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American Courtesans (2012)

The tagline for American Courtesans describes it as a “documentary that takes you into the lives of American Sex Workers” and telling “a different kind of American story…” The film is (thankfully) less ambitious in scope, focusing on high-end escorts instead of the entirety of the sex trades. What American Courtesans does, and does powerfully, is offer an intimate perspective into the lives of its subjects, giving them a space to talk about their lives and work. The women share stories of both triumph and trauma, showing that there is no single or simple story about work in the sex industries. With exceptional production quality and sincere, candid interviews, American Courtesans moves us further towards changing the popular conceptions of sex work.

The film weaves the stories of eleven current and former sex workers together through interviews and casual conversations with Kristen DiAngelo, the driving force behind the project. Though all of the women ended their careers as independent escorts charging high rates, their backgrounds up to that point are extremely varied. The majority of the women are still working, and quite a few illustrate the fluidity of the sex industries as they describe their experiences in pro-BDSM work, porn, stripping, and other fields of sex work than escorting. The women in the film give the audience a diverse set of experiences in the sex industries. From Juliet Capulet in San Francisco, who talks about escorting as a way to explore her identity as a sexual being, to Gina DePalma in New York City, who was working on the streets as a thirteen-year-old runaway, the audience is reminded that sex workers belong to and come from all communities.

The Road From Sugarbaby To Escort

My SA profile
My SA profile

When you’re 23 and getting divorced after 5 years of staying home, the only logical thing to do is to look for a sugar daddy, no? It made perfect sense to me; I wasn’t interested in a serious relationship, but being taken out on nice dates and having help with the bills seemed like a win-win situation. I truly believed there were these handsome 30- and 40-something year old men who were just happily fluttering $100 bills in pretty girl’s faces; that they deemed it their responsibility to financially support young women.  My career in sex work started this naively.

Those illusions clashed with the reality of being a sugar baby as soon as I met “Jim,” who convinced me that he was a generous sponsor after a dinner at Beni Hana and an offer of a winter coat. I spent our dates high out of my mind, so my perception of things was undoubtedly flawed, and my memories of him confuse me to this day. But as I recall, we would go to his house where we had Thai delivered every time I came over. He was in such a rush to get upstairs that he would hurry me through dinner. His “son’s room” was like no child’s room I have ever seen – it looked to be straight out of a Pottery Barn catalogue with not one thing out of place. At the time, I didn’t think he really had a son, and looking back it makes me wonder what else he could have been lying about.

Each time we saw each other he gave me a couple hundred dollars, except for once. The last time we spent together, he slapped me across the face while we were in the middle of sex and began what he believed was dirty talk. “You like that, don’t you?  You like being my dirty little whore?” I was so shocked I didn’t respond at all, and when he dropped me off, he gave me $60 “for gas money this week.” Based on the agreement that he would give my girlfriend $40 each time for babysitting, this meant I ended up with $20 for being smacked around. I could discuss how much my sitter needed to be paid, but talking about my own compensation, for whatever reason, was too uncomfortable. For the first and last time, I had wrongly assumed that a man “just knew” what the magic number was.

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.

How Texas Made Ezekiel Gilbert’s Aquittal Possible

Lenora Ivie Frago
Lenora Ivie Frago

Last week, social media flooded with outrage over the acquittal of Ezekiel Gilbert for the murder of Lenora Ivie Frago. On December 24, 2009, Gilbert and Frago met via Craigslist and agreed that he would pay her $150 for her time as a companion. Time, Gilbert argued, that was supposed to include sex. Frago left without having sex with him, fee in hand. Gilbert then decided that her fee was now stolen goods and shot her to reclaim his property. Frago later died due to her injuries and Gilbert was charged with murder. A Bexar County jury acquitted him, leading the sex worker community and people with general good sense to ask: how in the hell did this happen?

Jury trials are, in theory, supposed to be fairer than bench trials as they are decided by a panel of people who bring a variety of life experiences and thoughts to the table. Both sides of have the chance to weed out a few jurors who they think have too much bias during jury selection, but there is simply no way to weed out all jurors with bias. There is also no way to ensure jurors are actually listening to testimony or understand the law. I’ve seen trials where jurors literally fell asleep and then went off to a small room to decide the fate of another human being.

In this case, prosecutors needed to convince these twelve people that Gilbert had committed the act of murder according to the state’s definition. If the facts did show that Gilbert committed murder, there was still a way to find him not guilty: his attorneys could show that he had a plausible affirmative defense. An affirmative defense is a defense that argues the defendant’s actions may meet the elements of the crime, but his actions had good (and legal) reason behind them.

The Right To Survive: The Case of Alisha Walker

Alisha Walker. (Courtesy of Sherri Chatman)
Alisha Walker (Courtesy of Sherri Chatman)

by Red Schulte and Cathryn Berarovich of the Support Ho(s)e Collective 

Alisha Walker was just 20 years old when she had to defend herself against a client who was drunk and violent. She was 22 when she was convicted of second degree murder and 15 years in prison for defending both her own life and the life of a friend who was also on the scene. She is now 23 years old and behind bars at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois, seeking new legal representation and awaiting an appeals process.

In January 2014, Alisha Walker and a close friend of hers went to Alan Filan’s house in Orland Park, a Chicago suburb, to do a double session with Filan. Walker had seen Filan at least twice, and she had not screened him through any online resources. Afterwards, Walker told her mother that she immediately knew something was different about Filan this time. He was heavily intoxicated and very aggressive. He insisted that Walker’s friend didn’t look like her photos in the Backpage advertisement. When the two women refused to have unprotected sex with him, he threatened them with a knife. Walker was able to wrestle the knife from Filan and stab him several times, saving her own life and the life of her friend.

Alisha Walker, like many of us, comes from an average working class family, while her clients, like Filan, are mostly well-off and well-connected. Filan’s brother William Filan is a high-paid lobbyist whose clients have included the city of Chicago and JP Morgan Chase. His sister Denise Filan is a judge in the third subcircuit of Cook County.

Even Alan Filan himself was covered in a veneer of respectability, a seemingly-upstanding community member who taught at Brother Rice Catholic High School. It was easy for the media to portray Filan as a good man, rather than the violent aggressor he was, despite his tendency to be a mean, misogynistic drunk. Our efforts to screen his e-mails revealed multiple accounts of sex workers listing him as a bad client, cautioning against booking sessions with him. Even the articles most sympathetic to his memory recount his casual verbal abuse of the young soccer players whom he coached.

Walker was held in Cook County without bond for over two years while the media sensationalized the death of her attacker with wildly differing accounts of how many stab wounds he’d actually suffered, going so far as to include hesitation marks among the mortal wounds. Accounts of the stab wounds numbered from 10 to 14 in news articles, though the coroner’s report lists 14 hesitation marks and only two mortally inflicted wounds. Walker’s account of Filan’s drunkenness was confirmed by toxicology reports showing Filan’s blood alcohol content registered at a 0.208 when he was found days after his death.

Filan was remembered as a flawed but lovable man, brutally murdered. Walker, however, was never spoken about as a human being, the devoted big sister and caring and outgoing young woman her mother describes her as. Media outlets covering the story rarely mentioned that she had seen Filan at least twice without incident before he attacked her. Nor did they remark on the fact that she saved her own life and that of another woman’s in the face of Filan’s assault. There were at least 20 Backpage ads printed out on Filan’s desk, but the media often omitted this detail in their stories on the case. Nor did most articles on Walker address rumors that Filan was a habitual client of sex workers, and often (as Chicago sex worker screening sources record) was not respectful of the workers he saw.