Glamorous Degradation: On Sex Workers and Authenticity in Cinema

Sex work is known widely and colloquially as “the oldest profession,” a moniker with mythical underpinnings, and as such, it’s the object of fascination for civilians of all stripes. Musicians love to write songs about sex workers. Composers write operas; novelists write whole series devoted to their fantasies about what it might be like to “sell your body.” TV shows write in sex worker characters to add titillating yet victimized elements to their stories, or use sex workers as the butt of their jokes. And movies about sex workers, of course, abound. Usually these tales end in tragedy and dismay, but as a sex worker, very few of these representations hold any weight with me.

I’ve been a stripper for three and a half years, but I’ve been fascinated with sex work in some way, shape, or form, for far, far longer. It’s something that I’m only beginning to figure out, now that the shine and glamor of babystripper-hood has worn off and I’ve seen the glitz, the glam, and also the frank grossness of working in the sex industry long enough to be concerned about how I might explain a gap in my resume if I ever needed to. Luckily for me, no such gap really exists – a combination of deliberate choice as well as privilege – but even that is part of the problem of sex worker representation in mainstream culture. Non-sex workers can write about our stories and our lives, and phenomenally wealthy Hollywood actresses receive Oscar buzz for portraying us, but doing the work itself is still, on paper, at times a trap from which it’s difficult to extricate yourself.

Storytelling and Self-concept

The decision to become a sex worker is informed by the complex interactions of choice, circumstance, and coercion, and it’s difficult to tease those threads apart. I decided to strip because the 9-to-5 administrator life I’d assumed was my only option after graduating with a Creative Writing degree was wearing me down. Miserable and anxious, drinking too much, lost and throwing myself into vaguely unhealthy if not actively harmful sexual relationships, I was searching for… something, I’m still not clear what. Erik Erikson would tell me I was struggling to navigate intimacy vs. isolation, and will be at least until my mid-40s. I think I wanted some type of meaningful purpose, and the ability to carve out some sense of agency over my life, especially with regard to my sexual identity and subjectivity, having always been conditioned to believe, consciously or not, of my body as an object, and my selfhood as a supporting role, not a protagonist, even in my own life.

But what, I often wonder, about the time I spent before I started stripping, led me to sex work? Misinformed sociologists and psychotherapists will try to point to some kind of trauma, and I’m not interested in that. Rates of trauma for gender minoritized people are so high, yet not every victim of sexual trauma, in childhood or otherwise, becomes a sex worker, so throw that theory in the trash and remind yourself that correlation does not imply causation while you’re at it. What I am interested in, instead, are the stories I interacted with in my childhood: the books I read, the movies I watched, the characters who spoke to me, who made their mark on my hungry and dynamic adolescent brain and who made this type of work speak to me, ultimately, so that possibility overrode shame, stigma, and fear.

In considering this, I remember some of the characters that stand out to me in retrospect, and I search for characters that, upon reflection, make me wanna shout in Tumblr-speak: HEADCANON ACCEPTED. Like canonical sex worker Jessica Rabbit, who clued my pre-teen brain unconsciously to the themes of perception and femininity. Jessica Rabbit taught me that sometimes we can’t help how we’re perceived (especially those of us who are “just drawn that way,” an indictment of the complex web of gender, race, and body type if I’ve ever heard one), and that there can be power in playing with that on your own terms. Esmeralda, from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in retrospect is Disney’s sex worker princess who pole dances exuberantly in the Town Square and sticks Frollo’s repressed and hyper-religious nose in it, before being the only person in a crowd full of people to stand up for the vulnerable and marginalized Quasimodo in the face of Frollo’s cruelty. (That, more than her dancing, is what codes her as a sex worker to me.) Megara from Hercules is a sex worker cautionary tale. She’s sardonic and burnt out on men after she sold her soul to save her boyfriend’s life, and he left her “for some babe,” and a reminder never to sacrifice the bag or your own emotional well-being for a romantic relationship. Yet Megara is still, somehow, brave, and soft, and loving, despite what she’s endured, a testament to sex worker resilience. Even Crysta from Ferngully is a character for whom my adult mind reads some sex work adjacent themes. Headcanon: Christa is a climate change activist who funds her work by being scantily clad and always dancing, a dream girl who is literally a manic pixie, but who has her feet on the ground when it comes to how important her politics are to her.

