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The Most Realistic Sex-Worker Portrayals in Pop Culture, According to Sex Workers

This weekend, ‘The Deuce’ returns on HBO, but it’s far from the most realistic portrayal of sex work in TV and movies

In the sordid HBO period-drama, The Deuce, streetwalkers rule the night. It’s gritty, greasy, 1970s red-light district NYC. Peepshows flash their horny red signs and marquees advertise “John Waters” and “Hammerhead.” Pimps in lacy blouses with sideburns and bushy moustaches rough up their girls. At all-night diners, cigarettes and cocaine are happily consumed alongside bacon and hookers. In short, The Deuce is a sweaty buffet of debauchery calling back to the kind of heroin-soaked freedom Janis Joplin sang about.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2U3f9aDvJGA

Visually, The Deuce is an absolute dime piece. The protagonist is Candy, a clever veteran escort played by the excellent, but oddly cast Maggie Gyllenhaal, who walks the tracks, pimp-free. Unfazed and visibly bored, Candy works alone while her cohorts — mostly large and lovely black women — get smacked around by their white regulars and bullied by their pimps. She says to one fast-talking hopeful, “No one makes money off this pussy but me.” Candy’s optimism in this regard is admirable but naïve (capitalism, for instance); still, she has more agency than most of the show’s other characters.

As a veteran sex worker, I found Candy and her cohorts in The Deuce nuanced and emotionally charged with plenty of room given to their tenderness, inertia and dark circumstances. And yet, it’s hard to care much about Candy because she’s not in terrible peril — at least through Season One. Having freedom in a broken world isn’t exactly free. Being fierce in a broken world? Now that’s something, but that’s not exactly the case in The Deuce.

Not to mention, how many sex workers are in the writers’ room? How many sex workers are set to guest direct? Unfortunately, the answer is easy: The Deuce was created (and written and directed) by men (David Simon and George Pelecanos). One female writer in the writing room (Megan Abbott), and one female director (Michelle MacLaren) isn’t good enough.

And so, when I think about which sex workers resonate in pop culture the most deeply for me, I think about Sharon Stone in Casino, tossing back her silky high ponytail. She rolls the dice and says, “I told you I was hot tonight.” She’s at the top of her game, but still vulnerable to her darker impulses. I think about Marisa Tomei as a jaded dancer in The Wrestler when she dances for Mickey Rourke. She describes every stripper I know when she says, “I’m not just some stripper. I’m a mom.” I think of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, perhaps the most accurate sex worker story in ages, where a young woman (Bria Vinaite, found on Instagram by Baker) supports her daughter (Brooklynn Prince) by doing sex work. The one person least likely to turn on her does — that loneliness and betrayal specific to survival is sublime realness.

For me, the most authentic moments are fleeting, like Sasha Grey’s palpable ennui in The Girlfriend Experience; the flirty playfulness and strength of Ice Cube’s girls in The Players Club; and Juno Temple’s post-rejection anger in the pool-table scene in Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight. These moments aren’t merely thwarting stereotypes, they’re revealing the naked heart of a person rising, resisting, failing, falling and thriving in sex work.

But that’s just me. Curious about which pop-culture references sex workers in my own community felt connected to and why, I asked them to name their favorite depiction of sex work in entertainment — whether it was a song, film, TV show, character, book or lyric. Interestingly, The Deuce wasn’t mentioned at all.

Domino Rey, Stripper: My favorite sex worker is Mindy Collette from the TV series Friday Night Lights. Friday Night Lights was run on a major TV network and treated sex work with dignity, didn’t sensationalize or sanitize it and gave the sex-working characters depth and empathy. Mindy is a stripper at The Landing Strip in small-town Dillon, Texas, in a show that revolves around the lives of the football players at Dillon High. Mindy is the girlfriend/wife of Billy Riggins, older brother of tailback legend Tim Riggins and sometimes Dillon High football coach. What’s most refreshing is that Mindy’s job is treated as just another gig in small-town USA, where opportunities are slim. Her job is neither celebrated nor denigrated.

Mindy is a complex character: a mother figure, mentor and voice of reason. The scenes at the Landing Strip aren’t gratuitous. If anything, they’re admirable, relatable stripper-humor moments — like where she complains about having to dance for all the cheap farmers who come in for the lunch buffet during the day shift. She also comments on the indignity of being demoted to day shift after making a concerted effort to lose all of her baby weight post-partum. FNL is a critical darling, not least because of its level-headed approach to depicting sex work as extremely common, quotidian work for thousands of women across the country.

Bella Bathory, Kinky Courtesan: I’m currently OBSESSED with the show Harlots. While set in the 1800s, this is the most accurate representation of what it feels like to be a sex worker — from the stigma to the camaraderie between the women. In particular, there’s a scene in which one of the madames is in court facing charges of being a whore. The prosecution says these girls are forced into the trade to get out of a life of poverty and starvation. That’s when the madame’s largest girl retorts, “Do I look like I’m starving?”

