I’ve been rewatching Shameless to help me decompress after writing all day and I was inspired by how normal sex work was portrayed, how interwoven it was into daily life in poverty, and it got me thinking about what portrayals are beneficial for sex workers.
When we think of portrayals of sex work in pop culture, we think of Julia Roberts strolling up Rodeo Drive in Pretty Women. We think of Elizabeth Berkley licking the pole in Showgirls, or Constance Wu learning to hustle in an upscale strip club in Hustlers. Maybe we think of Starz's new show P-Valley, but we probably don't think of Shameless, even though various forms of the oldest profession are tucked into the American remake of the UK comedy-drama. From camming to blowing old men in the bathroom of a dive bar to starting up a naked cleaning business, exchanging erotic labor for cash is something that many of the characters on the show utilize to make ends meet. It's raw, it's blatant, and unlike the more popular depictions of sex work, it doesn't center the journey in and out of the seedy, hidden world of paid sex. Sex work is simply part of everyday life.
In the first season of Shameless, Veronica — the sharp, sexy, and caring neighbor — works as a webcam model after losing her job in a hospital for stealing medical supplies. Her online gig is interwoven in the midst of the chaotic reality of living next to alcoholic Frank Gallagher and his six cash-strapped children. Ten-year-old Debbie steals coupons off porches while Veronica flirts with the milkman so teenage Ian can steal milk and butter from the truck. The entire clan descends into a panic after they realize Frank is missing. While the children debate his whereabouts, Veronica gets to work. She turns on her webcam, unfolds an ironing board, unzips her hoodie, and sprays a collared shirt seductively.
Veronica's job is not presented as exciting or radically different from other occupations on the show. It's not something that's a big deal to the Gallaghers or Veronica's boyfriend. Ironing topless for masturbating viewers occurs in the background of the frantic search for the wayward drunk. A humdrum occurrence that's trivialized because the show isn't about sex workers but rather about thrifty people who live in poverty and the 'shameful' things that society forces them to do to survive: scrounging, stealing, sex work. Acts that aren't shameful or abnormal to the characters because life is tough for the struggling class in southside Chicago.
There is a hodgepodge of reductive and harmful stereotypes slapped onto strippers and escorts throughout the ten long seasons of Shameless; Svetlana is manipulative and untrustworthy, Fiona thinks she's too good for such dirty, degrading work. Yet the show feels real in a way that is both refreshing and stirring. This is surprising because there is a slew of other shows that arguably present sex workers more humanely than Shameless, such as Harlots, Duece, P-Valley, Bonding, and Girlfriend Experience. Each is entertaining in its own light and each has its own issues with how they represent the sex industry. But all of them follow Hollywood's long tradition of treating sex work as a life-changing, extreme profession divorced from the humdrum realities of average people.
Our culture has heaps of limiting, often contradictory ideas about the sex industry. It's dangerous and empowering. It produces passive victims and scheming, man-hating entrepreneurs. I like to believe perceptions are changing, that beliefs about sex workers are expanding as shows fill our streaming services. But there is a cemented and insidious notion that lingers: sex work is radically different from other working-class jobs; the sex industry irrevocably changes the people who enter it.
Film production companies are well aware that sex work is seen as otherwordly and use it to touch on our innate desire to escape into secret spheres. Producing movies and shows about escorts, strippers, and street-based workers in their heightened moments, showcasing their wild and salacious adventures, their brushes with danger and criminality, their hero's journeying into 'normal' and 'healthier' lifestyles. Sex work is the must-watch plotline; the obstacle where a character's true nature is tested and revealed.
In Hustlers, for example, Destiny (Constance Wu) starts stripping in an upscale Manhattan club — a club that bears little resemblance to reality. Crowds of men whooped and cheered for pole performances (you'll never see elaborate pole dancing and/or cheering customers in Manhattan), a dancer played a flute in the dressing room, and a group of strippers lured Destiny into becoming a heartless, mobster who drugs and robs men. While the latter was inspired by a true story, the movie in and of itself didn't reflect the majority of strippers' day-to-day experiences, many for whom dancing is as boring as working in an office.
The producer of the movie was applauded for daring to portray strippers with empathy and compassion. But I argue that in order to empathize with sex workers you have to show their world from their perspective. All stereotypes carry some truth and for some sex workers, the first few weeks on the job are different than anything they've ever experienced. But after a few weeks, lap dancing, performing blow jobs, flogging middle-aged men, or stripping down naked in front of a camera becomes a part of everyday life. It might be fun every now and then, but eventually, it loses its shine. It becomes just another way to make money. It becomes work.
There are some strippers and escorts who are happy to see any portrayal on television that breathes humanity into sex workers. I'm pickier. I found Hustlers difficult to watch because I want my job as a stripper to be taken seriously and for this to occur, it needs to be seen as work; not a riveting experience. I want to be able to tell people I'm a sex worker without raised eyebrows or aghast faces. I want to head to work without risking arrest or my club shutting down. I want people to see my job the way I do: as a boring, necessary aspect of my life. Which is why I enjoy Shameless.
The show not only portrays sex work as work, but it illuminates how the industry is a crucial part of survival for poor America. Sean Bakers films — Florida Project Line, Tangerine, and Starlet — also accomplish this. His movies are about poor and working-class people who occasionally dabble in sex work. The industry isn't heightened because the movies aren't about hustling on the streets, working in porn, or procuring clients on Backpage… They are about the people who do these things to pay the bills.
Sex workers don't need shiny glamorous shows that investigate the nature of our work. If we want to create a world where sex workers are treated as people, we need to treat them as people in film. People are more than their jobs. Let's offer them that right.
Reese has been a stripper for five years and has written about the industry for nearly four. She hasn't worked in the clubs since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic but she's been using the time to work on a memoir about sex work and autism.