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Blue (2012)

Free from the constraints of network and cable television, the web series has been long touted as the next big thing in entertainment: Content intended for distribution online can be cheaply produced and avoid the ratings system entirely. Without time slots to fill, they can also range in length from feature films to a series of vignettes. Such is the format for Blue, 12 six-to-eight-minute episodes directed by Rodrigo Garcia in a collection of stories about women on the WIGS YouTube channel.

Blue (Julia Stiles) is a young, single mother of a highly gifted 13-year-old son, Josh (Uriah Shelton). She also works a bland office job during the day—but that’s not all. For a few hours a week, Blue—get this—turns tricks for an escort agency in order to make ends meet! Clearly, that, in and of itself, is enough to carry a story, so go on, YouTube viewers! Proceed to be riveted by these edgy topics, filled with flat performances, static characters, and painfully awkward dialogue.

Remedy (2014)

remedy cover“So you went domme on a dare,” a co-worker remarks to the eponymous protagonist of Remedy. It’s one of the movie’s more memorable lines. It’s also the reason I watched this flick in the first place: a dare. I challenged myself to sit through a movie about a twenty-something who lands a job as a pro-switch in a midtown Manhattan commercial dungeon even though I’d already lived that exact experience. Because it’s an incredibly specific kind of sex worker story, I anticipated that this depiction would either be inaccurate to an enraging degree, or familiar enough to require drinking away the feelings it dredged up. To put it simply: I knew that viewing this would be unpleasant, and I did it anyway. It seems Remedy (newcomer Kira Davies) and I share a certain mentality as well as a job title.

We share much more than that, actually. The movie is said to be “based on [writer and] director Cheyenne Picardo’s own experiences,” but I hadn’t anticipated the honesty of the details. Remedy goes to SMack!, a long-running fetish party in the New York scene, she meets a domme who can get her a job at a dungeon a few blocks north of the Herald Square subway stop, which is where I used to work, and then she meets the clients. Oh, the clients. Remedy’s clients are painfully real, in all their whacked-out, hairy, sweaty, groping, preachy, leering, cordial, charming, and manipulative incarnations. I don’t just mean that they’re plausible. No, despite the obligatory legal disclaimer, the resemblances to persons still quite living is undeniable for those of us who know them. I gasped as Remedy was introduced to her first client (played by the perfectly gross Chris Reilly), a certain dental fetishist familiar to everyone in the New York house scene. This movie isn’t just realistic; sitting through it was like watching my own biopic.

I admit that it’s hard to get past the shock of watching someone who looks just like you doing just what you did with the very same people you were doing it with. I admit that this two-hour movie took me nearly four booze-soaked hours to get through. I admit that I have quite a lot of feelings about it, and that I am not an impartial observer, not at all. Then again, neither is the professional critic whose only experience with the sex industry is that time he went to a strip club for a bachelor party, or the stripper who’s never set foot in a commercial dungeon.

Invisible Men and Blind Curation

tumblr_n3b9i3QnoZ1sn3as5o1_500The Invisible Men Project, a tumblr-turned-Glasgow-art exhibition, supposedly reveals the previously unknown attitudes of men who engage the services of sex workers. The project was launched by the Glasgow Violence Against Women Partnership who come off as bonafide in their intention and achieve poor results. They do this by constructing a poorly designed mask (a faceless one, because sex workers are faceless, right?) and plucking quotes from the worst reviews written by clients. They paint this in the same manner an artist might paint a mask for a masquerade—with the idea of presenting cryptic truth through ambiguous art.

The Invisible Men Project is a propaganda project that fails as a creative project. They have painted the “faceless” sex workers with the words their clients use for them. As if the client’s opinion even matters. As if the sex worker’s worth weighs solely on their clients opinion about them. They haven’t even thought to use the words of the sex worker in question, they just assumed that the client’s opinion about their work resonates similarly.

Bravo to the Invisible Men Project for creating a space to glorify the misogynist attitudes of these men. And they are glorified. Highlighting their words does nothing but promote their behavior. They’re not ashamed—if they were, they would never had posted their reviews in the first place. The curators are completely aware that attaching a price tag to each piece will further shock their audience, especially if that price seems low. They don’t bother to put the prices in a context that allows for regional or socioeconomic differences.