This hit home for me on so many levels. The assumption is that people are either trafficked or forced into this industry with no other option. This happens, but it isn’t the general rule. Yes, I know survival sex workers. Yes, I know women who have been trafficked. However, most of the women in this industry continue in it by choice.

Sex work is still one of the only professions where women are at the top, and as a woman, you can run your own business. This show portrays that. Women are the main characters — the hero and antagonist. Men are just supporting cast.

Jacque the Stripper, Stripper: Anna Nicole Smith forever! She was a ray of unapologetic sunshine.

Siouxsie Q, Sex-Worker Advocate: Tangerine, hands down. Not only is it gorgeous to look at — and groundbreaking in its use of iPhone cameras — it’s also a humanizing portrayal of marginalized workers and centralizes the core values of community and sex-worker camaraderie — some of the very few tools we have for survival. Also, the amazing Ana Foxxx is in it, and I LOVE seeing sex workers getting to play sex workers in mainstream movies.

Ashley Madness, Escort: I wish I had a simpler answer to what could be a simple question. I suppose it’s natural that my favorite depictions of sex workers in the media are complicated and fraught. That’s our relationship with the media at its best: complicated and fraught. Most films use harmful tropes about sex workers for cheap laughs — except for “Lucky” by Britney Spears. I have loved and related to “Lucky” since I was a child, and it beautifully evokes the particular brand of pain you feel when you have to play glamorous for work and hide your sadness.

In 1999 and 2000, Britney put out her first two albums while still a teenager — …Baby One More Time and Oops!… I Did it Again — and sold both albums with explicitly sexual title singles and videos featuring her in fetishwear. Nonetheless, Britney in “Lucky” is a pop star singing about how troubling it can be to be a pop star, and although she’s never called herself a sex worker or identified her oeuvre as sexual labor to my knowledge, it speaks to me about this work in a way that’s true.

Lilith Bunny, Cam Girl: I liked the way Men, Women & Children portrayed full-service sex work. The client (and main character) didn’t just want sex, he wanted emotional comfort. I liked the way they respectfully portrayed this sex worker as doing more than just the sexual stuff. There’s a lot of emotional labor that comes with the job.

Quinn Helix, Femme Domme and Fetish Model: Jennifer Tilly in Dancing at the Blue Iguana and Bound. Her playing those two roles resonated with me because she adopted a domineering persona that I idolized deeply. In Dancing at the Blue Iguana, she was loud, dark, reckless and cared so intensely — even though she was a tragic character. In Bound, she played a mafia wife who secretly escorts on the side. She has an iconic lesbian relationship with the sexy Gina Gershon. A queer woman getting the money she desires, justifiably ruining her husband’s life and running away with the woman of her dreams? That’s the fantasy I strive for.

Alice King, Stripper: That part of the fantasy novel, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, where the sex worker takes the client’s soul. It was developed by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green for Starz. I don’t know if that part made it into the show, but I hope so.

Danny Wylde, ex-porn performer: Keanu Reeves is my twin soul in My Own Private Idaho.

Victoria Voxx, Stripper: The Netflix series Strippers was pretty identifiable for me. Some of the ladies perfectly worded feelings I couldn’t describe as a dancer for years. Like they were taking the words right out of my mouth.

Justine Cross, BDSM Consultant and Dungeon Owner: I’ve been in love with Dangerous Beauty since high school, long before I became a sex worker or even thought of becoming one. It’s based on the true story of Veronica Franco, a Venetian courtesan in the 1500s. She published books and founded a charity for courtesans and their children. Even though this is a fictionalized account of what happened to her, it still rings true as one of my favorite references to sex work in pop culture because so many of the conflicts and benefits that arise in her life are still the ones we face today.

There are many moments throughout the film that make it seem like the writer or director had intimate knowledge of sex work. For instance, her mother tells her to not get involved with a client because it won’t work out (very true!). Veronica refuses to lower her rate to sleep with a poet (never lower your rates!). Polite society ladies shun her even though they call her to help them. She befriends one powerful senator and because she’s kind to him — and also because he probably gets off on telling his peers’ secrets — he tells her everything she needs to know to exploit them and make even more money. (We’ve all had that ever-helpful client/confidant.) There’s one client she sees, and they constantly get interrupted for entirely random reasons. (We’ve all had that guy!)

At her height, you see her laughing and enjoying the company of the court, moving her family to a nicer house, buying things — the sweet, good life of being an amazing business woman.

Toward the end, there’s an image that still haunts me: It’s the Inquisition, and whores are blamed for the Black Plague — strung up and whipped to death. This, too, is true today. It’s been more than 500 years since Franco wrote her poems and slept with the King of France, but every day, I straddle the line between blissful extravagance and the terrifying reality post-SESTA/FOSTA legislation aimed at my safety.