Sex workers’ stories have made up some of the most iconic roles in American film and television of the 20th and 21st century: Memoirs of a Geisha, Pretty Woman, True Romance, Midnight Cowboy, Moulin Rouge, Boogie Nights, and Hustlers… just to name a few (and perhaps the most recognizable by name). There are hundreds of international films and adaptations of sex workers’ stories, both loosely based on true stories and completely fictional that date back to the early days of cinema – and yet, none of these films or roles I’ve mentioned were written nor cast by or for the people whom the films and roles inspired.
Just because sex workers are gaining more screen time and credit now, doesn’t mean they’ve achieved full autonomy over their stories or the liberty to tell them in totality.
Only recently (like within the past 10 years) have sex worker’s been consulted on these stories, given the director’s seat, or even been cast to portray their narratives – but just because sex workers are gaining more screen time and credit now, doesn’t mean they’ve achieved full autonomy over their stories or the liberty to tell them in totality. Cinema has familiarized civilians (non-sex workers) with two polarizing tropes about the job; one that looks of saccharine glamour; the working girl is decorated in lingerie, designer bags, and gifted sudden financial security by a real gentleman of a John, the kind of man any femme could fall in love with! *cough Pretty Woman cough* – and the opposite being the unfortunate fate of the sex worker, the Victim’s Tale.
Hollywood loves to make a dead body out of a prostitute, create traumatic childhood backgrounds of abuse and abandonment, and show extreme scenes of tragedy for passé entertainment. You might be thinking to yourself: How could we be beyond this by now?
One of the most critical relationships in this industry is between the sex worker and their money; the reason many people get into this line of work at all, and even that is rarely portrayed with thoughtfulness.
The nuanced details of labor conditions; wages and overall job security are arbitrary in Hollywood and therefore obsolete on the screen. But these details are often some of the most interesting and imperative specifics about sex work. One of the most critical relationships in this industry is between the sex worker and their money; the reason many people get into this line of work at all, and even that is rarely portrayed with thoughtfulness. Ask any working person about a day in their professional life and you’ll receive a wide, fascinating range of experiences, outcomes, and opinions about the job as a whole.
The result of perpetuating these inaccurate storylines is fuel for extreme right-wing puritanical thinkers and even law-makers, who believe that the Hollywood version of this work is the only version of this work. These storylines surpass entertainment in bad taste and further disenfranchise, destabilize, and stigmatize the very complex nature of sex work that cannot be lumped into just one thing. And to be frank, it’s boring! Sex work is so much more than a reductive tale of victory or tragedy.
Traci Lords was... the first of her kind; a porn star [who] made the transition from adult film actress to just actress – but certainly not without any pushback.
Before we go forward or even present day, we must go back – back to the eighties, a golden age for porn and… Traci Lords. Traci Lords born Nora Louise Kuzma was the first of her kind; a porn star turned actress, or one that had very publicly made the transition from adult film actress to just actress – but certainly not without any pushback. Lords’ was one of the most famous porn stars during the mid-eighties, starring in 80-100 adult films in her short career during the years of 1984-to 1986. Lords essentially bamboozled the industry with a fake ID and birth certificate at 15 years old, making almost every porn she filmed during her career to be child porn. This induction into the adult industry paired with her actual appearances in said films is largely what cemented her reputation; these events both plagued and propelled her as an interest in mainstream Hollywood.
Following her brief time spent in the adult industry, Lords’ pursued a life of sobriety and semi-normalcy; she took up acting and voice lessons and made her transition into a daytime television and B-list movie actress, perhaps most notably in her role as Wanda Woodward in John Waters’ 1990 Cry Baby.
Lords’ has been open about despising her association with the term “pornstar” as she moved away from her past as a person in the adult film industry. In an interview with the Washington Post in 1993, Lords states “I think the only thing that’s different from me and just about any other kid growing up is that mine was filmed,” says Lords. “Most of the people I know have tried this and that, smoked some pot, certainly had sex. It’s the way it happened to me that interests people.” She further expands on some of her struggles to be taken seriously as an actress, let alone a professional, “I’ve lost so many roles that had nothing to do with talent, it had to do with a producer. Or a producer’s wife. I’m seen as a threat.”
Actors like Sylvester Stallone, Cameron Diaz, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan, and Matt Le Blanc are some examples of mainstream actors who similarly, have a past in porn. It’s likely these gigs even lent themselves to their careers, notoriety, and ability to be comfortable in front of the camera. Sylvester Stallone is unique in that he is known just as well for his role in one of his first pornos as he is for his big break in the movie, Rocky. However, none of these actors have been explicitly open about their porn pasts and it can be attributed to the stigma sex work has maintained historically; hyper-sensationalized and seldom perceived as labor at all.
In the past decade, porn actresses and sex workers have moved from being the invisible surrogates of inspiration to the muses on screen, on the runway, and on the pages of contemporary magazines. As society and culture make strides in efforts to normalize sex work we’ve achieved a new level of visibility – (largely due to the rise of online sex work over the pandemic) and thus more opportunity in mainstream media. We are entering a new era, where autonomy is celebrated and our choice to participate in sex work is being viewed as an aspect of our overall makeup rather than what singularly defines us; paving a new way for more dynamic characters on screen.