None of these characters are sex workers outright but they, more than any other characters I’ve interacted with since I started dancing, exemplify what it means to be a sex worker to me, and they aren’t even meant to. The fact that they’re all also more or less wholesome cartoon characters, and even within the length of 90-minute Disney (or Disney-adjacent) feature films, contain more complexity and depth than most other media representations of sex workers is not lost on me. When looking for purposeful representations of sex workers, I’m consistently coming up short.

“I was the slut of all time!” Sex, Work, Shame, and Depravity

Butterfield 8 stars Elizabeth Taylor as a Manhattan call girl trying to get herself on the straight and narrow for the first time in her life. The movie opens with Taylor in bed, the dress she wore the night before torn, and $250 on the bedside table with a note from last night’s – lover? client? – stating that he hopes the sum is enough to cover whatever transpired between them. Somewhat confusingly, Taylor’s character – the flawlessly named Gloria Wandrous – leaves the money behind and scrawls in lipstick on the vanity mirror, “No sale.” From the drop, the movie frames sex work as something shameful that any respectable woman would be insulted to be implicated in, and it doubles down on this theme throughout the movie. Sex workers, as portrayed in the character of Gloria, are loose women, driven by obscene and improper desires that they are helpless to resist, and then tormented, as Gloria is, by their own moral weakness. Sex workers today may be familiar with the real life implications of these tropes: That by choosing this work, we are taking the so-called easy way out. Non-sex worker conceptualizations of this work is just taking titty pictures and waiting for the cash to roll in, or grinding on drunk dude’s laps to make a quick buck. What they don’t see is the many and varied levels of skill, tenacity, and resilience that it takes to successfully do this work and sustain it over time.

Butterfield 8, which was released in 1960, hits all the marks when it comes to predictable tropes depicting sex workers that, in the decades since then, haven’t budged much when our stories are told by civilians. Gloria is a party girl who is revealed to have a dirty, shameful, traumatic secret: When she was 13, she was molested by her mother’s boyfriend, and this was her initiation into being, “the slut of all time!” a phrase she cries out in dismay to her mother at the movie’s climax. Why? As Gloria herself explains, completely beside herself, to her oldest childhood friend Steve (played Eddie Fisher, Taylor’s then-husband), it’s because, when she was initiated into a warped awareness of sexuality via violence and trauma, she enjoyed it.

(Perhaps the only silver lining about this movie is that Elizabeth Taylor herself, despite rumors of an Oscar nod for her performance, roundly hated the movie and, along with Fisher, referred to it as “Butterball Four.” She was contractually obligated to make the movie before leaving Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and flying in the face of all the fanfare surrounding the movie was known to have stated blithely, “I still say it stinks.” Thanks, Liz.)

Butterfield 8 does little to handle the themes of trauma, victimhood, healing, authentic sexuality, and sex work, with anything approaching nuance, which is unsurprising – very little was known about responses to trauma in 1960. In fact, one of the most well known texts in the field of mental health with regard to trauma and healing, Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, wasn’t published until 1992. And in 1960, psychoanalysis was still in its height. Psychoanalysis, a subsection of psychotherapy known for the hyper-masculine infallibility of “blank slate” male clinicians, was descended from Sigmund Freud’s own disavowal and betrayal of female victims of sexual trauma in order to further his career. (Herman herself expounds upon this in Trauma and Recovery, noting that some of Freud’s first forays into the creation of psychoanalysis as a modality were built on interviews with many, many female victims of childhood sexual assault. When he published a paper stating this, however, he was met with disdainful disbelief from leading male practitioners in the field, and later recanted his theory and replaced it with the Electra Complex – certainly the most nefarious effort to further one’s own career at the expense of literal generations of women survivors of childhood sexual assault – past, present, and future, that I’ve ever heard.)

