Sex work is slowly being de-stigmatized with more nuanced on-screen depictions that show what the reality of the industry is like — and it’s about time. For too long, TV and film have depicted sex workers – like strippers or escorts – as calculating gold-diggers, damaged women who get to be saved by a benevolent man, or serve as the butt of jokes for the audience. Here’s our take on how the public is beginning to change its mind about sex work, and the positive ripple effects that could have for their industry – and for society as a whole.
Sex work is slowly being de-stigmatized with more nuanced on-screen depictions that show what the reality of the industry is like — and it’s about time.
By definition, sex workers are adults who receive money or goods in exchange for consensual services or performances. Their legitimacy in society’s workforce has been highly contested and some point to the fact that the job is inherently dangerous. Sex workers do face a higher risk of violence and emotional harm – but it’s actually the stigmatization and criminalization of the industry that allows for their exploitation.
And harmful tropes onscreen haven’t helped. For too long, TV and film have depicted sex workers – like strippers or escorts – as calculating gold-diggers, damaged women who get to be saved by a benevolent man, or serve as the butt of jokes for the audience.
Lily Aldrin: Crawl for it stripper me! - How I Met Your Mother
But the overton window around the industry is shifting. During the pandemic, Onlyfans enjoyed a boom in both users and creators. Stories of vulnerable people in this industry focus less on the work itself, and on the problem of violence against women more broadly. The glamorization of pimps as high-rolling moguls has been strongly challenged from all corners.
Even our language has changed, with “sex worker” now more commonly used as opposed to more pejorative alternatives. And the movement to decriminalize parts of the industry has surged in popularity – a step that would ensure the health and safety of those involved , and decrease human trafficking.
Jonah Simms: I can’t believe you hired a prostitute. Sorry, sex worker, you have agency. - Superstore
Here’s our take on how the public is beginning to change its mind about sex work, and the positive ripple effects that could have for their industry – and for society as a whole.
There are a number of tropes that sex workers typically fall into when we see them on screen: the “hooker with a heart of gold,” the single mom stripper, the predatory prostitute, or the high-class call girl – just to name a few. But even when they’re shown to have some positive attributes – their characters feel exploitative and degrading. Refinery29’s Audrey Moore writes that “in the vast majority of their programming, sex workers are treated one of two ways: as punching bags or punchlines.” Implicit in both of these tropes is a sense of disposability — that they aren’t really people or even characters in their own right. They can be used for a narrative purpose, and then discarded. In Very Bad Things, the plot revolves around the fact that a bachelor party accidentally kills a stripper. This same trope is rehashed — and admittedly then subverted — in the more recent Rough Night.
Even in victimhood, sex workers are dehumanized. One of the most famous crime cases of all time, Jack The Ripper, is a story of five prostitutes murdered by a serial killer in Victorian London. However, the story almost never focuses on who these women were – with Hallie Rubenhold’s 2019 book The Five being one of the first to reframe the narrative around them, rather than the mysterious killer. Similarly in American Psycho, the narrative is more concerned with the psychology and monstrousness of Patrick Bateman, and the two escorts he tortures are simply collateral damage in exploring that.
Christie: I’m not so sure about this, I had to go to emergency last time.
Patrick Bateman: This won’t be like last time, I promise. - American Psycho
But perhaps just as bad as these depictions are the ones that end up as savior narratives. In these, the implication is that sex work is a last resort, and that nobody could be happy doing it. We often see this with our “hooker with a heart of gold” characters – she’s sweet, good-natured, and deserves to be pulled out of this undesirable life – usually by becoming the main character’s love interest. Pretty Woman is arguably the defining example of this – it’s a kind of modern day Cinderella story, where the rich businessman can lift the “lowly prostitute” out of her life on the streets and into something more civilized. We get a romantic, happy ending but the original ending was much darker. Apparently, according to the film’s screenwriter, Edward was never meant to rescue Vivian – he was going to throw her out of his car, toss the money on her, and drive away. Instead of the “hooker with a heart of gold” she would have been another, disposable escort.
Even when they do get “saved” the underlying message that they’re less than never seems to dissipate. In Peaky Blinders – Tommy Shelby gives Lizzie Stark a quote unquote “better life” by giving her a more respectable job. And he eventually marries her – but only after his true love dies. Lizzie is positioned as a last resort and her past as a woman of the night is constantly used as a slight against her.
Tommy Shelby: Well Lizzie, you know in my head I still pay you for it. - Peaky Blinders
The movie The Wrestler goes so far as to compare stripping with getting professionally beat up. Cassidy’s line of work is juxtaposed with Randy’s, and both of them are depicted as almost being forced to put their bodies through pain and suffering in order to make a living. What underpins all of these depictions is that the sex workers rarely get a chance to speak for themselves. They’re supporting characters, or throwaway lines, and their stories get told through other people’s points of view. When that happens, we don’t get the truth of their experience, but instead get a lot of assumptions about what that experience is: that it’s lonely, it’s desperate, it’s depressing. But now, those assumptions are being challenged, as new stories are emerging that are told with more authenticity.
Positive depictions of sex workers onscreen don’t necessarily need to show them as happy or successful all the time – as there are certainly cases in which a lack of resources have led to this career choice – but rather they should reflect the fact that sex work is work. Whether it’s adult entertainment, exotic dancing, or providing an escort service – it’s often a choice that these people have made, rather than being something they’ve been forced into.
