Blog, Social Justice

Depictions of Sex Work in Film and Television

sex work

[cw: sex work, trans violence]

The second season of P-Valley, created by Katori Hall and streaming on Starz, premiered this past summer. The show is set in small-town Chucalissa, Mississippi, at a strip club called The Pynk, and the episodes are a beautiful mishmash of body, survival, love, money, and exploration. The club itself is run by Uncle Clifford, a non-binary Black person, who is opulent, visionary, and vibrant. In its focus on The Pynk, the show affirms how Black people express gender and sexuality. The added lure of money and power also provides a greater understanding of those who live in this world, motivated by the will to thrive. 

In many corners of society, and in cultural depictions, strippers are often presented as low and disposable. In reality, strippers are beacons of fantasy, and shows like P-Valley spotlight this.

Nuanced Depictions of Sex Work in Pop Culture

In fact, there are a number of shows and films that approach the life of a sex worker with more nuance than they’re typically afforded in real life. 

Hustlers and The Player’s Club, for example, are films that depict the lives of predominantly Black and brown strippers, underrepresented and marginalized communities who mostly work in this position. Money, access, ambition, and jealousy are elevated in these stories, in addition to the power that can be found through sexuality and independence.

There is also the violence and other consequences that can arise when one works as a stripper. Jezebel, streaming on Netflix, is about a young Black woman who follows her sister into sex work as a webcam model in the beginning years of internet cam work. The film shows how they chose this work to provide for their family, particularly since their mother is dying. The protagonist is presented as timid, yet she understands what is at stake if she does not perform. At the same time, she finds a sort of freedom in her sexuality.

Then there’s Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, streaming on Hulu, which stars Emma Thompson as a recently widowed woman named Nancy who is seeking an orgasm. She hires Leo Grande, played by Daryl McCormack, so she can have a fulfilling sexual experience. Nancy and Leo meet in a nice hotel room. Much of the story explores the desire for pleasure, and the need for Nancy to get out of her own head. The story also explores age, the ways in which older people are often desexualized, and the misconceptions about paying for sex. In showing viewers an older woman paying for sex, Good Luck to You presents a level of agency few women seem to feel they have. Emma Thompson shared in an interview that because older women are often not seen as desirable, seeing an older woman discover sex as pleasure is in fact pleasurable to watch. It is gratifying to see sex work presented as the medium through which Nancy is able to find power in sex. 

Sex Work from the Trans Community’s Perspective

Shame also plays a pivotal role in how sex work is viewed. In “The Greatest Pleasure” by Vietnamese trans person Xoai Pham, an essay featured in the anthology Sex and the Single Woman, shame is presented as being at the core of why people turn to violence and resist pleasure when paying for sex. Unsurprising, considering how we live in a society that scolds and hinders access to pleasure, mostly through a lack of education and via criminalization. 

This reality plays out in shows like Pose, where the main character, Angel, begins a relationship with a client who is married. Hiding from the police, living with the tension of possibly being caught, imagining a love relationship with her client who is also romantically unavailable… all of these things haunt Angel. At one point, a pivotal character is killed while engaging in sex work. These storylines show the perils and predicaments of trans people working where they must in order to provide for themselves, often in seedy hotels and discreet clubs where they are violated and murdered.

To learn more about how to support trans sex workers — including genderqueer, gender non-conforming, and Latin trans people — check out these resources

Literature and Further Perspectives on Sex Work

The Australian Feminists shared a great perspective on sex work over on their Instagram account: Sex work is work, they pointed out. Sex work needs to be protected by law. No matter the medium of sex work, whether it is phone sex, at a strip club, or in a hotel, sex work is a right. 

I love what Derecka Purnell, author of Becoming Abolitionists, offered on Twitter about what sex work can be. What if sex work was a way to be curious, be bored? What if sex work was a way to explore? To rid oneself of shame? Purnell reimagines sex as discovery instead of something people have to do, and in this reimagining, she takes away its stigma and shame.

The tweet by Derecka Purnell.

I also recommend learning about the work of the Haymarket Pole Collective, based in Oregon. The Collective “advocates proactive policy and equitable treatment for Black, Indigenous, and Trans sex workers + swoc.”

Ultimately, we cannot ethically view explicit content and have sex with sex workers without also advocating for their health and empowerment. ​And by extension, films and television shows that depict sex work need to show the nuances of such work, including the hope for power and pleasure that sits at its foundation.

On November 16, 2022, Carol Leigh, also known as Scarlot Harlot and coined the term “sex work”, died. Her activism included further advocacy for sex work.

Ashley Paul is a traveler, runner, and baker. She is an Everlasting Bookworm and Culture Maven. She is passionate about supporting high school juniors and seniors to write compelling stories for their post-secondary careers. She loves stories with social commentary, atmospheric writing, and compelling characters.

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