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Thandie Newton as Maeve, the badass robot Black sex working heroine who keeps us invested in this glossy Game of Thrones replacement wannabe.

by Clara and Caty

[Content warning: some discussion of rape. Also, spoiler warning.]

Clara: Westworld is a science fiction western thriller created and produced by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. JJ Abrams is also a producer, so think Jurassic Park meets Firefly with a dash of Lost. As with its predecessors—Blade Runner. Battlestar Galactica, etc—Westworld uses human-like robots to tell us a story about humanity. Questions like “How do you know you are human?” “What is consciousness?” “What are dreams?” “What are memories?” “How does does your past define you?” “What is free will?” “What is consent?” are asked but not always answered.

The titular Westworld is a Western theme park where life-life robots—”hosts”—act out stories called narratives in a controlled environment for guests of the park. The park is marketed as “life without limits.” The idea is that because the hosts are robots you can do anything you want with them and it doesn’t matter.

While not a show directly about sex work, Westworld in its over-all arc is about the push/pull of market forces between client and worker. It is also about the uprising of a group who is fed up with being used. Sex workers who have to constantly prove their humanity to society and deal with client entitlement every day might find the show reminiscent of their lives.

Caty: I would argue that this show is about sex work. It’s about a separate, disposable class of people who perform reproductive/emotional labor so that guests can enjoy their leisure. The hosts’ very lives are this labor, so they can’t even be compensated for it. And they literally have false consciousness.

As the show reminds us constantly, the hosts’ purpose is to be fucked or hurt, or at the very least to immerse the clients in a fantasy, which sounds like the sex worker job description to a T. In fact, the hosts are the ideal sex workers from a certain client perspective. They are the ultimate pro-subs, who can be beaten, stabbed, strangled, and shot, only to be refurbished, resurrected, and brought back as a clean slate in terms of both their memories and their bodies, ready to take those blows again. They are entirely “authentic,” programmed to believe that the role play they engage the guests in is what is actually happening. If the Westworld story that the guest is indulging in is that Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the damsel host, is in love with him, she actually is in love with him.

But what Westworld actually does best is reflect the client mentality—an Entertainment Weekly recapper quipped that the Man In Black (Ed Harris) sounds like “a dork playing Dungeons & Dragons who yells at other players for asking for a bathroom break” when he gets pissed off after some other guests refer to his work in the real world. But to me, he actually sounds like the BDSM client I used to have who would shriek “WE DON’T TALK ABOUT THE MONEY” if I ever said anything which derailed his fantasy of being a scene elder teaching eager young acolyte (unpaid) me about kink.

And who does William (Jimmi Simpson) remind us of most but a stalker regular when he turns (even more) murderous and rapacious after realizing that Dolores doesn’t remember him—that he isn’t special enough to her to override the programming that forces her to forget him after each go-round? At first, he’s a Nice Guy—that trusted reg, the one who believes Dolores is sapient and Not Like All The Other Hosts. He’s Captain-Save-A-Host! But later, after his embittered violence runs roughshod over the park for 30 years, after he assaults Dolores over and over, and then grows “tired” of her like the most jaded hobbyist, Dolores tells him, “I thought you were different, but you’re just like all the rest.”

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Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) proposing to his sex worker girlfriend Vanessa Carslyle (Morena Baccarin) in Deadpool.

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) proposing to his sex worker girlfriend Vanessa Carlysle (Morena Baccarin) in Deadpool.

When I first saw Deadpool on Valentine’s Day with my civilian partner, I remember leaving the theater on cloud nine, sure that my relationship could withstand anything. The movie made me feel like my job was not an obstacle to be overcome by romantic interests but a core part of me that could be embraced. I remember thinking that Morena Baccarin never had to go back to Joss Whedon to play a laterally whorephobic space courtesan because this film had allowed her to play an amazing sex worker.

I rewatched the film for this review and I have to say that this time it hurt. Watching Vanessa and Wade’s relationship unfurl on screen hit me hard.

Not because it was poorly written, though. Quite the opposite.

My partner and I broke up less than two weeks ago and watching this movie only reminded me of better times. Because Baccarin as Vanessa is awesome and her relationship with the titular hero is everything I have ever wanted from a story about a guy dating a sex worker. And it also represented everything that I wanted from being dated as one, with the addition of bad guys, bullets, and the breaking of the fourth wall.

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atruedetectivefour

True Detective‘s title sequence.

One of my partners cautioned me that I might take issue with the treatment of sex workers in season one of True Detective. Yet somehow, I completely forgot their warning, and found myself marathoning it over a few days several months ago. The first season is a continual whorephobic, misogynistic trainwreck, so it’s difficult for me to pinpoint why I liked it so much—aside from the frequent views of Matthew McConaughey’s stunning physique, of course.