There’s a greater richness to many of today’s depictions of sex workers, in which their work doesn’t define them — it’s just one aspect of their personality. In the recent psychological thriller, The Menu, it isn’t revealed until much later in the movie what main character, Margot, does for work. And we’re forced to draw a comparison between her role as an escort and those who work in the foodservice industry – two professions society tends to look down upon, that we shouldn’t. Natalie Hepburn of Tryst notes, “In an inversion of the dated ‘dead hooker’ trope in film, a dehumanizing device that drives home the point that society considers sex workers as disposable un-women, it is Margot’s sex work, and the lessons learnt from it, that saves her life as the sole survivor of ‘The Menu.’”
In The White Lotus, Lucia’s role as a call girl is essential to how she moves through the world, but there is a nuance to how it’s depicted. We see the glamorous side — the spending sprees, the high fashion. But we also see the more uncomfortable realities, like when she sleeps with Albie who is unaware he’s engaged her in a transaction until the morning after. So there’s a complexity to her character, and as a result a complexity to how her sex work is depicted. Similarly in Sean Baker’s work, he often makes sex workers his protagonists, and looks at all aspects of that industry — whether that be pornography in Red Rocket, dancing in The Florida Project, or escorting in Tangerine. In these films – instead of making assumptions – there’s more interest and curiosity in how people in these jobs live their lives, what they do and who they are when they’re not working, and the wider community they come into contact with.
With something like Zola, we get a dancer’s story told through her eyes, where really, the story isn’t about her work at all. As the twitter thread that formed the source material of the film began: it’s a story about how two girls fell out, one that’s kinda long but full of suspense. The fact that this was an adaptation of a story told by a sex worker lends it authenticity that other depictions just don’t have – which means the story feels more fully realized, allowing us to see this world with a different perspective.
Zola: Girl listen, no shade, no shame, do you, but that was not what you told me I was coming out here to do. - Zola
Perhaps no one film has done more to illuminate the struggle of sex workers in recent years than Hustlers. The true story of a group of dancers navigating their way through the financial crisis was unique in that it took us into a space we’re so used to seeing in film — the strip club — but gave us a behind the scenes look. In its juxtaposition between the dancers and the finance bros who frequent their services, we are invited to examine and compare the relative morality of both professions. And it’s made very clear: it’s not these women who are doing the immoral work. The way they get back at the people who have wronged them is a bit of a moral gray area – but day-to-day, they’re ordinary people, providing for their families, building strong communities, and making their own choices.
So, what’s happening in society that has led to these more nuanced depictions of sex workers on screen? For one thing, there has been a greater and more open discussion about the decriminalization of sex work. In 2020 the ACLU noted that there are active decriminalization bills in several states, and that Congress has introduced the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act to look at the effects of current legislation around sex work.
Sex work is one of the world’s oldest professions – and much like making abortion illegal – it won’t stop the practice, it only makes it less safe for those who do it. And a recent study states that, “evidence from decriminalized settings suggests that sex workers in these settings have greater negotiating power with clients and better access to justice.”
There has also been an increased move toward intersectionality in social justice movements, and this has had the knock-on effect in how we see sex workers and the struggle of sex workers. The fact that sex workers are more likely to be people of color, or from the LGBT+ community means that in supporting these workers’ rights, we’re also supporting the rights of those already marginalized communities.
Madam Mary: New Zealand seems to be the only country in the world that has got it right and that’s because they consulted sex workers, whereas any other countries doesn’t talk to sex workers, they just make plans and laws for them. - VICE Asia
Another contributing factor to this increased awareness was the #MeToo movement, and the criticism that movement received from sex workers. In the flood of stories that came out when the movement was at its height, sex workers complained that their own stories of abuse and assault were being brushed aside or ignored precisely because of their line of work. Speaking to Time, sex worker Melony Hill said: “They’ll say we’re just wh*res anyway — ‘How can you sexually assault a wh*re?’ I’ve had that said to me multiple times.” But this is the same old victim blaming that we’ve seen in sexual assault cases for years. It’s not difficult to see the direct link between this attitude toward sex workers, and the cultural depictions we’ve existed with for so long.
The slew of mainstream documentaries in recent years that focus on sex work are also helping to change this culture. Films like Hot Girls Wanted, Naked Ambition, and After Porn Ends dispense with cliches and instead model a curiosity for the industry. In 2018’s Blowin Up, which does focus on the stigma of sex work and the potential for exploitation involved within it, the focus is not on stigmatizing sex work further, but focusing that stigma and criticism on the right people — the men who exploit and abuse these women, and the systems that desperately need reforming if they’re going to live and work safely.
So we see how culture and society have this symbiotic relationship, but the common denominator is that, for the first time, we are hearing more authentic voices telling these stories. Instead of seeing them as tropes or stock characters, we’re seeing sex workers as people, and that change has been the most powerful.
Juno Mac: Sex workers are real people. We’ve had complicated experiences and complicated responses to those experiences. - TED
We’re all in a process of unlearning stigmas around the sex work industry, and those stigmas existed predominantly because it’s an industry many of us don’t have any direct interaction with. But with the pandemic upending this line of work, and making it a more viable career choice for people, that may be changing too. We still have a long way to go – as the increase in visibility for sex work has also seen a rise in SWERFs – or sex worker exclusionary radical feminist. These people claim to be feminists despite the fact that a cornerstone of the feminist movement is for all women to have bodily autonomy.
Which is why de-stigmatization onscreen is all the more important. It not only gives us new stories and narratives we haven’t seen before, which will provide a richer storytelling culture. But it will also impact the safety of sex workers in real life, who at the end of the day, just want the same rights as any other worker, and should be more than entitled to that.