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The films showing sex workers in a new light

Pretty Woman helped bring conversations about sex work to the mainstream, but has been widely criticised in its approach to the subject. Vivian’s trajectory is constructed with the single goal of having the audience root for her to ultimately abandon sex work – any other outcome would be deemed tragic. The way out, of course, is presented in the form of Edward, a rich, white, older man who is unable to resist the urge to rescue her. “You could be so much more,” he tells Vivian as the two lay in bed, the faint lights failing to obscure the fact he perceives her as “lesser than”. 

The film also fosters the idea that this transactional relationship is a romantic one, which, in turn, romanticises the idea of sex work itself. Edward showers Vivian with gifts, hands her a limitless credit card and arranges a personal shopper to carefully curate her new image. This fairytale-esque approach to their dynamic reinforces the notion that all sex workers are patiently awaiting a knight in shining armour to whisk them away from such a sorrowful predicament. If Edward was ever truly in love, it was with his own creation.

Comedy is yet another outlet for poor sex work representation, as producer, screenwriter and former sex worker Isa Mazzei tells BBC Culture: “There are a lot of comedies out there where the plot is ‘oops, we killed a sex worker’ and those types of narratives are degrading and perpetuate harm. The fact they’re often played off as a joke is the most insidious part of it all, it implies killing a sex worker is somehow less than killing someone with another profession.” 

Entire comedies are centred on the murder of sex workers, such as Peter Berg’s Very Bad Things (1998) and Lucia Aniello’s Rough Night (2017), while many others employ the demeaning narrative device as a passing joke, as is the case with Dirty Work (1998), where a car salesman is caught live with several dead sex workers in the trunk of the cars on display. Some films take it up a notch by adopting these harmful stereotypes in their titles, such as Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2019) and Death of a Hooker (1971), also known as Who Killed Mary What’s ‘Er Name?

Reframing sex work

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Many recent films, however, are actively challenging these stereotypes, with one example being 2018’s CAM, written and produced by Mazzei. The story, which employs horror to explore the loss of agency frequently experienced by sex workers who perform online, debates important matters such as consent and the separation between person and persona. “It was absolutely mandatory for us to include sex workers in every step of the filmmaking process. I can’t speak for all sex workers, I’m just one. So it was important to include other voices and make sure that we had arrangements about how things were portrayed,” says Mazzei, who is also the author of Camgirl, a candid memoir about her days of live-stream camming.

Although Mazzei emphasises the importance of employing sex workers in all steps of the creative process, she admits it is still far from easy for current or former sex workers to be open about their past within the industry. “It was a terrifying experience coming out as a sex worker in Hollywood and taking meetings with people who didn’t always respect me as a writer and people who just wanted to ask salacious questions about camming”, Mazzei says.

This sentiment is shared by Numa Perrier, whose directorial debut Jezebel (2019) is adapted from her time as a camgirl in the late 1990s. “There is a long-lasting stigma around any type of sex work, and that was a big part of why I was afraid to talk about my personal story at first. I have, however, quickly realised through workshopping the script that it was a bigger creative challenge to hide behind a story that was mine. From that point onwards I became bolder and bolder in expressing that part of me and the film is much better for it.”

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