How female sex workers are reclaiming their on-screen image

From P-Valley to Pleasure, the industry is finally starting to be shown in an authentic light.

Words and interviews

Miriam Balanescu


JF Lawton’s screenplay ‘3,000’, about the plight of a young cocaine-addicted sex worker in a financially wiped-out America, was the kernel that became Pretty Woman. While the classic rom-com is a steep departure from Lawton’s original vision, both versions typify representations of sex workers on screen: either glamourised or moralised.

Sex workers have long attracted speculation in film and television. During the so-called Golden Age of Pornography in the 1970s, a number of films scrutinised the industry, from Hardcore, Paul Schrader’s neo-noir about a father searching for his daughter in Los Angeles, to the farcical The Happy Hooker, based on Xaviera Hollander’s memoir of her life as a New York City madame.

Traditionally, on-screen depictions of sex workers have alternated between harrowing drama – with drug abuse a recurring theme – and male-oriented comedy, while female sex workers have served as background decoration in shows like Deadwood and Game of Thrones, leading to the term “sexposition”. They have rarely been given agency on-screen.

Now, however, film- and TV makers are increasingly centering female sex workers, and putting women at the helm behind the camera too. Lucy Kirkwood and Anna Goodridge recruited adult film star Rebecca More for their five-time BAFTA-nominated drama Adult Material. “A lot of adult performers will not talk to anyone mainstream because we’re so worried about how we’re portrayed,” More explains. “I said I would talk to them because I wanted to make sure they would get it right.”

More went on to not only advise on the script but also train the actors on characterisation and how real-life sex scenes are made, even acting in several scenes herself. “When I got the script, it wasn’t about me, it was about, ‘Could this happen’. They got little details from me, like, the lunches on set are always rubbish.” In one instance, More intervened to cut a particular scene: “It was so seedy; I took it personally. They took it out and I said thank you.”

More is one of many adult film stars pivoting to narrative drama. The cast of Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure is almost entirely comprised of pornographic actors, including Dana DeArmond, Evelyn Claire and Kendra Spade, while Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience starred former porn actor Sasha Grey in the lead role.

Hyapatia Lee, former adult film star and author, considers the choice to have porn industry advisers on set, “A big step in the right direction. I fear, however, that they will interview one or two people and assume all performers are similar. Just as in any group of people, there are many differences.” Many new releases are taking this into account.

For P-Valley, which centres around a Mississippi strip club, showrunner Katori Hall interviewed over 40 female sex workers. According to More, Kirkwood took, “Different experiences from different performers and the different levels of success and failure that you can have in the industry,” to avoid glamourisation.

While The Girlfriend Experience leaned toward realism, the third season of the spin-off anthology drama has upgraded to a more futuristic plane. Combining neuroscience and sex work, its protagonist uses her clients to explore behaviour and desire. “I was really interested in hearing about people’s personal motivations,” says creator Anja Marquardt on her research into the sex industry. “Their perception of how the power dynamic would play out as they enter the room. My interest is always in human behaviour and point of view.”

Marquardt also stresses the need for responsible storytelling. “We need to look at people as 360° human beings – it’s a dead-end to look at sex work as a reductive trope, the sort of titillation that serves to objectify the sex worker. While there might be a market for that kind of storyline, it’s not in the heightened drama space… that gets us talking round the water cooler.” Equally, the screenwriter admits that her season of the show is very much “a work of fiction”.

Key to creating more authentic portrayals of female sex workers is the subversion of the male gaze. Moira Buffini and Alison Newman, the co-creators of Harlots, state that the sex industry has, “Always been at the coalface of gender politics, and that’s where we wanted to put our female gaze.” Hall, meanwhile, films from performers’ perspectives and carefully avoids gratuitous nudity.

“The industry has been dominated by men at the top,” adds More, “there’s always been this history of: Are women really in control? Are they doing this against their will? And I feel that with a story of this nature – and it’s quite sensitive, let’s be honest – involving female sex workers, it’s important to have women behind the scenes.”

“People presume that because you do this job there’s something wrong with you, or you’ve had a bad childhood experience. It’s very highly stigmatised.”

As a result, we’re now seeing more nuanced portrayals of the sex industry, with filmmakers and series creators embracing its positives and negatives. “People have really turned to sex work in the pandemic and enjoyed it,” More says. “Some people are like, ‘What was I doing in my office job?’ But also, we can’t deny the fact that there’s this element of why people don’t like sex work, because there’s a dark side to every light side.”

She continues, “It’s very important to have the positive side because we have to walk down the street, we have to go pick up our kids. People find out that we’re in the sex industry and they only see the bad side of it. They presume that because you do this job there’s something wrong with you, or you’ve had a bad childhood experience. It’s very highly stigmatised.”

In the past, portrayals of sex workers have frequently hinged on trauma to explain why a woman might enter the industry. “I think what needs to be emphasised more is that those suffering the effects of past trauma, who have gotten involved in the sex industry, can get out and move on with their lives in a positive way,” says Lee. “I think it’s important to note that such a career can be an empowering experience for survivors.”

Though more care is being taken to protect actors on set, scandals such as James Franco’s involvement in The Deuce prove that progress is slow. Allegations that Franco had pressurised women into nudity and removed plastic vagina guards while filming sex scenes did not prevent him from continuing on further seasons of the show before it concluded in 2019 – ironic, given that The Deuce touches on male manipulation in the creation of adult films.

With the sex industry constantly changing and the recent rise of adult subscription services like OnlyFans, many recent dramas are already out of date. However, Marquardt’s The Girlfriend Experience looks ahead to the ways in which technology is invading the most intimate spaces. Speaking about OnlyFans, Marquardt suggests that, “Maybe soon we’ll see a really cool story about that space and that world. I’m sure it will find its way into the zeitgeist of big- and small-screen storytelling.”

Published 13 Jun 2022

Tags: Anna Goodridge Hyapatia Lee Katori Hall Lucy Kirkwood Ninja Thyberg P-Valley Pleasure Sex Workers

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