To say that True Detective is masterfully produced is an understatement. A Southern noir set in Louisiana, it’s the story of a murder investigation spanning 17 years between 1995 and 2012. With lush cinematography, careful direction, and well-rounded, complex characters, it is a tight and compelling show. The acting is superb, especially Matthew McConaughey’s performance as dysfunctional, misanthropic detective Rust Cohle.

Where True Detective falls flat is in its writing and storyline, which both rely heavily on classic serial killer, police procedural, and anti-hero tropes. The fact that sex workers are going to be used as props for the story, rather than the well-rounded, complex characters they deserve to be, is apparent from the opening credits. We see a bare female ass and a pair of spiky high heel shoes, a stripper shimmying in slow-motion in a patriotic one-piece, a heavily made-up eye fading into a line of trucks at a truck stop. The mournful country ballad playing over these images is mesmerizing, but adds an unmistakable foreboding tone of violence over these sexualized representations of femininity.

The show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, stated that he did not want True Detective to be “just another serial killer show.” Here’s what I want to know: if your intent is for your serial killer show to not be just another serial killer show, why make it about the serial killing of sex workers, an overused trope if there ever was one? The victim of the ritualistic, apparently occult murder that Cohle and his partner Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) are investigating in 1995 is named Dora Lange (Amanda Rose Batz). We don’t learn her name until about mid-way through the first episode, but we learn that Cohle suspects she is a sex worker—or a “prost,” as he calls them—when he tells Hart that the victim has herpes sores around her mouth and bad teeth. Unfortunately, I suspect that this is probably an accurate portrayal of how detectives attempt to identify a murdered sex worker, both in 1995 and 20 years later in 2015.

It was a huge disappointment, though not a shock, to discover that Cohle’s suspicions about Lange are spot on. He rubs salt in the wound when he states he’s going to investigate a local “prost farm” to see if he can discover her identity. The “prost farm” ends up being a truck stop where he interviews two sex workers who are not nearly as leery of him as they should be. He behaves in a threatening manner toward them from the very start, but instead of running for the hills, they both give him the information he’s looking for, as one obviously does any time a police officer comes sniffing around without a warrant. In a scene that is meant to develop Cohle as a character with drug dependency issues, sex workers are further stereotyped when he asks one of them if she can get him some quaaludes. Remember, this is 1995—quaaludes weren’t even a thing at that point, having been off the market since 1984. Any self-respecting drug dealing sex worker would have laughed in his face. But she states instead that they “could be hard to get,” then ultimately produces them. The scene reaffirms the idea of sex workers as all purpose drug dispensing machines for middle class white men on benders.

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Trixie isn't taking any of your shit. (Still from Deadwood)

Trixie isn’t taking any of your shit. (Still from Deadwood)

Editor’s note: Extreme spoiler alert. Seriously, do yourself a favor and watch Deadwood before reading this, if for some inexplicable reason you haven’t yet.

I started watching Deadwood when the cabbie I was sleeping with at the time told me it was a Wild West show about a town run by whores. “You’ll love it!” he assured me. Turns out he was almost entirely wrong about the plot, but he was right about me loving it. The sex workers are a small part of the overall action, yet the majority of female characters are sex workers. And for me, the sex workers are the heart of the show, its moral and empathic compass. But empathy and ethics can have a price, especially for the marginalized.

Creator David Milch explains that the creation of Deadwood was based on his desire to explore the formation of civilization out of chaos. Chaos is what the territory of Deadwood is when the series opens. It’s the go-to headline for any sporting event or Republican or Democratic convention that sex workers flock to where the money is. In terms of boom towns like Deadwood it’s largely true, not just because of the presence of fast and loose cash, but because of the freedom of movement, both social and physical, offered by the very lack of civilization Milch is exploring.

That life in the still-lawless camp of Deadwood allows a certain amount of freedom as well as deprivation is obvious, and that lives lived on the margins of a camp like Deadwood offer liberty and danger, even to women, even to sex workers, is made apparent immediately in the first episode. Thirteen minutes in a gun goes off in Al Swearingen’s saloon-brothel.

“Aw, hell,” says right-hand man Dan Dority despairingly. “That fuckin whore.”

And so we meet Trixie (Paula Malcomson), who enters with a literal bang, as she’s just shot and killed a client in self-defense.

“He was beating on me! I told him not to beat on me!” she explains hopelessly, knowing already her bruises won’t be an adequate excuse to her boss. Swearingen beats her himself, adding a reminder to everyone that she’s not allowed to own a gun. Unfazed, Trixie immediately sneaks her servant friend, Jewel, money to bring her another gun.

