While there has been no shortage of sex trafficking panic in the media leading up to Super Bowl 50, there has also been a refreshing plethora of reasoned reporting regarding the oft inflated and falsified statistics that anti-trafficking organizations tout around major sporting events. Friends, I am no statistician, and I will not waste this post on statistical arguments for whether or not sex trafficking is happening around major sporting events. I think it’s clear that many different kinds of labor trafficking do happen around the Super Bowl and other major sporting events because it happens everywhere all the time. But, not at the level of, say, 10,000 child sex slaves in need of immediate rescue/incarceration/return to abusive situations. As an Aquarian, an INFP, or whatever other woo woo descriptor you can think of for someone who is “emotionally intelligent,” I’d instead like to talk about my anecdotal observations on American football fans, and how likely I feel they are to hire anyone for sex.
I was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, or “Bronco’s Country” as some folks like to call it, home of the team currently en route to the Super Bowl. My own family’s love for yelling at the TV during a Broncos’ game determined my personal distaste for the sport—as did some realized misandry and unrealized classism. For many years of my life, my opinions on football fans were often based on my own uncomfortable childhood and the Broncos fans I saw around me; football fans were lovers of patriarchy, capitalism, violence and, worst of all, the status-quo. With these sorts of stereotypes in mind, it’s easy to understand where a lot of the assumptions may come from around the Super Bowl sex trafficking myths.
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.
In the face of increasing media interest and consistent pressure from sex worker activists, A&E has deleted the website for 8 Minutes from its site and pulled the next episode, which was scheduled to air this Thursday night. Tits and Sass left a message with the show’s publicist (and even spelled out the name of this blog), so if they choose to reply we will update this post. (Edit: the website has re-appeared sans video.)
On Sunday, reporter and sex worker activist Alana Massey spoke to On The Media about the A&E docudrama in which cop-turned-pastor Kevin Brown tries to convince sex workers to leave the business by offering them help getting out. The show is pure artifice. Supposedly, Brown poses as a client, calls workers to make an appointment, and then once they are in the room (outfitted with hidden cameras, Brown wearing a clumsy earpiece to communicate with his “team”), he has 8 minutes to make his case. In reality, the show was scripted, and producers identified themselves to workers to explain the setup and offer them compensation at filming. The premise was as much a sham as the offer of help, which took the form of phone numbers for counseling centers and hotlines rather than housing and job assistance.
Before the show’s premiere, Massey wrote about the show for the New Republic. “Any attempt to coerce them out of sex work in the absence of viable work alternatives is an invitation to starve.” In her On The Media appearance, she said that everything that sex workers had been saying about the show had proved true: Not only did it further an unhelpful and sensational narrative that all sex workers were victims, it failed to actually come through with meaningful help for those who wanted to leave the business and possibly put them at higher risk of arrest.
There’s been no shortageof coverage of A&E’s 8 Minutes, the ostensible reality show in which cop-turned-pastor Kevin Brown makes appointments with sex workers and then has the titular amount of time to make a case for them to stop their work. Lane Champagne wrote here in December that
Of all the professions to produce potential sex work interventionists, law enforcement and clergy are at the very top of the Unsuitable list. Behind those two are literally every single other profession, because sex work interventions are vile exercises in the hatred and shaming of sex working individuals and shouldn’t exist.
Supposedly, women who want to leave sex work will be given help. From A&E’s website: “8 Minutes follows Pastor Kevin Brown and his Lives Worth Saving team as they help sex workers and victims of sex trafficking leave their dangerous situations behind to start over.” And how do they do that?
Last week, one woman, who goes by Kamylla, came forward on Twitter to hold the show’s producers accountable for promising her assistance in exchange for her appearance on the show, then leaving her twisting in the wind when she was arrested soon after, having returned to work from economic necessity when they didn’t provide the promised help in exiting the industry.
Kamylla received a call on her work number from the producers of the show, who immediately identified themselves as such (this is in contrast to the premise of the show, which implies that the women believe they are coming to a normal appointment, only to be met by Brown). She agreed to tape a segment for the show, in which she said she wanted help getting out of the business, and after the taping was told she’d soon hear back with more information and assistance.
She never heard back from them, and instead reached out herself, but no meaningful help was to come. Kamylla found herself broke and needing to work again. She posted an ad, using the same number the 8 Minutes producers had contacted her on, and was arrested in a sting. Now she was broke, frightened, and facing criminal charges, and when she reached out for help from 8 Minutes, Brown offered to pray for her.
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.
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.