The sex industry is competitive in its very nature. It’s not odd for fake reviews to be written, especially from the direct competition. Or for them to be exaggerated by a disgruntled client. This often happens because these business dealings are not in the economic mainstream (depending on the type of legal framework the country functions under). Every sex worker and every punter knows to take reviews with a grain of salt. The public doesn’t always know this, and the Invisible Men Project doesn’t bother to mention this.

Treading Air (2016)

treadingairAs a sex worker and a fairly enthusiastic reader, I’ve come across so few of our stories told in fiction—and very few set in my own country of Australia. So when I recently discovered Ariella van Luyn’s 2016 novel Treading Air, I was instantly intrigued. It had a fascinating historical premise and a sex worker protagonist, Lizzie O’Dea. Unfortunately, it wasn’t what it could have been: although van Luyn had clearly done some research and tried to humanize Lizzie’s portrayal, so many bad clichés about sad sex workers crept into her story that it totally ruined the book for me.

We first meet Lizzie O’Dea in 1943, confined in a lock hospital in Brisbane, Queensland, waiting for her husband to be released from prison after nearly twenty years. The novel alternates between focusing on O’Dea’s story in 1943 and a series of events in the regional port town of Townsville in 1923 and 1924 that would alter the course of her and her husband’s lives.

The decision to set part of the book in a lock hospital in Queensland immediately caught my attention. By Australian standards, Queensland had notoriously draconian controls on sex workers in the latter half of the nineteenth century —although substantive parts of the law remained in place well into the twentieth century as well. Under the Queensland legislation (which was based on a broader version of the English Contagious Diseases Act), sex workers were required to register with police and forced to undergo fortnightly medical checks. If a doctor deemed them to be “diseased”, they were sent to a lock hospital in the state’s main prison to receive treatment, sometimes for long periods of time. It was a system which produced plenty of horror stories, yet it’s largely unknown today. I was curious to see what kind of light van Luyn would shine on on that chapter of history. I should have known that it would turn out to be one more twist on the premise that a sex worker’s story always ends badly.

Much of the first quarter of Treading Air centers on Lizzie’s courtship with future husband Joe, whom she meets at a Brisbane racetrack in 1923. Lizzie is the daughter of an illegal bookmaker and unenthused with her options in life. They promptly marry, moving to Townsville in North Queensland when Joe gains a job as a meat worker. Joe soon loses this job after an industrial accident, and Lizzie, fed up with being back in poverty, accepts an offer to work for a madam she knows. I enjoyed this section of the book: Lizzie’s portrayal felt familiar, the historical details about how her brothel operated made sense, her reasons for entering into the industry were pretty standard, and her first clients were ordinary clients.

And so, I’m happily reading this book when I come across this sentence, not long after Lizzie begins working: “So she reinforces her demeanor of gentleness and politeness. A man can do anything—pick his nose with one hand, hold his cock with the other; piss on her [emphasis mine]; cry and snot on her – and she doesn’t move. They like her for it.”

I thought “wait, what?”. I read this passage out loud to a friend over the phone to ask if it was as fucked up as I thought it was. Her spluttering down the line told me that it was.

Unequal Desires by Siobhan Brooks (2010)

Unequal Desires is a long overdue work that (finally!) focuses on race as central in the lives of strippers. While some of the literature on stripping focuses on race as a footnote or tangent, for Brooks, race is the central concern. Everything from everyday micro-level issues (hiring decisions, shift availability, and stage sets) to the very large-scale (zoning laws, likelihood of arrest) are explored in this book, with the conclusion that stripping is deeply racialized. Brooks uses interviews with dancers and customers as well as her own observations to confirm what she began to suspect during her time at the Lusty Lady: The strip club is another site where the black female body’s inferior position is reinforced. Through everyday actions, customers, management, and strippers all participate in its systematic devaluation.

The strip club presents the black woman’s body in strangely contradictory terms. On the one hand she is thought of as readily available, sexually. Customers may prefer a “black” club or an individual black dancer because they assume they can get more sexual contact than with a non-black dancer. On the other hand, the black female body is systematically made invisibilize or rendered unattractive. Brooks analyzes the pictures on strip club websites as evidence of this invisibility.

Brooks does attend to the clubs that may be considered “black” clubs. She considers the various, complicated motivations that black dancers have for wanting, or perhaps being forced, to work at these clubs, and simultaneously considers the social capital a “high end” (implicitly, not black) club carries as well. For many of the black dancers, hiring practices prevent them from getting in the door at clubs where they are in the minority. If they make it through the hiring process, discriminatory practices prevent them from staying.