This leads me to the remarkable sex workers who are taking their seats at the tables in modern-day Hollywood and challenging archaic depictions; intoxicating our screens with radical honesty, vibrancy, and effervescent dynamism.
If you don’t live under a rock then you may be familiar with the chokehold the American HBO television series, Euphoria has had on pop culture, media, and the “aesthetics” craze within the beauty and fashion industry for the past three years. Euphoria is about a gaggle of teens navigating sexuality, queer love, and self-destructive habits in some glorious sex-drenched teenage landscape in glitzy, southern California. The series’ second season breakout star wasn’t a primary role, but one that quickly became a fan favorite, Faye played by actor Chloe Cherry.
Chloe Cherry’s comparison to Traci Lords most effectively illustrates the differences in how these women were largely received, albeit their similar trajectories. Cherry has been a pornographic actress working in the adult industry since 2015, featured in over 200 porn films, now on pause as her life as a starlet has blown up. Cherry was originally scouted for the role of Faye (Euphoria) on Instagram, where she openly talked and posted about her work in porn.
This shift in perceiving the sex worker as “other” or second-class to now in vogue is something that has been occurring in the underbelly of Hollywood and on the internet in recent years.
What separates Cherry and Lords most distinctly is the cultural embrace of Cherry’s career – at least on the surface. This shift in perceiving the sex worker as “other” or second-class to now in vogue is something that has been occurring in the underbelly of Hollywood and on the internet in recent years. It may be the accessibility to sex workers’ lives online that we haven’t had before. Porn stars are akin to influencers, Onlyfans creators and cam girls are models, brand ambassadors, and entrepreneurs with the ability to engage with their audience like we’ve never seen before in sex work.
The era of Lords’ was during a time when being a respected woman in Hollywood proved extremely difficult to achieve sans a stint in porn, additionally, there wasn’t a space for Lords’ to speak on behalf of her experiences and advocate for herself.
Chloe Cherry essentially arrived at just the right time, when culture is quite possibly at the precipice of a long-overdue transformation. Cherry has enthusiastically transitioned away from porn, playing the role of runway darling, grazing magazine spreads, and creating an overall exciting internet presence. It’s refreshing to see a sex worker captivate the creative world and see her experiences in porn reflected as a superpower, not a crutch.
Television is in its gilded age with the expansion of stories we’ve been seeing, and recently we were gifted Pose. Pose is an American dramatic television series that has radicalized visibility for many trans people and sex workers, telling the story of the underground Ballroom scene in the black and Afro-Latinx community during the AIDS epidemic in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. Three leading characters in Pose play sex workers: Angel, Elektra, and Candy. Angel’s character who is played by Indya Moore is a non-binary transgender former sex worker in real life.
Indya Moore has gone on to grow exponentially as an artist in Hollywood despite their candid honesty about being a former sex worker.
In an interview with Moore, they revealed that they got into sex work to help fund hormones for transition. “I felt really ashamed of having been a sex worker and, coming into this industry, it was something that I feared I would be outed for and that it would harm me,” Moore added, “to be able to talk openly about [it] and not fear losing my job because of [it] is really beautiful and liberating — I just never thought that I would have that.” Indya Moore has gone on to grow exponentially as an artist in Hollywood despite their candid honesty about being a former sex worker. They have since become the first-ever openly transgender non-binary ex-sex worker to be cast in a major DC comic adaptation, Aquaman.
So far we’ve hit out sex workers getting hired to play exciting roles on one of TV’s most popular shows, an illuminating portrayal of escorts on network television, and now we’re getting a full-length feature film adaptation of a true story, written by the sex worker herself? Why yes, yes we are.
Zola, the infamous stripper saga gone awry, originally detailed in a series of 148-tweets by Aziah King, aka Zola in 2015, started with the iconic line, “Y’all want to hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out?????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
King, a then-stripper, living in the suburbs of Detroit, used her Twitter as what we call it in the sex working world a, switter, to post topless photos and advertise which clubs she’d be working at on any given night, which had a significant following when she detailed her epic tale. The story is about how Zola met a fellow dancer named Stefani while she was waitressing at Hooters one afternoon. The following day Stefani invites Zola to go on a dance trip and Zola agrees to the venture. Thus, is the start of King’s account of her abduction into sex trafficking and the following days of wild deception, and all the horrifying and bizarre moments that unfold in what King has called a “cautionary tale”.
Aziah King aka thee* Zola is an icon and paramount example for working girls everywhere; not only as a survivor of brutal circumstances but as an inspiring storyteller!
King has made it very clear from the beginning of her thread going viral, that she has a strong and reliable grasp on her experiences in sex work. King has said in several interviews that sex work for her was and always has been a choice, something she enjoyed and had control over. King herself had a large role in the production of this film; deciding who she ultimately wanted to give the rights of her story to, casting, costume, and script. Aziah King aka thee* Zola is an icon and paramount example for working girls everywhere; not only as a survivor of brutal circumstances but as an inspiring storyteller! She represents a woman in control of her image and narrative.
What does this mean for the future of sex workers? Television and movies are but one sector of the working world, but the increasing visibility on-screen is creating chatter and discourse about who we are as multi-dimensional persons; elevating society’s understanding of sex workers at large. Sex workers are becoming more synonymous with the artist, creative, and in charge, approaching a future where “other” doesn’t stand a chance.