If ever escorting was enjoying a boom time, it’s now. As the recession flounders on, the sex industry flourishes with ever-increasing numbers of escorts entering the fallen womanhood. Meanwhile culture and society luxuriate in tales of commodified bodies, whether it’s the revelation of Belle de Jour’s research scientist identity, the current exhibition of the Hoerengracht at the National Gallery, or Steven Soderbergh’s controversial new film, The Girlfriend Experience, which focuses on a high-class call girl, her relationship with her clients and her out of hours partner in the early days of the financial fall-out.
The Girlfriend Experience is undoubtedly entertaining: well-paced, wittily self-referential, and full of elegantly framed shots, as one might expect from director Soderbergh. But for all its ‘edgy’ casting of celebrated adult movie actress Sasha Grey in her first non-porn role, the plot invokes the worst ‘hapless hooker’ cliché of them all: that women that sell sex are needy, intimacy craving and damaged. As a balanced, autonomous sex worker myself, I have to object.
Following a preview screening at the Barbican last week, Grey gamely took part in a Q & A with Times film critic Wendy Ide. After a few inane questions from the male members of the audience, I challenged her on the paucity of the plot – namely the way protagonist Christine leaves her ‘real life’ boyfriend for a client, a rash decision based on her folksy belief in the auspicious significance of their respective birthdates, which sees her crying on nobody’s shoulder when she is duped. Did Sasha not think this compounded the cliché of the emotionally unstable escort? And in a broader sense, was Sasha not effectively denigrating her own sex industry sisterhood by implying that women who trade on their sexual selves are, or will, inevitably be broken by it?
‘I understand where you’re coming from,’ she offered genially, but told me that the majority of the escorts she, Soderberg and the rest of his team interviewed for research claimed that they had at some point blurred the boundaries between the personal and professional, falling for or embarking on relationships with their clients which often turned sour. This, note, was the evidence taken from approximately 12 women: hardly a definitive sample.
Perhaps the profession attracts the emotionally unstable, but, judging from my own experiences, and those of the escorts I know, to claim that all sex workers have a screwed up relationship with intimacy is simply fallacious. Admittedly I am not a ‘straight’ escort, but a vanilla dominatrix who provides what might be described as a BDSM girlfriend experience. This includes pre-session dinner dates alongside more intimate physical ‘services’, spanking, spitting, fisting, nearly always in the context of D/s role play. I am paid to objectify and exert dominance over men, not the other way round, as in the case of conventional call girls. But whether it’s penetrative sex or foot worship, both dominatrices and escorts essentially offer the same service: fulfilment of their clients’ sexual and emotional needs and the forging of an artificial sexual-emotional connection, the boundaries of which are delineated by the financial transaction and the sex worker’s capacity to compartmentalise.
We praise actors and therapists for their ability to delve into the recesses of their own and other people’s emotional lives and readily accept that, with care, they need not be harmed, despite the fact their jobs put them through the emotional wringer every day (in the case of actors, the physical too). Isn’t it about time we accepted the same could be true of women working in the sex industry? Like most jobs, there are drains on your emotional resources, some of which Soderberg hits on with wincing accuracy; the competitive jealousy a new girl on the scene invokes as you wonder whether she will steal your clients, the relentless quest for new, improved ways to self-promote, and the struggle to maintain a real relationship with an off-duty partner. But the notion that an experienced high class call-girl, working in plush conditions with minimal personal danger, would act on a naive whim to compromise a real-life relationship which results in emotional trauma? It’s a convenient, audience-pleasing plot device at best, a patronising misrepresentation at worst. That she then mechanically gets back on the game, a desensitised cyborg continuing on her masochistic spiral, is even more damning.
What rescues the film from being yet another reductionist morality tale about sex work though, is Sasha Grey herself. A cultivated, articulate young woman with multifarious business and creative interests, she gives the new generation of post-feminist sex workers a credible name, debunking myths that suggest self-flagellating females are compelled to sell their bodies as reprieve for their broken souls.
Clearly, Soderbergh cast Grey because he thought he was challenging the two-tier system of serious actresses vs whores in the film world. But by using a porn actress to play a vulnerable sex worker, he has merely reiterated the notion that women in the sex industry are emotional exploitees.