The freedom allowed her here may not be immediately apparent to a civilian, but the fact that she was allowed to defend herself against a beating, to shoot someone without being fired or killed, and allowed to continue working with everyone’s unspoken knowledge that she’s just going to acquire another gun, is massive. This freedom will be lost by the untimely end of the show, when civilization comes in the barbaric entrepreneur figure of George Hearst.

In the meantime, the sex workers of the first season have a singular amount of screen time, especially with the arrival of Joanie (Kim Dickinson) and the other girls of Bella Union, the new brothel, waving brightly from owner Cy Tolliver’s festively festooned wagon. This entrance highlights something that hasn’t been visible till now: Swearingen’s joint, the Gem, is a rough-and-tumble working class saloon and brothel. While the Gem girls wear loose shifts and little or nothing else, the Bella Union workers are adorned with the Wild West fashion you’ve been dreaming of: beribboned corsets, garters, thigh highs, hair in tumbled curls and cascading updos. I’d watch the show just for their clothes. Unfortunately, it’s the men running this here town and you know there’s going to be a clash with a fancy new brothel steppin’ on Swearingen’s turf.

In the background of Swearingen and Tolliver’s turf war, being used as pawns, are the vibrant women who work for them. I’m focused on Joanie and Trixie here, and the handful of other sex workers who are allowed plotlines. While they’re considered tools in the political struggles between Tolliver and Swearingen, and then between Swearingen and Hearst, the camera shows this to be a misjudgment and a mistake on the part of the men (one that only Swearingen learns from, belatedly). While not exactly happy, Joanie and Trixie are lively presences, not the passive background decor sex workers function as on shows like The Sopranos. Even when they’re silent, we can feel their judgment, and so can Tolliver and Swearingen.

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Angela Bassett as Desiree Dupree, American Horror Story: Freak Show's intersex sex worker (Screenshot from American Horror Story )

Angela Bassett as Desiree Dupree, American Horror Story: Freak Show’s intersex sex worker (Screenshot from American Horror Story)

Adapted from a g-chat between Caty Simon and Maggie Mcmuffin:

American Horror Story: Freak Show draws on the traditional connection between perfomativity and sex work. Acting has always been connected with prostitution, since before the Jacobean era to very recently. And by connecting performance in a freak show with sex work, the show is pathologizing both.

The show’s creators might argue that they’re humanizing these “freak” characters, but why else would they see the freak show as a perfect setting for a horror story if they weren’t pathologizing it? In a lot of these characters’ stories, sex work is naturally connected to freak show performance—it’s just one rung down a ladder of degradation. Yet, despite that innate problem with American Horror Story’s sex worker representation, many of its central characters this season have been revealed as sex workers, so Maggie Mcmuffin and I couldn’t resist taking a closer look at the first five episodes.

Maggie McMuffin: A lot of the time, historically, freak shows were a way for people with disabilities to make their living on their terms. For the most part, they were very non-exploitative.

Caty Simon: I think that AHS does capture some of that feeling of family, the connection of a marginalized group taking shelter with each other against the world. But they also play on these supposed deformities for chills and laughs. And AHS’ Freak Show does constantly threaten its participants with exploitation. Both the Strong Man and Elsa are shown to be dictatorial and oppressive bosses.

Four depictions of sex work in the first five episodes—at least that’s a good amount of representation if nothing else.

So, how about Jimmy Darling, the first time we see him, in those head-to-toe leathers that scream “midcentury hustler”?

Maggie: Oh god, they do, he’s clearly going for that Marlon Brando swagger and it works.

Caty: I really liked the fact that he serves female customers via a Tupperware party. That’s so cutely 50s.

Maggie: I love that it’s the women at that party who we see talking the most and expressing their sexual needs.

Caty: It’s true to life in that the clients fetishize his disability—his flipper becomes all about its fingerbanging fun potential.

Maggie: The men from Elsa’s flashback don’t talk much. We don’t hear much from the boys Desiree is seeing. But those housewives are all about getting off.

Caty: I did think it was a bit of a cop-out in that it’s a portrayal of a male sex worker serving women clients when we know, realistically, how tiny that market is. But I did love his saucy grin as he worked.

Maggie: True. I’m torn between that and enjoying seeing the female gaze get played to.

Caty: And we do see Andy the bar hustler serving a male clientele later, so that balances it out somewhat.

I think this first instance of sex work contrasts quite a bit with how it’s shown later. There’s no degradation, no dark shadow world and dim lighting to match, he’s just happily making bank while he can. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a romanticized portrayal, either.

Maggie: Nope. It’s very straight forward. It’s funny—the tupperware party—but let’s be real: most house party situations are hilarious. Bachelor parties are hilarious to me, every one of them I’ve worked.

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