Yet while Gloria’s story as a protagonist is salacious and over the top for me personally as a sex worker, there are elements of Butterfield 8 that, sadly, do strike true. Not, perhaps, in the events of her life – for at least the first half of the movie, I was confused as to whether or not she was even a sex worker at all. Why, for example, would she return the money in the very first scene, or be surprised by it? Get the money up front was one of the first lessons I learned at the club, after all.

Rather, what rings true is the way Gloria is viewed through the eyes of everyone around her. Even as the central character, she hardly seems to have any subjectivity of her own, a paternalistic dynamic that is too often reflected in the way that even the most well-meaning advocacy groups interact with sex workers, objectifying us and making assumptions that we’re helpless, completely without agency, and need to be saved – whether from our pitiable circumstances, or from our own moral turpitude. For example, see Gloria through the eyes of Steve, who loves her in the patronizing way that many male relatives and friends of sex workers often do, exasperated with her freewheeling antics and condescending even in his concern for her safety – as though Gloria, or any person in a feminine-presenting body, doesn’t worry about her safety in every waking moment. We see her through the eyes of Norma, Steve’s longtime girlfriend, the jealous, uptight, insecure Madonna to Gloria’s Whore, who slutshames and insults Gloria at every opportunity. We watch the interactions that go on between Gloria and her mother, who, like many parents of sex workers, makes an art form out of denial, a response that likely originated at the time of Gloria’s assault in her childhood and has continued throughout her life. Her mother’s best friend Francis is more clearsighted when it comes to how Gloria is living her life, but spares no empathy for her.

Finally, we see Gloria through the eyes of Liggett, a sad boy to end all sad boys, wealthy through marriage and stunted in his toxic approximation of masculinity, having to suffer the grave insult of working for his wife’s family as an executive in a wildly prosperous chemical plant. A philanderer and a nihilistic lout of the highest order, the movie asks us to believe that over the course of five days, Liggett falls in love with Gloria, and it’s a love so pure that he’s willing to turn his whole life around for her, fly straight, and return to practicing law, that pinnacle of honorable professions. His love is tested when he comes face-to-face with her colorful past as he hops from bar to bar in the city looking for her one night. When she, fleeing from him by car in the hopes of making a new start on her own, crashes and is killed, all he can say of her in memoriam is “On the surface, she was all sex and devil may care…yet everything in her was struggling toward respectability” – respectability, of course, meaning abandoning her life to love and be made an honest woman by…him, of all people.

Butterfield 8 may have been made in 1960, but trope that a sex worker can only be redeemed through death didn’t get left behind in the sixties. It’s in Moulin Rouge, which I always stop one scene just before the end, preferring to believe that Satine gives her final performance at the French nightclub and goes on to fulfill her dreams of becoming a “real actress” with or without Christian, if need be. It’s there in Joss Whedon’s Firefly, in the episode “Heart of Gold,” when the house madam, Nandi, dies in the final shoot out. The trope would likely have been present within the core cast of characters, as well, had the show been picked up for more seasons. It’s common knowledge within the fandom that Inara, the Companion (a sex worker whose position in the Firefly ‘verse seems to call back to the archetype of the Sacred Whore, though Inara is disrespected both by episodic villains and by the Firefly’s captain and reluctant hero, Malcolm Reynolds, at every opportunity) was meant to be written off with a terminal illness. Inara theoretically only existed to be fridged, that is, killed off to further the plot of the protagonist, Malcom Reynolds and cause him some great and growth-engendering Man Pain for the sake of the story arc, while atoning for her status as sex worker through death.

