sex workers in the media

(Photo courtesy of Amy Ashenden)

Queer Muslim Sex Worker: These are labels that aren’t supposed to go together, but in the life of Maryam, a genderfluid Pakistani Muslim person living in London, they do. A newly released, independently-funded podcast with this title by journalist Amy Ashenden aims to shed light on how Maryam’s different identities are sexualized, vilified, and ostracized in their own ways.

As she navigates her various forms of closetedness “like a maze,” Maryam’s candor lets the listener in on how stressful this life is. In fact, it is so stressful that she’s often had suicidal thoughts because of it. At the end of the podcast, Maryam relates how since finally being disowned by her family after hiding her sexuality and her experience in the sex industry from them, she’s been unable to focus on her responsibilities, dealing with the trauma of abandonment by numbing out with alcohol and partying at strip clubs. I feel for her because I can relate to that sense of hopelessness.

In a culture with highly communal values, your life is not your own. Your life actually belongs to your family, and anything you do or say can either bring honor or shame to them. For this reason, it’s extremely rare for Muslims to talk openly about gender and sexuality.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t Muslims who are LGBTQ, it just means they’re not welcome in the Muslim community. As Maryam observes, “I’ve never seen a queer Muslim person who came out to the community and was welcomed with open arms.”

If being gay is bad news to the community, being a sex worker is even worse. However, the Muslim community itself creates the necessity for survival sex work by rejecting members of the community who are queer. As Maryam explains that she is saving the money she earns from webcam work to support herself in case she is rejected or disowned by her family for being gay, she illustrates how Muslim youth are not exempt from one of the most typical ways young people first become involved in sex work: by being disowned by their parents for being gay. The ability to take ownership of our bodies and sexuality is even something that draws people like us to do sex work.

My recommendation to Muslim youth who ask me about coming out is always to wait until they’re financially self-sufficient. We already know what happens to people like us. “I think I’d be sort of exiled from the community until I changed my ways,” Maryam says sarcastically when asked what would happen if she came out.

When traditional Muslim family values clash with the individualism that is the hallmark of Western culture, we take up a new fight beyond oppressive regimes and occupation back home and racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment here. Now we’re fighting for the freedom to be ourselves, beyond those labels and intersecting identities.

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The creators of Hot Girls Wanted and Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On— Jill Bauer, Rashida Jones, and Ronna Gradus. (Still from Youtube)

I first heard that a sequel to Hot Girls Wanted was being made about three months ago. A performer I followed posted about being approached for filming. He rejected the offer immediately. I shared his discomfort.

The first Hot Girls Wanted was a documentary film carefully designed to manipulate the viewer into feeling disgust towards the porn industry. It followed a household of porn models, predominantly new to the industry, for several months as they journeyed into what Hot Girls Wanted creator Rashida Jones referred to as “pro-amateur porn.” While the filmmakers claimed a totally unbiased approach, I watched the documentary taking note of each carefully placed, mid-sentence cut designed to de-contextualize industry critiques; each depressing tone played at low volumes creating emotionally charged responses to a comment; each unsourced statistic and each citation from disreputable websites.

Porn performers responded harshly yet appropriately to the documentary. They aimed their critiques primarily at the film’s producer, actress Rashida Jones. With the announcement of a sequel came promises of an improved, non-stigmatizing, and nuanced discussion of the porn industry.

It was not delivered.

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Treading Air (2016)

by Sarah on November 28, 2016 · 1 comment

in Books, Reviews

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.

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fagtc1

Lauren (Lauren Miller) and Katie (Ari Graynor) in For A Good Time Call.

There aren’t many films about phone sex that are worth anyone’s time—notable exceptions being the excellent short film Sumi, the brief, funny phone sex segments of Tamra Davis’s 90’s hip hop spoof CB4, and about three-fourths of Spike Lee’s kind-of classic Girl 6. Despite its truly troublesome flaws, I have a soft spot for Girl 6, as it gets at least some things about the industry very right, which is more than most films do. The 2012 phone sex buddy comedy For A Good Time Call fits comfortably alongside Girl 6 as another genuinely mixed bag. Its focus is really more on friendship than phone sex, but it does manage to maintain a phone sex-centric narrative throughout a feature film’s runtime without making me want to throw my TV out my window.

For A Good Time Call, directed by Jamie Travis, is now available on Netflix and other streaming services. I’m relieved to report that it is a pleasant-enough way to spend 90 minutes, and one of the better cinematic portrayals of my profession; not hateful, judgmental, or a patronizing cautionary tale. But I’m exasperated that this baseline decency gives it such an advantage over much of the cannon.

