“IT’S DANGEROUS TO START from a perspective that people have no choices in life, because if we do that we start looking at them as victims and victims have no choice, and no voice.” So says Gabriela Silva Leite, a sex-worker activist and the founder of the Brazilian sex-worker rights NGO Davida, in the short documentary Outlaw Poverty, Not Prostitutes. In 1991, the sex-worker rights activist Carol Leigh (who coined the term “sex work”) made this film in order to document the organizing efforts of prostitutes at the 1989 World Whores’ Congress. Included in the documentary are interviews with a wide range of sex-worker rights activists, including Gloria Lockett, Margo St. James, Tang Unchana Suwannanond, and Norma Jean Almodovar. In the movie, sex workers talk about their experiences organizing around safer labor conditions, the stigma surrounding sex work, and their work promoting human rights that affect prostitutes. While some may consider this a radical view on sex work, if we take the perspective that it is a form of labor, then sex workers advocating for their rights should be no different than coal miners asking for safer conditions, teachers striking for higher pay and more funding for public schools, or fast-food workers protesting across the country for a $15/hour wage.
Recently, there have been other films made by sex workers about sex workers — Stripped (2001) and American Courtesans (2013), among others. Unfortunately, these films about human/labor rights, stigmatization, and discrimination in the sex trade from the perspective of those involved in that world haven’t captured the public’s attention. Far more prevalent in mainstream media are films that seek to document either sex trafficking (a separate category from survival or consensual sex work) or the “dark side” of sex work. These films, with titles such as Bought and Sold (1997), Sold in America (2009), The Price of Sex (2011), and Sex, Drugs and Murder: Life in the Red Light Zone (2016), use sensationalized reporting to bring people’s attention to “modern-day slavery” or, in the case of Sex, Drugs and Murder, to show women hitting “rock bottom.” (As a sidenote, sex workers have accused the BBC-produced film of having extremely biased perceptions of women in the sex trade.) In conjunction with these films, websites like JohnTV.com, created by Brian Bates, portray sensationalistic stings of the clients of sex workers. As of April 2017, JohnTV.com boasted over 134 million hits, alongside feature spots on 20/20, Dateline, Nightline, Maury, CNN, and MSNBC. Instead of watching sex workers earnestly clamor for human and labor rights, the audience, it seems, prefers to watch them debase themselves, or to snicker at “johns” getting busted.
In Sexography: Sex Work in Documentary, the University of North Florida English professor Nicholas de Villiers offers a fresh critical view on documentaries about sex workers, a genre he calls “sexography.” De Villiers derives “sexography” from Foucault’s sexology: the study of sexual behavior based on sexual case history gleaned from the Christian pastoral confessional or the psychiatrist’s couch. Sexography extends sexology to include pornography, ethnography, and cinematography to show us “what happens when the confessional and the couch come into contact with the cinema.” For de Villiers, sexography names a genre of film that uses ethnographic and interview methods to negotiate power between film director and subject.
De Villiers chooses films that highlight the cultural and economic contexts of sex work, focusing on “the figure of the sex worker to say something about social and economic changes,” including globalization and neoliberalism. I initially had doubts about this book, considering that most of the films de Villiers analyzes are directed by non-sex workers and, thus, are susceptible to the sort of sensationalized biases limned above. However, de Villiers advocates “shifting our approach from scrutinizing the motives of those who sell sex to examining the motives and roles of the filmmakers and transnational audiences for these films,” prompting a long overdue examination of how the debate around sex work is mediated through cinema. De Villiers is open about his own positionality as a non-sex worker, and is to be commended for the excellent job he does centering not only Foucauldian discourse analysis (featured prominently throughout the book) but also the voices of activists for sex-worker rights — including Melissa Gira Grant, Carol Leigh, Janet Mock, Melinda Chateauvert, and Audacia Ray — who have intrepidly intervened in this debate, risking stigmatization and even arrest.