“Lying’s the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off, but it’s better if you do”: The Unattainable High Femme

Even if the sex worker doesn’t die in the end, many movies make it seem like our role is simply to be a sounding board and/or unpaid emotional support for the male protagonists, to whom the real action belongs. Even Marisa Tomei’s stripper character in The Wrestler wasn’t exempt from this, though she was a portrayal of sex workers that I liked better than most. In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed up pro-wrestler struggling to make ends meet. He falls in love with Pam/Cassidy, a veteran stripper who dances to support herself and her kid, and the two bond implicitly over the fact that both of their lives haven’t turned out to be everything they’d hoped. Tomei, intermittently flinty and tender, does a great job of portraying what it’s like to interact with a customer who you genuinely do feel some authentic regard for, but since the movie is from Randy’s perspective, it’s never quite made clear whether his antics are those of a regular who reads too much into the relationship and inexhaustibly projects his fantasy of Cassidy to slake his own loneliness, or if he actually sees her for who she really is. Whether this is a deft nod to the dynamics between clients and sex workers (and, more broadly, the dynamic that often exists between cishet men and women), or just a pitfall of a male creator’s writing to perpetuate this pattern of projection and objectification within normative gender roles is still mostly unclear to me.

It’s true that Pam/Cassidy is Randy’s peer, both in age with regard to their respective fields (stripping/wrestling). They also seem to share similarities in social class and in navigating the stigma, exoticization, and, to some degree, degradation, of their professions: I cringed with unease in the hardcore cage fighting scene Randy was forced to fight and felt, I imagine, the way some non-sex workers feel when they consider the prospect of sex workers “selling our bodies” – though I will say I’ve never been so disgusted with my job that I’ve gone home and puked the way Randy does after that fight. And while Pam/Cassidy certainly relates to Randy a lot, and seems to share in his loneliness, some of the decisions she makes in how she interacts with him remind me more of who I was when I was barely a few months into stripping. Her boundaries fluctuate, and she becomes genuinely invested in his life, to the point where she not only meets up with and spends time with him outside of the club, but also spends time with him at work, uncompensated, arguing about the nature of their relationship. While it’s certainly true that many workers have different attitudes, boundaries, relationships, and emotional attachments to their customers, this was particularly jarring to me, and made it hard to continue to suspend my disbelief. One of the most frustrating aspects of my job speaks to exactly this: most customers (especially the younger dudes) seem to come into the club looking for a girlfriend, and will waste your time as if this is a remote possibility. I come into the club looking to pay my rent. This doesn’t mean that genuine enjoyment of each other’s presence is totally impossible, but the entitlement and blatant disregard for boundaries on the part of customers is draining, frustrating, and as time goes on, something that I have less and less patience for.

Contrast this with two of my favorite portrayals of sex workers in cinema: Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (and, even more so, that character in the novel by Truman Capote), and Jane in Closer. Both Holly Golightly (another perfect call girl name) and Jane, played by Natalie Portman, epitomize what I try to emulate as a stripper: The Unattainable High Femme. This unattainability is, of course, a given to me only; to customers, I have to appear incredibly attainable, depending on their fantasies. Satine in Moulin Rouge sums it up nicely: “What’s his type? Wilting flower? Bright and bubbly? Smoldering temptress?”

I read this dynamic of unattainability into both Hepburn’s Holly Golightly and Portman’s Jane – the pearls, the outrageous cigarette holder, the fae-like inflections in tone and cadence Holly’s voice; Jane’s bubblegum pink wig and slow, mischievous drawl when she says her “cunt tastes like heaven.” An invitation and a boundary, and the High Femme mask its own blank slate upon which we figure out which characters within us – our many selves – we invite out to play at work, and which ones we protect. This chameleon-like ability to discern which parts of yourself will resonate most lucratively with a particular customer certainly sounds like something out of Sybil, but it’s something that we all have the capacity to do, and often do without a second thought simply as a way of being social creatures in relationship with others.

