In our culture today there is a dangerous cover narrative propagated by those profiting from the sex industry that promotes prostitution as a glamorous, exciting, and legitimate form of work for women in need of a little extra cash. This narrative is in no way based on reality or research—it is a fairytale that deceives the public into believing what can be called “The Pretty Woman Myth”.
The new Starz series “The Girlfriend Experience” is just one more in a long line of sex industry propaganda pieces. The director of the series, Steven Soderbergh, is either extremely naive in his views of prostitution, or is a peddler of harmful lies about what the sex industry is really like for the women in it—and his misrepresentations have serious consequences for the lives of millions of women around the globe who are, or who will become, victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Usually a skilled filmmaker would spend considerable time in research about the subject of his project. It sadly appears though that Soderbergh did no such thing regarding prostitution.
The storyline of the “Girlfriend Experience” is one of a young law student named Christine who gets enticed by a friend into a lifestyle of “high end” escort prostitution, which she does “on the side” in order to earn exorbitant amounts of money. Her life is presented by Soderbergh as exciting, alluring, sexy, lucrative, and yes… empowering.
In describing the way that Soderbergh sees the evolution of Christine’s character, he says,”[s]he becomes aware of the fact that she has an effect on men and starts thinking like a superhero who’s just discovering what powers she has,” Soderbergh continues, “She’s sort of pushing the boundaries of, how far do these powers that I think I have extend?”
What Soderbergh refuses to see is that the concept of empowerment is antithetical to prostitution. Prostitution, properly understood, is a system of institutionalized gender inequality and violence against women. If this were not so we would see men selling their bodies to women at the same rate that women are being sold to men. This is not the case. Even men who are in prostitution are primarily feminized and transgendered, often called “lady boys,” and are treated by their male buyers with the same brutality and lack of humanity that women in prostitution are. Prostitution is a system of violence, because everywhere in the world where prostitution has been studied in any depth, extreme harm perpetrated against prostituted women is a consistent phenomenon—in both legal and illegal markets.
If Soderbergh wanted to create a fantasy series then he is spot on—if he was trying to create a series based on reality with an honest and truthful look at the experiences for most women in prostitution, including “high end” escorts, then he has completely missed the mark.
At the end of the trailer advertising the series, a male buyer sits across from the table and asks Christine the question, “do you want to?” and she answers with an assuring and confident “YES.” This hits on another misconception perpetuated by Soderbergh —that of what consent means in the context of prostitution. All of the evidence of the harms of the sex industry seem to be instantly dismissed by those who defend it with the old and tired argument that prostitution is “just” sex between “two consenting adults.” Nothing could be a more juvenile understanding of the nature of prostitution and the strong forces of injustice that propel women into it. There is a vast and powerful coercive landscape that is the background for a woman’s so called “choice” to enter prostitution that must be understood in order to grasp what is really happening to women in the industry. The magnetic forces that push and pull women to sell their bodies include poverty, gender inequality, racism, sexism, prior sexual abuse, and a culture of objectification.
Women in the 21st century deserve more than the false notion of “empowerment” that says taking money to get naked in front of a stranger who sees them as his merchandise, and perform sex acts that they would never do outside of being paid, is what it means to have power. In these scenarios the ones with the real power are the men handing over the money to women who are desperate for it. It is a misogynistic system of pure inequality where men dominate, abuse, and force the women they buy to perform for them.
True empowerment is the ability of a woman to accomplish what her heart deeply desires without having to crumble to the cultures’ sexist demands. Women who are genuinely empowered are women who get what they want in life without having to pay for it with their stripped down bodies at the expense of their ravaged minds and destroyed souls. And at the end of the day what really empowers a woman is dignity, equality, respect, relationship, love, and freedom from oppression—and those things cannot be bought.