Sexlexia: Reading Sex Work and Genre


I have just returned from a lovely experience filming an interview segment for Juliana Piccillo’s documentary Whores on Film (forthcoming 2018), which she has conceived as The Celluloid Closet (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 1995) for sex workers: primarily sex workers discussing tropes in representations of sex workers in Hollywood movies, independent cinema, television, and documentary. Although I made a deliberate choice to exclude purely fictional films from my book on sex workers as documentary subjects, Sexography: Sex Work in Documentary, and to mostly exclude the now vast number of international “sex trafficking” films that wrongly conflate sex work with trafficking and violence, I still feel it is urgent to address the effect of genre filmmaking on perceptions of sex workers. I am especially supportive of a sex worker-produced film with sex worker perspectives on the effects of cinematic representation.

It was also an important learning experience for me, as someone who has researched the interview as a genre for over a decade—specifically the negotiation of the interview situation by queer and other sexually marginalized subjects—to experience an on-camera interview, that artificial but significant form of discourse. Luckily, Juliana and I share distaste for confessional discourse around sex work, resulting in conversational rapport rather than interrogation. But I am inspired to continue the necessary task of interrogating fiction films: Why do audiences, both non-sex workers and sex workers, remain fascinated by sex workers as figures of both identification and desire?

Here, I will address three recent films that deploy visual elements of documentary film modes (like the fly-on-the-wall surveillance camera approach) but hybridize those techniques with conventions from other genres. First, I will discuss a potential reading of Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) as a science fiction allegory about a major contemporary discursive shift in the U.K. from criminalizing “the prostitute” to viewing her (always female) as a victim of “human trafficking.” Next I will address two films that celebrate the resilient sisterhood of trans women sex workers using both documentary techniques and the conventions of the Hollywood comedy and the music video: Tangerine (Sean S. Baker, 2015) and Mala Mala: A TransFormative Documentary (Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, 2014). I argue that the latter two help us reappraise debates over documentary ethics in Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990), the first film discussed in Sexography.

I taught Under the Skin recently in a course on our tendency to read science fiction films allegorically for the way in which they reflect political and social anxieties. We examined the recent Jump Cut dossier on Under the Skin which offers a brilliant range of readings of the horror/science fiction/surveillance footage film, specifically Amy Herzog’s article, “Star vehicle: labor and corporeal traffic in Under the Skin” where she wonders about the oddly familiar yet strange labor of the main “alien” character (played by Scarlett Johansson) hunting for unattached men: Is she a sex worker? A commodity? A predator? (None seem to fit.) “Is this affective labor? The alien learns quickly how to survey her marks … but she lacks, at least at the beginning of the film, the faintest traces of empathy.” The contemporary discourse around “sex trafficking” is implicit in Herzog’s title and theoretical reading, but I think the real world political and legal context deserves to be made more legible.

Herzog is right to focus on empathy: the film’s plot takes a sharp turn once the predatory alien apparently starts to feel empathy, and once we feel empathy for her as we realize that she is apparently herself being controlled by a mysterious motorcycle-riding “pimp” alien. The major turning point is where we see the once-predatory Johansson character after she has temporarily “escaped” the city of Glasgow to the countryside and is asked by a kindly (but also sexually attracted) male bystander who sees her shivering alone on a public bus, “Do you need help?” Here I see an allegorical connection between the film’s dramatic shift and a major discursive shift from viewing the prostitute as a criminal to viewing her as a victim of human trafficking in need of rescue. I attribute this international shift, in part, to diplomatically powerful organizations pushing for the “Nordic model” like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women [CATW] and Polaris.

Thankfully, like all good science fiction, the film’s symbolism exceeds this reductive reading. But we can follow Herzog in examining the fraught symbolic connections between the body of the prostitute, the body of the actress, and money. The anxiety such connections provoke might help illuminate a recent event where a number of wealthy Hollywood actresses—some of whom have played sex worker parts in movies but also participate in antitrafficking missionary/charity campaigns—signed on to a letter advanced by the CATW condemning Amnesty International’s call for the decriminalization of adult consensual sex work (as the best, evidence-based means of protecting the human rights of sex workers). What if we were to read the Hollywood celebrities’ vehement objection as a means of distancing the long historical linkage between actresses and sex workers?

Similar ethical concerns about differences of class, race, gender, sexuality, and sexual stigma between filmmakers and subjects can be seen in the independent films Tangerine and Mala Mala addressing the real experiences of transgender women of color engaged in street-based sex work (in Los Angeles, California, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, respectively). The films were also made by cisgender men from outside of the subcultures they depict, a matter sometimes addressed in press for the films.