Both Jane and Holly also understand relationships in a way that rings distinctly true to me as a sex worker. At the end of Closer for example, Jane has left London after dancing for Larry (Clive Owen), her own beau Dan’s (Jude Law) arch nemesis, at the strip club where she works. Dan, unable to let it the fuck go, tries multiple times to make Jane (who he knows as “Alice,” not her real name) account for what went down in the V.I.P. room; Jane tells him time and time again that she just danced, and talked, to Larry, but Law refuses to believe her. “I don’t wanna lie. I can’t tell the truth. So it’s over,” Jane says, before changing the story again, seemingly trying out various storylines to test which one Dan wants to believe. He chooses the one that makes him the hero – Jane, admitting to having sex with Larry, so that he, Dan, in his beneficence, can forgive her. When he insists that he loves her, Jane demands, “Where is this love? I can’t see it, I can’t touch it, I can’t feel it. I can hear it. I can hear some words. But I can’t do anything with your easy words.” Jane knows, as all sex workers know, that it takes more than words to show that you love us. It takes constant and consistent action to do the work of truly loving us, which is the work of unlearning, on an intrapersonal and interpersonal scale, all the social scripts and narratives – the trite and boring movie plotlines, the dead hooker jokes, the efforts to save a hoe with anti-trafficking initiatives that, in reality, help no one but make advocates feel better about themselves – to love a sex worker in a way that we can feel it.

Holly Golightly knows this too, though it’s only in the novel Breakfast At Tiffany’s that she actually acts on it. At the end of the novel, she disappears, ghosting the no-name narrator who has been projecting his fantasy of her onto her during the entire time he’s known her. This projection is made more explicit in the movie, with Paul’s wheedling neediness somehow winning Holly over at the end (in all likelihood to “redeem” her character for audiences in the way that Gloria Wandrous was meant to be redeemed by love and marriage). Paul – who Holly only ever calls “Fred,” another attempt at setting a boundary with a man who is trying to force the relationship to be something it’s not – judges Holly for her lifestyle and wants to save her from it; hypocritical, considering he’s also a kept man with a sugar mama.

In response to this, Holly tells him, “People don’t belong to people. We belong to nobody and nobody belongs to us.” While Hepburn instills that line with petulance and some misery, to me, it simply rings true, and is emblematic of the total and sacred autonomy I’ve had to wrangle for myself over the course of my adolescent and adult life, struggling against the social conditioning of what it means to be feminine – who is this body for, if not me? The nature of sex work stigma, with its hatred of autonomous femininity (where femininity encompasses all genders daring to exist in opposition to the default that is cissexist, heteronormative, and toxic masculinity) is merely a heightened and condensed version of this social conditioning. In the three years that I’ve had to live my life navigating this stigma, I’ve begun to learn to declare: My body is my own, as are my choices, no matter how it may look to others who don’t understand.

“We’re not doing this for a laugh!”: Sex Work, Class, and the Trouble with Circumstance & Coercion

Most of the portrayals of strippers and sex workers in film that focus on feminine folks are still too steeped in glamor and degradation to approximate anything that feels truly authentic to me. When I watch these movies, I find myself writing fan fictions in my head: What details would I change, to make this piece of art truly for me, and for the community that I love? Maybe it’s simply that the sex workers on film would just be a lot more… regular.

The Full Monty is about six working class guys laid off from their construction jobs and struggling to get by, so they decide to strip. This is the type of regular I relate to. I snapped my fingers in solidarity when the main character Gaz, played by Robert Carlyle, says with exasperation, “We’re not doing this for a laugh!” But it’s telling that the portrayals of strippers that seem most authentic to me are of sex workers whose gender identities are so different from mine. The Full Monty, where class and money and the pressure they put on average people trying to live their lives, are front and center of the otherwise fairly lighthearted film. Magic Mike, where the joy of performance and the debauchery of nightlife, are allowed and mostly accepted, at least partially because the strippers are men. Why is this? Some of my cursory theories include that it’s impossible for mainstream media and pop culture to understand that non-men, too – and, specifically, feminine-presenting people – can do a job just because, money-wise, it’s a better job than most, and can enjoy a job that’s about sex appeal and performance without being vain bimbos. (And also – be a vain bimbo! What’s so wrong with thinking you’re hot shit?) Even when we’re struggling to make our livings, mainstream culture seems to suggest, feminine-presenting folks need to do it sexily. And whenever there’s sex and a feminized body, of course, degradation is close to follow.