FAGTC tells the story of straight-laced Lauren (Lauren Miller), who through a series of contrivances is forced to become roommates with bubbly, performatively slutty Katie (Ari Graynor). The two initially hate each other and it’s all very Odd Couple (they have history—in college, party girl Katie peed in Lauren’s car after getting wasted), but become bffs through the magic of starting their own phone sex line. One of the screenwriters, Katie Ann Naylon, has said on record that she operated her own phone sex line herself in college.

Bonding through working a phone sex line is actually a great premise for a fun, bubbly film, and it’s the crux of what I simultaneously love and find frustrating about this one. While the relationship between the women is both believable and refreshing, their business model is much less so.

Lauren discovers that Katie is a phone sex operator and confronts her during a call after overhearing the conversation and being confused. Now, I can understand why Katie would want to keep her phone sex gig a secret from judgmental Lauren. But it’s hard for me to suspend disbelief far enough to believe Katie would bring Lauren in as a roommate, into her workplace, without giving some kind of heads up or a cover story to prevent exactly this sort of hassle. I did phone sex out of an apartment with multiple roommates for years, and you’d better believe I told people while interviewing them and gauged their reactions. I couldn’t live with anyone who would mess with my income stream. I find it hard to believe that Katie would both not mention it and be so goddamn loud without at least taking the precaution of setting up a cheap white noise generator.

Then again, good girl Lauren, who slowly gets dragged into the weird, dirty world of phone sex, is supposed to be the audience surrogate, so making Katie’s psychology and behavior equally plausible may not have been a priority. She’s the weird one, so she’s weird! I don’t think the writers were thinking about the reactions of PSOs or anyone else who might relate more to Katie in the audience, despite the fact that the character is based on one of the writers.

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Christine (Riley Keogh) and Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil).

Christine (Riley Keough) and Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil).

I didn’t quite know what to expect from Starz’ new escorting drama,The Girlfriend Experience. After seeing the network’s Flesh and Bone (the story of a ballet dancer moonlighting as a stripper and being terrible at it), I had no doubt it would be very dramatic, rather too serious, and visually appealing. After all, as far as visuals go, Riley Keough as The Girlfriend Experience’s protagonist, Christine Reade, has it all—she’s white, she’s skinny, her features are pleasingly symmetrical, and her hair is reminiscent of Kate Middleton’s.

Christine Reade, the law student heroine with the hidden depths, enters our lives walking down a hotel corridor in the first shot of The Girlfriend Experience’s first episode. We see her from behind—sensible hair, sensible clothes. But the dim lights and the plush carpet she’s walking on are promising that some kind of salacious scene is imminent. Not yet though, not yet. Christine is on her way to meet her friend Avery, who has been left alone in a swanky hotel room where she’s determined to rack up the room service bill of her life.

It’s pretty obvious that Avery is going to be the one to introduce Christine to the good life of middle-aged men, money, and endless room service. (Well, not that last one, maybe, since I doubt many clients would enjoy receiving a room service bill that could cover the down payment on a new car.) Avery’s got a benefactor, a booking agent, and a taste for expensive booze. Christine, on the other hand, has drive, loose morals, and student loans. She ends up going on a double date with Avery, her sugar daddy, and a friend of his.

She is offered an envelope full of money just for being young, beautiful and willing to make tedious small talk with a balding stranger. Will she or won’t she? It’s an age old question, comparable to the moment of downfall in Shakespearean plays. In itself, taking the money is a small thing, but society’s judgment of us weighs so heavy that once you take the cash, you’re a whore, and you will remain a whore until you are dead and buried—and long after that sometimes. It’s the beginning of a chain reaction, and it hardly ever ends well—at least, not on TV.

So, in a tasteful restaurant’s bathroom (real towels!!!), Christine takes the cash and the show really shifts into gear. The booking agent, Jacqueline, is introduced. If you know one, you know them all. She’s almost a carbon copy of Secret Diary of a Call Girl’s Stephanie. She likes cash, nice restaurants, and cash, in that order. What she decidedly doesn’t like is uppity girls. Now, Christine has drive, as I mentioned. “Why should I give you thirty percent”, she asks and we want to know, too. She really shouldn’t give it to her, as it turns out. Jacqueline is sort of the Evil Queen of The Girlfriend Experience escorting world, and surprisingly unprofessional.

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