There’s a scene in which under-the-weather-feeling, anti-heroine protagonist Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) describes the way she feels as “shit city.” Afternoon Delight, directed by Jill Soloway, is shit city. This film screamed “rescue project” from the very start. Rachel is a bored, restless, wealthy, vaguely hipster stay-at-home mom living with her husband and young son in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Her contemporaries are mostly other jobless, Jewish, “hip” housewives who spend their time doing volunteer work, if only to thoroughly document it on social media; organizing play dates amongst their elementary school-aged children, and running something called “Craftacular.” Thing is, Rachel doesn’t like this life and she doesn’t like these women. She wanted to be a war journalist. In a scene near the end she wails, “I was so bored I could have died!!!!” One of this film’s only saving graces is the fact that her therapist is Jane Lynch, whose character is truly the only “delight” Afternoon Delight has to offer.
Slam poet and African American studies professor Aya de León’s new novel, Uptown Thief, is every activist sex worker’s fantasy: her protagonist Marisol Rivera is a women’s health clinic director by day and an escort agency manager and expert safe-cracker to fund that clinic for survival workers by night. True, any enterprising hooker who actually tried this would get her pet cause into very hot water. But reading about Marisol’s escapades teaming up with her escort employees to rob their rich clients’ friends, practicing some creative accounting to enter these “donations” on her books, is the next best thing to pulling it off yourself.
Though de León has never been a sex worker, she’s been open about her respect for her ex-stripper mother and her aunt’s sex work. Her book is stolidly pro-sex worker without being blandly sex positive, representing a spectrum of experiences in its characters’ diverse backgrounds of high end escorting, survival sex work, and trafficking and abuse survival. There’s even a Live Nude Girls Unite poster in the clinic’s office. There’s never any hint of judgement in the tone de León takes narrating these women’s lives, although occasionally a tinge of didactic respectability politics bleeds through in the novel’s focus on clinic entrepreneurship classes and grad student escorts. Still, a story in which every whore makes good is a refreshing change from our usual crime fiction fate of death or destitution.
De Leon does make some gaffes in describing the way the agency operates which demonstrate her lack of personal experience with the work. Marisol’s escorts dress up as delivery workers in order to get into fancy hotels (huh?). And the agency’s clients agree on every sexual act they’ll perform with her employees in advance with her over the phone—a good way to get arrested. But once I started reading the book as a wish-fulfillment vehicle instead of holding it up to an impossible standard of realism, I began to really enjoy it. Plus, de León doesn’t make as many bloopers writing about sex work practice as many other writers do, perhaps because she made a point of having sex worker consultants edit her early manuscript.
The author’s general pro-lumpenprole stance is very clear here. For example, Marisol’s ex-NYPD love interest, Raul, left the department after suing them for racial discrimination and confesses that his one major regret is becoming a cop. When he catches on to Marisol’s heists, he’s openly admiring, wishing he could be a barrio Robin Hood as well. de León depicts some of the dangers sex workers commonly face by making his white ex-partner a cop who extorted sex from workers with the threat of arrest. And, of course, one of the most reprehensible characters in the book besides the abusive pimp is a snooty billionaire financier client.
De León also exhibits her populism in the way she’s marketed the novel: she’s explained in interviews that she purposefully branded the book as a women’s urban crime novel, a la Zane and Sister Souljah, to make it accessible to as many kinds of readers as possible. Indeed, one activist I know told me that this genre represents the most requested (and sadly, least donated) books to the books for women prisoners program she works with.
Meet the Fokkens, a 2011 documentary directed by Gabriëlle Provaas and Rob Schröde, follows the lives of Martine and Louise Fokkens, 69-year-old twins who have spent many years as full service sex workers in Amsterdam’s red light district. At the time of filming, Martine was still working, albeit reluctantly, while Louise had been retired for two years because of her arthritis. Though the documentary’s main focus is the sisters’ careers as prostitutes, we also see their homes, meet their friends, and hear pieces of their personal histories.
In addition to its focus on a fascinating topic, Meet the Fokkens also presents a charming aesthetic experience. The movie involves many scenes of the Fokkens sisters in matching outfits, and at least one of those outfits is primarily pink! Louise brings her Chihuahua with her everywhere she goes. Even if nothing else in this movie caught my attention—which is not the case—the matching outfits and Chihuahua would have been enough to enchant me. But, happily, Meet the Fokkens is as intellectually engaging as it is, well, precious. The film does more than skim the surface—it delves into sexuality and labor through the exploration of the lives of these two women.