Yet as friend of mine, also a sex worker and therapist, posted, there’s nothing sexy about the social forces that get many of us in this industry. “Did you know that there are 300k licensed social workers in the U.S., but only 20% have an LCSW?” she asked in a recent IG story. “It takes two years of field work (1000 clinical hours) to get your Masters, and you don’t get paid!” she wrote, describing the two years of unpaid internships we both went through in our MSW programs while still also having to pay for our rent, food, tuition, and health insurance. “Then you get your 2000 hours of LMSW work over the next 3 years post-grad, during which you typically get paid minimum wage for the same high stakes work! Think about the kind of folks with the means to stick it out in such underpaid work for five entire years! We need more folks with lived experiences of oppression as LCSWs, but the system doesn’t set us up to make it to this point.”

I’m still stripping now, because ironically, the decision to get a Masters degree has put me in a more financially precarious position than I’ve ever been in before, and on the spectrum of choice, circumstance, and coercion, I’m now more firmly situated in “circumstance” than in years past – or even skirting close to coercion, if you consider late stage disaster capitalism a coercive social force. (I do.) To illustrate: I get paid $25 for a 45-minute therapy session, and $30-40 on average for a 5-minute lapdance. To illustrate further: a recent job listing I saw for a full time MSW-level, bilingual-is-a-must, excellent-computer-skills mandatory, caseworker job offered a salary in the high 20k-range, and was located in New York City. Crisis management and time spent 24-hours on call was part of the job description.

In the face of that, I’ll keep stripping ‘til I have a private practice, roughly 2000 hours of supervised therapy sessions and 36 months from the time I get my license, because it’s no big deal to be wildly underpaid in one of the most expensive cities in the world for three more years post-graduation, I guess. This doesn’t feel particularly sexy to me, but it also doesn’t feel degrading in the way that most mainstream movies position the decision to do sex work as degrading. While I experience misogyny and various shades violence in the club on occasion, it’s not wildly different from being a feminine-presenting person walking down the street, for one thing. For another, I know for a fact that I would feel far more exploited in a full time social work position making 20k a year.

“The only thing that’s distressed is y’all”: Against Civvie Storytellers

Before I started stripping, I admit was one of those civilians with stars in my eyes. The longer I dance, the more often I find myself reflecting on my life and wondering when this fascination began. Sex workers are like everyone else: We’re therapists, and teachers, and bank tellers, and students, and artists, and activists, and parents. A few of us are come quite close to being wealthy. Most of us are struggling or poor. But working in the sex industry for any amount of time also gives you a glimpse into a world that not many people get to see, or want to. For creators in particular, it seems to be preferable to imagine this world along several very trite and recognizable tropes, rather than to seek out sex workers ourselves, ask us about our lives, and really listen when we start to tell you. (Or give us money to write and produce our own stories!)

I may continue to strip, though, even after I have a private practice, depending on how I feel about it and whether my body holds up. It’s the only job I’ve ever had where, three years in, I’m still mostly not bored, and is definitely the only job where I at least stand a chance of being paid even close to what my time is worth. While Channing Tatum in Magic Mike might have qualms about being a 30-year-old stripper, I do not. I’m not ashamed of my work, and in an industry as economically unpredictable as the sex industry, I’ve had to find so many more things about the job to enjoy, in the lean months, than just the money. Stripping has given me freedom, flexibility, excitement, and community in a way that no other job ever has. Sex work has improved my mental and physical health, my ability to assert my boundaries, to call bullshit, and stand up for myself, and has gifted me with an almost alarming excess of confidence. This is not to imply that it’s all roses, but I’d be lying if I said that the thought of walking away from this part of the job won’t be difficult.

Write me a movie about that.

Janis Luna is a stripper, writer, and sex-worker-affirming therapist who lives at the intersection of art and activism.

Janis has written 4 articles for us.

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