5 Ways Movies Get Sex Work Wrong (An Insider Look)
With so much hype around OnlyFans and a growing number of films about adult work, there's been a lot of frustration and resentment from those in the sex industry. A quick disclaimer: While I can't speak for everyone, my goal is to help shed some light on why this is an issue and give an insider's perspective. Yes, I am a sex worker. My name is Allison, and I go by EmpressxAllison on all of my other platforms. It's the title I use to promote my own work in the sex industry.
So, what exactly is the definition of sex work? In my own words, anything that requires money in exchange for a service that will result in a client's arousal. This could be anything from physical intimacy to chewing Bubblicious on camera. From being whipped to chatting about a mutual enjoyment of having pee-gasms (otherwise known as omorashi, the feeling of relief after holding it in). Okay, you might think I purposely picked silly stuff there (hey, no fetish shaming), but many people don't know that a large portion of sex work has nothing to do with nudity or even sex itself.
There's a great fascination with sex and specifically the adult industry, yet the public gets very little real insight. There is a reason for this. While everyone indulges, whether they want to admit it or not, it's still a taboo topic and not something many want, or are able, to share. It's therefore unsurprising that any depictions in film or documentaries can be wildly inaccurate but be taken at face value by outsiders. It's easy to see how people have gotten the wrong idea about sex workers. So if that's the case, where does this blame fall? Hollywood, of course!
Movies Keep Making Sex Workers Damsels In Distress
Let's start by covering two of the classic tropes and what makes them problematic. The first and most obvious one is "damsel in distress." Let's use Pretty Woman, for example.
Julia Roberts plays a character, Vivian, who is a streetwalker. This is otherwise known as survival sex work, meaning women doing the job out of need and approaching this work out of desperation. The majority of sex work is not "survival." A lot of us opt to be in this industry for one reason or another and have the liberty to dismiss anyone or any situation that we are uncomfortable with.
That is not to discount survival sex work, and it is a serious topic that should be discussed further in its own right. However, it gives the false impression that we are all prisoners of circumstance, and this work would never be something we would do by our own free will if other opportunities came our way.
Vivian's situation was one where she needed someone (aka a man) to rescue her from her life of poverty. She was only deemed worthy by her client when she proved she wasn't interested in his money and was a "hooker with a heart of gold." Aside from the fact that this makes no sense considering her position in life, if this trope doesn't have a man's ideal written all over it, then I don't know what does.
"You're A Sex Worker? Oh, You Must Be Into Criminal Stuff!"
Sex workers are often alleged to be tied in with illegal activities. The assumption being that if one were to be okay dabbling in degenerate services, then that person is likely to participate in other low-class activities. This includes excessive amounts of drugs, alcohol, stealing, etc.
Take Monster or Hustlers. While both those movies are based on true events, the accounts are so ludicrous that they became highly sensationalized stories. This is not the average experience.
Unfortunately, these false narratives affect reality for sex workers. As a good example, banks and payment services tend to discriminate against our line of work. Under "rules and use of service," it is likely that you will find "sexually-oriented activities" listed under restricted use. Even though most sex work is completely legal, it will be clumped into the same categories as legitimately illegal schemes like money laundering. So, yes, sex workers are categorized as criminal or unethical. Dirty money, you could say.
Hollywood Muscles Into OnlyFans, Screwing Real Workers Over
The bigwigs like to capitalize off our backs, and this is one more example of that. I could talk about Bella Thorne -- Bella Thorne famously opened an OnlyFans account and made bank despite posting no explicit content -- but let's not beat a dead horse. I'll use another example.
In the documentary OnlyFans: Selling Sexy, Donnell Rawlings, a comedian with his own OnlyFans page, tells sex workers incensed over the Thorne in our sides to "Shut the f**k up." Why? Well, because he's misinformed. Like a lot of people who don't know how this industry works, he believes that OnlyFans is a place where everyone can get a piece of the pie and that with famous people like Thorne comes more press and therefore more customers for us. As much as I wish this were true, it is not the case.