In a story titled “In Tangerine, Trans Cinema Takes a Major Leap Forward with Nothing But an iPhone,” Matt Barone investigates “how a New Yorker managed to shoot a wild comedy about transgender prostitutes in Hollywood with a cell phone.” The story’s framework echoes the long history of white “discovery” of urban underworlds (aka “slumming”): Donut Time on Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard is framed as “cinematically uncharted territory.” Sean Baker explains “I don’t know what it is about me, but I’m always drawn to the edgier parts of town … It was basically an unofficial Red Light District. I couldn’t understand why I’d never seen a story take place there. I knew we could find one there.” Barone explains how,

Acting on that hunch, Baker and frequent co-writer Chris Bergoch visited a nearby LGBT center and met an aspiring transgender actress named Mya Taylor, who quickly introduced them to her friend/roommate/fellow transgender woman Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Soon after, Taylor and Rodriguez told Baker and Bergoch a story they’d heard about a trans woman who found out her boyfriend had cheated on her with a biological woman and went on a warpath through Los Angeles to find both her heartbreaking lover and his “actual fish,” their term for a biological female. And with that anecdote, Baker and Bergoch had the central plot for what would become Tangerine. Eight months’ worth of research and interviews with Taylor and Rodriguez later, they were ready to rock.

Here we can see a common mixture of “knowingness” and “research” regarding sex worker and trans subcultures that speak to differences between insiders and outsiders. By knowingness I mean using terms like “hookers” and “pimps” already known to the worldly reader (knowingness, Eve Sedgwick reminds us, is about privilege, open secrets, and not necessarily the opposite of ignorance). Here stereotypical images get activated, what David Halperin calls “a message … waiting at the receiver’s end.” Research means understanding the language and world of the LGBT center’s inhabitants and the side of Los Angeles unrepresented in Hollywood films. But note that the LGBT center remains conspicuously off-camera in Tangerine as well, thus the conditions of researching the film are occluded in the final product. Taylor and Rodriguez are framed as native informants, clarifying specialized vocabulary (like “actual fish”).

Barone’s article underlines the significance of the film being a comedy rather than a documentary. Baker explains how Mya Taylor said, “I’ll make this film with you only if you promise me two things: one, that you’ll make this as realistic as possible and show the brutal reality of what these women have to go through on the street, and two, I want this to be a laugh riot.” He eventually agrees with Mya that a different approach—one that was more traditionally anthropological, observational, or tragic—might be more condescending, whereas, “if we’re laughing with our characters and participating in the chaos of that day, and not laughing at them, we’d make a film that the women who actually work in that area could enjoy.”

While I am critical of the “discovery” framework of the article, these last points actually align with the findings of Susan Dewey and Tiantian Zheng’s collection Ethical Research with Sex Workers: problematizing insider/outsider distinctions and centering the needs, interests, and desires of those being “researched.” Baker suggests that not everyone will like their feature film comedy—rather than documentary—approach to the subject, but “in the end the only people I’ve have to answer to are Mya and Kiki.”

Mindful of being both an insider and outsider as a cisgender female sex worker, Tits and Sass reviewer Lolo de Sucre incorporates quotes from transgender reviewer Mey in Autostraddle and another trans woman, the sex worker rights activist Morgan M. Page. She considers both transgender and sex worker versions of the “Bechdel test,” and contextualizes the film in relationship to Hollywood and “mainstream audiences” (usually presumed to be white and cisgender, and not sex workers). I am interested in how such reviews reckon with these questions of identification and sympathy, and the fact that Tangerine is a fictional comedy, not a documentary, although the plot was drawn from real stories and the film was promoted for its unique approach to on-the-fly realism shot with an iPhone camera. Tangerine also gained attention for being one of the few fiction films about transgender women to star transgender actresses (Mya Taylor was nominated for a best supporting actress role, a historical first with the exception of a write-in campaign for Holly Woodlawn in Trash [1970]).

In contrast with the Hollywood comedy genre aspirations of Tangerine, Mala Mala is a crowd-funded documentary about drag queens, trans women, and sex workers (as overlapping communities) in Puerto Rico, but it aspires to a more “glossy” music video-inspired aesthetic standard to “glorify” the women it documents. Comparing Mala Mala and Tangerine can help us further probe questions of cinematic realism, indie distribution and press coverage, and the ethical quandaries raised by “outsiders” documenting the complicated place of sex work within the transgender community and the movement for trans equality and representation.

These films also provide a new vantage point from which to revisit debates concerning similar issues in Jennie Livingston’s now iconic drag ball documentary Paris Is Burning, which featured the testimony of a young trans woman Venus Xtravaganza about her experience with sex work, but framed in terms of the tragic story of her murder. We must consider the considerably high stakes involved in Mala Mala and Tangerine’s deliberate departures from “tragic” narratives in favor of musical spectacle and comedy, even as they recognize the extreme level of violence directed toward transgender women of color and sex workers. Clearly, these are fictions and fantasies that matter, as Juliana Piccillo’s documentary Whores on Film intends to demonstrate.


Nicholas de Villiers is associate professor of English and film at the University of North Florida. He is the author of Sexography: Sex Work in Documentary (Minnesota, 2017) and Opacity and the Closet: Queer Tactics in Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol (Minnesota, 2012).

“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.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books

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