De Villiers begins the book with a discussion of Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s classic documentary of ball culture in late 1980s New York. Livingston’s film combines observation with interactive forms of filmmaking: she interviews Black and Latino gay, transgender, and gender-nonconforming members of the ball scene, some of whom engaged in sex work in order to survive, and films some of them on the street and at the balls. De Villiers notes that he begins with this film because it was made by an outsider — a white lesbian who had recently graduated from Yale. Thus, the discussion of Paris Is Burning provides the reader with a jumping-off point for understanding “the politics of documentary interviews with sex workers.”
In addition to Paris Is Burning, de Villiers critically engages with eight other documentaries directed by non-sex workers: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore (1964), a cinéma vérité–style film about Italians’ perceptions of sexuality; Wiktor Grodecki’s Body Without Soul (1996) and Not Angels But Angels (1994), interview-based documentaries with young male Czech porn performers and prostitutes, respectively; Shohini Ghosh’s Tales of the Night Fairies (2002), about Indian sex workers’ activism; Cui Zi’en’s Night Scene (2003) and Queer China, “Comrade” China (2008), a fictionalized documentary about male sex workers in Beijing, and a documentary about queer Chinese history and activism, respectively; and Hideaki Anno’s Love & Pop (1998), a fictional film about enjo kosai, a Japanese term for compensated dating, which involves men providing money and gifts to (often younger) women for sex and/or companionship.
De Villiers chooses these seemingly disparate films because of their attempt to capture “the truth of the sexual subject” across “confessional, dramatic exposé, or cinema verité” formats. With the exception of Anno’s Love & Pop, all of the films in this study use interview methods to get at the truth of how commercial sex is intertwined with cultural knowledge and power. Of all of these films, Tales of the Night Fairies comes closest to what sex workers want to see in media representations; instead of focusing on risk and disease (often the focus of Grodecki and his films about Czech male sex workers), Ghosh chronicles the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee’s (DMSC) efforts to unionize and destigmatize sex work in the Sonagachi red light district in Kolkata. The film is regularly shown at sex-worker rights events — I had seen it three times at various events prior to reading this book — and, according to many sex workers I’ve spoken to, engages with the most salient issues affecting their lives, including the failed efforts to “rescue” them, police violence, and the movement to get prostitution recognized as a viable profession.
In the conclusion to Sexography, de Villiers turns away from films made by non-sex workers toward sex worker-made documentary, specifically Live Nude Girls Unite! (2000), a film made by Vicky Funari and Julia Query, an exotic dancer who, along with other employees, succeeds in unionizing the Lusty Lady peep show in San Francisco. While this film could have focused exclusively on a unionization success tale, Query provides the audience with another story line: coming out as a sex worker to her mother. Her coming-out process is complicated by the fact that her mother is Dr. Joyce Wallace, a famous activist and researcher who provided direct services to street-based sex workers. Despite Dr. Wallace’s career, she was less than thrilled at her daughter’s work in the sex industry. The film ends on a positive note: the eventual unionization efforts of the Lusty Lady instigated a ripple effect throughout the country, and we see Query flying to Pennsylvania and Alaska to assist dancers with their own unionization efforts. While the film reveals that Wallace eventually “accepted” her daughter’s work, she describes how she wishes Query would extend her organization efforts to other industries. With this, Query (and by extension, de Villiers) provides us with insight on how sex workers negotiate their public activism with their personal and familial relationships.
By concluding the book with an analysis of sex worker-made media, and a discussion of social stigma and labor rights rather than risk and disease, de Villiers has sought to be, as he says, “a queer ally” to sex workers — meaning that he seeks to assist in the process of destigmatization and to problematize the discourse of sex worker as victim. In a world that is dominated by anti-sex work bias, such an analysis is sorely needed.
Theresa Anasti is a PhD Candidate at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, and studies the role of human service nonprofits in advocacy for sex workers. In fall 2017, she will begin a position as an assistant professor of Social Work at Oakland University in Rochester, Minnesota.