'The Girlfriend Experience' And A Brief History Of Sex Work On TV

Steven Soderbergh's new show is the latest to portray the world's oldest profession on TV

Prostitution might not be the oldest job on TV — comedians, cowboys, and cops got there first — but finding a new angle takes more than setting the action in fancy hotel rooms.

On The Girlfriend Experience, Riley Keough plays Christine, a law school student and intern at a major law firm who takes up a career as a high-end prostitute after being introduced to the lifestyle by her friend. Christine is sedate and self-contained in her work, whether it’s in law or in the bedroom, and the show follows her personality in its own style. This is a sparse vision of high power and a high-stress life, and Christine is the enigma at the center of it. You might wonder why she’s doing what she’s doing and where she comes from, but the show doesn’t tell you directly, leaving you to make assumptions based on behaviors and the cues given to you by the camera, the lighting, and the music.

By contrast, television in the 1970s dabbled in sex work, but rarely did more than that. Mary Tyler Moore met a sex worker named Sherry in prison, and a few episodes later Sherry reappeared to ask Mary for help going straight. Archie Bunker went to the gym to keep up with a friend who stayed young by seeing sex workers. The Army doctors on M*A*S*H met Korean women who followed the camps. And Star Trek’s first season included suggestions of green-painted sex slaves — in a cute and wholesome way, of course.

Science fiction TV turns out to be one place where sex work is almost always a topic of interest, probably because when you’re looking for a way to ground your alternate universe, sex work is simultaneously one of the most flexible and most reliable of human social structures. The norms of sex work can bend to fit any culture — alien or otherwise — and sex work as a phenomenon occurs independently in entirely unrelated societies.

On the original Battlestar Galactica series, one of the cast regulars, Cassiopeia, is a former “socialator” turned medical expert. Joss Whedon’s short-lived Firefly featured multiple layers to the world’s prostitution structure, as Inara was a Companion, a respected position in society resembling that of a geisha, while Inara’s friend and a former Companion herself, Nandi, ran a brothel. Years later, Whedon would produce the sci-fi series Dollhouse, in which the characters essentially occupy a brothel where the client chooses not just sex, but the memories and identities of their Doll. The X-Files found a way to marry its two genres as a science fiction detective show by having Mulder and Scully investigate the potentially supernatural murder of a sex worker allegedly perpetrated by their boss Walter Skinner, the supervisor of the X-Files program.

As much as science fiction has become a place where sex work can be imagined and reimagined, the X-Files episode is a reminder that the vast majority of television programming includes sex work only when in search of victims. Sex workers are often featured on shows like Law & Order: SVU or True Detective as little more than bodies — the audience is sympathetic, of course, but it’s the death or the threat of death of the women in question that makes their lives worth considering. If sex workers aren’t in danger, then they’re often the butt of jokes, though every once in a while a comedy will commit to a sex worker for more than a quick hit, like My Name Is Earl did with Patty, The Daytime Hooker. However, as television has diversified to keep up with the demands of cable and streaming audiences, sex work has increasingly become a central concern, especially on cable networks like HBO that rely on their ability to broadcast sex to distinguish their content in a crowded marketplace.

On series like Deadwood, Game of Thrones, or Boardwalk Empire, where women have a limited ability to participate in business due to historical or fantastical circumstance, sex work is presented as one of the few viable options for the women to make a living. But maybe the most complex examples of sex work come from shows in which the character’s identity is based upon more than their profession. In True Blood’s early seasons, before the show fell all the way down the rabbit hole with vampires, werewolves, fairies, witches, and minotaurs, the character Lafayette provided a look at a low-income, black, and gay character whose participation in sex work is just one hustle in a string of hustles. Lafayette isn’t a character who lacks agency, nor is he a character presented as someone to be pitied — it’s understood that Lafayette will do what it takes to get by, especially if he can amuse himself while doing so.

And then there are the series like Hung and Secret Diary of a Call Girl, which place sex work front and center with a similar focus as The Girlfriend Experience, though with different settings and tones. Hung brings sex work into middle-class life, as a single dad played by Thomas Jane starts advertising his cock to pay for the cost of living after a fire damages his home. Secret Diary of a Call Girl occupies a similarly high-class milieu as The Girlfriend Experience, but the takeaway from watching Billie Piper’s call-girl fantasy is pure entertainment, while Riley Keough’s provides more existential consideration.

But if you want to hear sex workers talk about their profession in their own words, look no further than reality TV. On Showtime, there’s Gigolos, a series currently airing its sixth season that follows a group of chummy male escorts through their lives in Vegas, including their dates with clients. If you’re looking for a positive angle on sex work, Gigolos delivers in spades, but the actual reality of the encounters is up for questioning given the heavy production of the series.

But for my money, the best depiction of sex work on TV came from HBO’s series Taxicab Confessions, which made sex work one of its most frequently explored topics of conversation. The show planted cameras in a cab and recorded conversations between drivers and their unsuspecting customers in New York and Las Vegas, often airing the most transgressive of those interactions. In one episode, a woman describes her close relationships with regular johns. In several encounters, sex workers describe childhood abuse and drug use. A trans streetwalker talks about her choice to forgo surgery for fear that it would affect her mental health and diminish her sex drive. Another trans worker talks about carrying a meat cleaver in her purse to ward off threats.

Considered as a whole, Taxicab Confessions’s commitment to broadcasting all of the most shocking confessions of New York’s nightlife to America’s most comfortable living rooms is undeniably voyeuristic. But Taxicab Confessions also offered a rare opportunity for sex workers to tell their stories in their own words. As much as shows like The Girlfriend Experience strive to use the truth, fiction makes every story a fantasy. For a profession that fascinates the creative mind as much as sex work has, hearing sex workers speak about sex work without filters is the only novelty left unexplored.

CORRECTION (04/12/16, 11:55 a.m. ET): The comedy series Secret Diary Of A Call Girl is based on the blog and memoirs written by former sex worker and current research scientist Brooke Magnanti, under the pen name Belle de Jour."

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