While OnlyFans makes the majority of their money off of sex workers, they do not support us. First, they don't advertise themselves as a platform for "adult workers." They have tried to present themselves like Patreon, a creative space for anyone to show unfiltered content without restrictions, unlike Instagram or YouTube. Because of this, celebrities and influencers who don't need the money use the platform for things unrelated to our industry like Rawlings does. This waters down our income, and the site becomes filled with users who don't know how to treat the space or sex workers properly. Anyone in the industry knows there's a certain way things are done regardless of what your specialty is.
The site itself is very restrictive on content (specifically around sexual kinks), takes too long to pay out, and steals money from sex workers by banning their pages and keeping their outstanding balances. While there are other platforms that are friendlier to users, like AVN or PocketStars, OnlyFans has cornered the marketplace for those new to the online sex world. As Rawlings said, Thorne brings press and customers, but in all the wrong ways. Now, OnlyFans is the only word outsiders recognize. I took to saying I did OnlyFans even though I didn't use that app simply because that was the only reference people understood. I had to switch to OnlyFans because there wasn't enough traffic on the other sites for someone as small as me.
OnlyFans is calling the shots on sex workers' ability to influence their workspace and customers. The more "outsiders" join, the fewer options we have. You have to stay where the crowd is unless you have enough pull to bring your own audience over to a new space. I could go on, but the reason Rawlings' comment is relevant: Well, it shows the general ignorance of public consumption, and that is precisely the problem.
Documentaries Want To Make Sex Work Palatable, By Calling It Empowering And Feminist
So, it sure seems like Hollywood doesn't think too much of sex workers. But every time they put together a documentary on the industry, they try to make sex work palatable for ordinary people instead of just accepting it the way it is.
Let's talk about Sell/Buy/Date, an upcoming documentary executive produced by Meryl Streep and Rashida Jones (even though actresses like Meryl Streep directly harm us through their advocacy). Sell/Buy/Date states it will "explore one of the most critical issues at the intersection of race, feminism, power and economics in our current cultural climate: the sex industry." Sex work is not a place where outside rules apply and certainly an inappropriate place to bring in politics. It's a space of fantasy and freedom. Trying to place a logical perspective on desire just doesn't compute.
They say an integral part of this doc will focus on the question, "Is sex work exploitative or empowering?" No one thinks to ask this same question about your boring desk job. Stop trying to make this more than what it is. Sex work is WORK. Period.
As one highly successful worker remarks, "I'm so tired of this exploitative or empowering paradigm appearing in every discourse around sex work. Please change the record. Ask different questions. Ask not if the work oppresses us, but why society finds it necessary to deny us access to rights and resources that everyone else gets."
Movie Stars Have No Way Of Knowing What Walking In Our Shoes Is Like No Matter How Much "Research" They Do
Sarah Jones, the woman who started the Buy/Sell/Date project, is an actress and not a sex worker. Clearly, she lacks understanding about what questions are actually important to ask. True, they say, "interviews will also include other experts." But these "experts" tend to be new, failed, or temporary phase workers (meaning this is not their career). You have to realize, when casting any kind of doc, producers can still pick out workers that fit their narrative. This means unless it's produced by an actual worker, these films and docs will forever be a reflection of society's idea of us at large and will likely gear towards whatever opinion is popular in that moment of time.
I personally feel like an animal in a test lab. Everyone wants to examine us like we are mythical creatures yet to be understood. We shouldn't be anyone's "case study," and it's unfathomable why people would feel it's okay to treat us as such. Conclusions have been made without our say in the matter. Don't be complicit; speak up -- advocate for room for sex workers to have their own say.
Sell/Buy/Date is no different than any other doc that has rocketed to the top of Netflix in recent years. This one, in particular, will likely be even further removed from our reality. All I can wonder is, how will this next documentary, and those still to come, mess with our lives? What other false speculations will they come up with? How will this set us back? Hollywood's "help" is hurting us. Hollywood, we ask you to stop.
So, the real question is: Is sex work exploitative, or is Hollywood the one exploiting sex work(ers)?
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Top Image: STXfilms