House of Pleasures (also called House of Toleration or L’Appolonide: Souvenirs de la Maison Close in its native France), directed by Bertrand Bonello, is a film depicting the last year of a legal French brothel, a maison close, at the turn of the 20th century. While the film does predictably illustrate the old prostitution-is-inherently-miserable motif, sex working viewers will find much to enjoy in the close examination of brothel history and the dynamics of women’s spaces that the movie offers. Then, of course, there are the costumes and the intense outfit envy they engender in any hooker with a pulse. The brothel workers wear diaphanous, clinging gowns that look like proper dresses in shadow but reveal their transparent naughtiness in candle light, and look even more temptingly gorgeous draped along with their wearers on the lush upholstered furniture of the maison. These elements, along with the sharp dialogue that director Bonello gives the workers, kept me watching, even when the crude, supposedly “feminist” analysis and the all-too-voyeuristic violence against sex workers he inserted into the movie made me want to hurl my remote control at the screen.
C’mon! Take this scene, for example:
Client: [After long, tedious description of the plot of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds—this guy is obviously the Victorian antecedent of people who blurt out spoilers] Have you read it?
Brothel Worker: No. My only two books are Sade’s diaries and the Bible, and I don’t read the Bible.
My kind of girl!
And at first I thought that House of Pleasures might provide the audience a nuanced economic analysis of its protagonists’ work: Early on in the movie, it’s made clear through a close up of the madam’s ledger book and the women’s anxious conversation among themselves that most of the workers are deeply in debt to the house. Throughout the narrative, the women and the brothel itself struggle to survive in the face of the crushing reality of a raised rent. There are even some interesting insights about the unpaid emotional labor involved in the work, as it’s implied that in this upscale environment, what’s being sold as much as the sexual services themselves is a cheerful, carefree attitude of refined femininity. While the women tally their success at the end of the night by the number of men who took them upstairs, they must linger for hours in calculated languidness downstairs, making conversation and cozying up with idle clients, playing board games with them and seeing how many party tricks can be performed with a champagne flute. “Try to be joyful,” the madam chides them at the beginning of the evening.
A version of this review originally appeared in issue 19 of make/shift magazine
In March 2016, South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa made a historic announcement of a nationwide scheme to prevent and treat HIV among sex workers, proclaiming, “we cannot deny the humanity and inalienable rights of people who engage in sex work.” Though Ramaphosa remained mum on the topic of decriminalization, the rousing endorsement this statement represents can’t be underemphasized. It’s impossible to imagine a U.S. politician of any importance saying something similar. The credit for this sea change in attitude goes to South African sex workers’ rights organization SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce) and sex worker peer organization Sisonke. In her book, To Live Freely In This World: Sex Worker Activism In Africa, Fordham University law professor Chi Adanno Mgbako covers SWEAT and parallel organizations in seven countries.
Mgbako deftly and concisely goes over sex workers’ rights 101 material. The epilogue’s history of global organizing comprehensively places the African movement in its broader context, from the 1970s—Margo St. James’ COYOTE and the French Collective of Prostitutes—to the 2012 Kolkata Sex Worker Freedom Festival. Mgbako explains the importance of not reducing sex work to “a single story” of victimization, the necessity of respecting human agency, and the need to understand sex workers’ rights activism as a labor movement. She traces the connection between violence and criminalization as represented by police abuse and client violence and the structural violence of social stigma, labor exploitation, and healthcare discrimination.
To Live Freely also transcends respectability politics and actively includes the sex workers often left out of our histories. One of the book’s seven chapters is dedicated to the multiple stigmas navigated by queer, migrant, trans, and HIV-positive sex workers. Mgbako makes sure to discuss sex-working queer women, trans men, and gender nonconforming people, who because of their lower visibility are too often excluded.
Many times throughout the text, Mgbako provides long oral histories from sex worker activists. In an admirable and sadly rare move for an ally, she explicitly connects this choice with the fact that she is not a sex worker herself, “and too often, non-sex workers take it upon themselves to speak for sex workers when the latter are fully capable of speaking for themselves.” I found these sections of the book and the solidarity they represented perhaps the most valuable. Kenya Sex Worker Alliance’s Phelister Abdallah’s harrowing account of gang rape by police, the moment representing her personal awakening as an activist, was particularly affecting. Yet, Mgbako never allows these stories to become tragedy porn for non-sex-worker readers—in her introduction, she avers that she only included narratives of abuse when those narratives illustrated the sociopolitical realities of sex workers’ struggle against criminalization. “There are no broken people in this book,” Mgbako declares. Instead, the author’s interest lies in displaying the “radiating strength” of African sex workers.