When I heard about the Showtime Australia drama Satisfaction, set in a swanky Melbourne brothel, I think I elbowed an old lady out of the way to check it out of the library. Yep, library: they take sex work much less negatively in Australia than they do in the United States. It’s legal, although to varying degrees of decriminalization, normalization, and support depending on what state you’re in. West Australia, where I worked, had a variety of irritating laws designed to prevent women from working outside of brothels: they weren’t allowed to hire support staff, like drivers or security, and often had to file taxes in a totally ridiculous way. In Melbourne, across the country in Victoria, sex work is legally licensed and regulated by the state: workers have licenses, regular mandated medical check-ups, and can work independently or through brothels.
Satisfaction is a super swanky TV show about a super swanky brothel, and I absolutely loved it. I’ve never been to a Melbourne brothel, but I have to assume that the glittery hanging curtains, ornate gilt decor, and licensed bar of 232, the Satisfaction home base, are probably not par for the course. They smell more of “movie set designed to make you impressed” rather than “actual working brothel.” The script, though…the script treats sex workers as real human beings, with dignity and respect, facing a variety of issues unrelated to their jobs. Sometimes they hang out together after work; sometimes they have problems unique to sex work; but for large chunks of every episode, the show discusses human dynamics among a group of women who are working for themselves and doing it by choice. There is no coercion here, and the all-too-frequent stereotype we see on US TV (“Debbie couldn’t pay her rent, and now she’s giving blow jobs for crack in some dude’s Pinto!”) is notably, refreshingly absent.
The show follows a core group of five working girls: brittle angry Mel, motherly Chloe, loopy flower child Tippi, gorgeous lesbian Heather, and jump-the-desk ex-receptionist Lauren. Their boss, Nat, is the no-nonsense business woman with a fetish for rubber, and her father, Nick, is the weird gangster dad that none of us really want. The first season follows a variety of story arcs for each of them, with the first five episodes focusing on building an individual back-story for each of the main characters. Mel is an independent worker who occasionally gets bookings through 232, while the others all work the night shift for their own reasons, each of which are accurate-feeling depictions of how and why women get into sex work. (Hint: none of those are “because I’m crazy” or “because my father made me.”)
Even the small details of Satisfaction are pretty true to form. One episode shows the mandatory client STD check at the beginning of a session, while another has the driver mention that he doesn’t want to get pulled over with a lady in the car. No matter how legal it is, sex workers are still subject to stigmatization and occasional grafts by the police; some of the other storylines deal with each of the ladies’ experiences as they inform people they’re close to about their jobs. Some of them work in secret; some of them don’t. Some of them tell their kids, some of them don’t, some of them don’t have kids. Generally, the show is sympathetic towards the characters, and depicts sex work as a difficult high-paying job. There’s a lot of joking around between the ladies, and the show itself also recognizes the inherent humour in some situations, as when one character has to undergo several costume changes in one night, each more outlandish than the last.
The show is equally considerate of the clientele it depicts. As in real life, the clients run the gamut of young, old, in a wheelchair, rich, poor, you name it. Fetishes and unique experiences are shown with delicacy, and the ladies frequently defend the right of their clients to engage in what mainstream media would call “perversions.” At our brothel in Perth, we had every possible situation you could think of; sometimes the girls bitched about not being able to get lube out of their hair, but you never heard anyone complain about how disgusting it was that someone liked a big old rubber dildo in his asshole. The show also highlights the more mundane issues that can arise in sex work: a client who is too vigorous or cums too soon, running into someone you know in the lounge area, how to argue with a guy who really doesn’t want to use a condom. Satisfaction’s portrayal of these issues rings true for the most part, although it’s obviously important to give a little leeway to it being a drama show; situations are designed to be resolved in a way that is interesting to the viewer.
Overall, Satisfaction is an entertaining peek into the life of Australian brothel workers, and is well worth watching for anyone who works in the sex industry. You’ll appreciate the depth of the characters and the realism of the problems they face, while being able to shake your head and laugh at the things that are patently ridiculous. You’ll also appreciate the positive, friendly portrayal of the sex industry, as an example of what things could be like in North America if mainstream television shows pulled their heads out of their asses.
Satisfaction is available in the US on Netflix.