This module you are considering representations of sex work in the media. For this discussion board, please watch and analyze the film Hustlers or one episode of the television show P-Valley. Then please analyze this movie or episode. First make sure to explain and reference material you learned in the course (definitely mentioning some material from this particular module), as this helps me assess your understanding of the material. As you do this, you must cite if you want any credit. Then discuss what media you watched this week and consider how it relates to what you read. For instance, you can talk about if you feel Hustlers or P-Valley contributes to the stigmatization of sex workers or helps reduce stigma. You can go back to information from previous models to discuss how what you watched relates to historical representations of the South, gender, race, and more! Include examples from what you watched to make your points. Don’t use material from outside sources unless you first incorporate material from class. I encourage you to discuss your ideas with your classmates and reply to those who posted before you; absolutely do not copy what they say without giving them credit though.
This module you are considering representations of sex work in the media. For this discussion board, please watch and analyze the film Hustlers or one episode of the television show P-Valley. Then pl
Hustlers *The following is Chapter 8 of the book The Ethical Stripper: Sex, Work and Labour Rights in the Night-time Economy by Stacey Clare HUSTLERS Hustlers is an intersectional Marxist feminist film about workers subverting the means of production in the face of 2008 financial collapse and posits queer feminist theories of chosen family and matriarchal lineage to survive the violence of cisheterosexist patriarchy. —Jean Chen Ho1 On 13 September 2019, a hotly anticipated movie was released in cinemas worldwide to critical acclaim. Based on a true story, Hustlers is about a group of strippers working in New York City during the 2008 global economic crisis. Lauded as a film focusing on female empowerment, the media hype surrounding the film promised an electrifying and inspirational, never-before-seen production that subverts gender roles. The impressive roll call of A-list celebrities and big budget publicity campaign meant the press junkets went into overdrive, working up a frenzy before the film’s release. Every promotional video or interview given by the all-female cast and production team made some kind of statement about female empowerment. Feminist themes about women working together, supporting each other and becoming a family were woven throughout the promotional campaign, promising a storyline that championed women like never before. The message about female empowerment feels less clear, however, from the point of view of sex workers themselves. Strippers based in the US who were aware of the film going into production seemed uneasy from the outset. Even before the movie was released, there were red flags. Strippers whose lives had been touched personally by the film started internal discussions in private sex worker chat forums; to them the movie was a betrayal. Rumours began flying about where the storyline officially came from, and there were misgivings about the content of the film right from the get go. Jordan Kensley is a semi-retired stripper turned fitness entrepreneur based in California. Kensley runs her own company, Head to Heel, supporting people into health through physical movement, spinal alignment and structural integration. She is also well known for teaching pole dance workshops in LA and around the world, specialising in stripper-style pole, which also until recently was euphemistically called exotic style. Efforts are now being made within the pole dance and fitness community to phase out the term ‘exotic pole’ because of its connotations with colonialisation, nineteenth-century World Fairs and cultural appropriation. Kensley has become an advocate for sex workers in the pole fitness community, where she fiercely defends strippers and strip clubs as the genesis of pole dancing. She staunchly challenges stigma and whorephobia wherever she encounters it, whether at pole tournaments, conventions, expos, or in the dance studios where she teaches. She began stripping in 2012, working in some of the most prominent strip clubs in Los Angeles including Jumbo’s Clown Room and Cheetah’s, which was one of the locations used for Hustlers. Kensley had misgivings about the film well before it was released. She says, ‘My partner works in the film industry, so he kind of knew about it well before the public did. Through his contacts I was able to go to a screening of an early version of the trailer. We both watched it and thought, “Uh oh, this isn’t going to be good for strippers at all.”’2 Her first impressions of the film were coloured by what she already knew of the real life story that the film is based on, which at the time attracted serious media coverage. ‘I knew about the story before the movie was written. I heard about the strippers’ arrests when they happened; it was all over the news here in the US. Their court case got a lot of attention, and then there was the long article in New York magazine that went viral. I just knew that making a film about strippers who scammed their clients was not going to help us. The messages that the public get from the film are not conducive to sex workers’ rights.’ The storyline of the film is indeed borrowed from a real life criminal case that garnered several years of press coverage in the US. Samantha Barbash and Roselyn Keo ran a gang of strippers in New York City who were arrested in 2014 and charged variously with forgery, conspiracy, grand larceny (theft) and assault. Clients being lured to a strip club, drugged with a homemade cocktail of ketamine and MDMA before being financially defrauded was a hot news item. Every time one of the defendants appeared in court to hear charges or receive a sentence, details of the case were relentlessly publicised. Legal proceedings continued up until 2017, when Barbash was sentenced to five years’ probation. An image of her leaving court flipping both her middle fingers at a press photographer went viral. In 2015 New York magazine published an article that also went viral thanks to its racy, cutthroat angle. Journalist Jessica Pressler developed something of a friendship with Keo, initially meeting her in person for interviews, which turned into longer phone conversations at night and even attending court appearances together. Pressler admittedly found Keo to be not entirely trustworthy as a source of information since, as she readily admitted in person, ‘I am out for myself.’3 The article tells a grim tale of women working in the sex industry who exact a type of indiscriminate revenge on men; all men everywhere, or at least the ones they come into contact with. The trigger for their vengeance is the 2008 financial crash that saw strip clubs change overnight from glittering goldmines to empty shells devoid of life. The implied logic is that they are sticking it to the man by taking back what is rightfully theirs, or somehow owed to them, by an economy that exploited them and left them high and dry. They did this by drugging clients, rinsing their credit cards and relying on the men’s internalised shame and fear of losing social status to not file police reports. These fears were exploited particularly well when Keo and Barbash also drafted full-service sex workers into the scheme, laid on as a kind of party-package for the wealthy Wall Street bankers they were fleecing. The ringleaders were in the habit of booking escorts via online listings sites and then cutting them a percentage of the takings – effectively incriminating themselves as pimps in the process, although these charges were never filed against them. Links to organised crime seemed par for the course as Keo and Barbash came into contact with drug-dealers and hustlers as part of their regular routine. Rather than working in strip clubs themselves, the gang would approach wealthy men in upscale Manhattan bars, lure them back to the clubs and render them unconscious by slipping illicit substances into their drinks, plundering their bank accounts and making off with as much as they could – often cutting the club a percentage of the haul as well. No strip clubs have ever been legally implicated, although Scores, Manhattan, the club where Keo and Barbash befriended each other while working together, was named as one of their preferred locations. The tale, as told by Pressler, is a distressing account of people engaging in nefarious and criminal behaviours, treating their list of affluent customers as prey, without a great deal of context. If there is any lesson to be learned from the film it’s that strip clubs are bad places, and exploitation turns people into amoral operators. Pressler quotes Keo, who goes by the name Rosie in the article: In the beginning, after work, Rosie would pick fights with her boyfriend, accusing him of cheating. ‘It fucked me up in the head a little,’ she said of the window her job gave her into the male psyche. ‘The girls develop a terrible contempt,’ one former Scores manager told me. ‘They stop believing men are real. They think: They are there for me to manipulate and take money from.’ And when it came to that, they all preferred the assholes. There’s something extra-satisfying about persuading a man who thinks you’re trash to spend his time and money on you. Preferably so much that in the end, they hate themselves. It’s like, Who doesn’t have any self-respect now, motherfucker?4 The implication, which is then replicated in the film, is that the women who had come to rely on their clients’ spending habits decided to take matters into their own hands once the cash flow dried up post-2008 crash. Quite whom they were taking their revenge on, however, remains unclear. Was it the men who had patronised the clubs pre-2008, whose gratuitous displays of wealth had put Keo through college and helped her financially support her grandmother? Was it the men who ran the clubs, exploiting the dancers’ lack of employment rights by imposing made-up rules, fees and fines on them? In either case, the logic doesn’t stack up. The women weren’t drugging and ripping off their old clients or bosses; instead they targeted any wealthy guys they could find. In fact, if any clubs did benefit from the racket then it’s hard to understand how the women were getting their own back. As for their wealthy customers, once again it doesn’t seem that obvious exactly what they were seeking revenge for. Revenge that they weren’t spending like they used to? Were they too wealthy for their own good? In Keo’s words, ‘What’s an extra $20,000 to them?’ Did she feel entitled to the money after years of earning it more easily prior to the financial crisis? Or was she working from a quasi-socialist ideology of wealth redistribution? If the bankers of Wall Street were responsible for the global economic crisis then was she assuming the role of a modern day, feminist Robin Hood with her band of merry women? In this case, the details of her own conspicuous consumption of caviar and iPads, Louboutin and Gucci undermine her radical credentials. Had she been redistributing even some of her illicit earnings back to women’s shelters or sex worker charities the scam may have had more integrity. Survival sex work is no joke, but the stereotypical version of sex workers as told in this story, with their triviality and lavish expenditure, makes a mockery of the movement for sex workers’ self-determination. In an article published on the blog Autostraddle.com, sex worker Janis Luna made the following observation: ‘Rather than being a savvy indictment of capitalism, Ramona and Destiny (and Samantha and Roselyn) become the same type of entitled and violent abusers the movie shows them rebelling against.’5 Keo self-identifies as a hyperorganised businesswoman destined for greatness. She speaks of herself as the smart one, the girl with future prospects thanks to her refined perceptive abilities and opportunistic streak. She was the one trying to professionalise the scam by drawing up a rota and trying to maintain a sense of decorum amid the scene of hookers, drug-pushers and thieves she was working in. Her book, published the same month as the Hustlers movie was released, is titled The Sophisticated Hustler, implying a self-image of ‘being above’ all the emotional violence and carnage around her. A regrettable detail of Keo’s story, according to Pressler’s article, is her attitude towards the women she and Barbash cut in to the process: Running a team of hookers, strippers, and thieves was complicated. The prostitutes were unreliable. ‘They wouldn’t show up for work, they would be intoxicated, they would get beat up by their boyfriends and had to be in the hospital or had asthma,’ Rosie said. And her attempts at being a den mother had been met with indifference. ‘You have opportunities,’ she’d told one girl in frustration. ‘You just don’t take advantage of them.’6 Keo has fallen into a classic pattern of whorephobia, attempting to distance herself from the full-service sex workers she hired. The whole article is laced with slut-shaming language – ‘I have my dignity,’ says Barbash. Their hypocrisy wasn’t lost on their arresting officers, who, according to the article, said, ‘I liked the part when one girl I was interviewing had a derogatory comment about the prostitutes they called in . . . You think that drugging people without their consent is okay, but a prostitute is derogatory?’ By the end of the article, and according to most of the news coverage that subsequently followed, Keo and Barbash had no higher opinion of each other than the sex workers they hired. What started out as a friendship, at the very least of convenience, soured soon enough once law enforcement was on their trail. One final detail of the story seems to sum up the state of their relationship at the point of their demise; when they found themselves under arrest and incarcerated together in a cell at Rikers Island awaiting charges, a correction officer asked them: ‘Which one of you is the ring leader?’ ‘Samantha pointed to me,’ Rosie said. ‘I pointed to her.’7 Keo took a plea deal to avoid jail time. If we have learned anything from our cultural obsession with dramatisations of organised criminal gangs, it’s that nothing smacks more of betrayal and disloyalty than capitulating to the authorities. Throughout the story, if there was ever a feminist narrative of women working together, supporting each other and reclaiming their power, it seems to have dissolved by this point. Any commitment to each other as collaborators appear to have been built on shaky ground since Keo was, as she originally asserted to Pressler, ‘out for myself.’ As Jordan Kensley had feared, the messages about strippers signalled to the public are mainly negative, age-old tropes about sex workers as bad women – self-interested aggressors, whores who disrupt the moral fabric of society, threaten the family unit and fuck men up by leading them astray. Which is why, when the movie Hustlers was released, its declarations of female empowerment were so incongruous to the sex working community, who have long been waiting for something better. ——– A few weeks before the movie Hustlers was released in the UK, the ELSC [East London Strippers Collective] got an email from a high-profile media PR company. I Googled their website and was impressed by the list of global productions they had previously worked on. They were asking if they could book us for a bespoke corporate event for a private list of special guests. They had found our life-drawing classes online and were reaching out to include us in their publicity campaign. I followed up the email with a phone call and the girl from the company I spoke to was courteous and friendly, and seemed excited to be working with us. I asked her what the purpose of the event was, and after swearing me to secrecy she revealed they were programming a series of events to publicise the release of Hustlers. They wanted to include one of our life-drawing classes as part of the hype and excitement building around the film. We have been running life-drawing classes with strippers as models for over five years, and we have built up a regular following. Our online event page explains the ethos of the collective: ELSC are a bunch of feisty, feminist, fiercely independent women, who also happen to be strippers. They aim to shatter stereotypes and challenge stigma, whilst improving their own working conditions. They are bored of working in badly run strip clubs, being financially exploited and having very little say in how venues are actually operated. To counter this they have begun organising their own pop-up events, to create their own working conditions.8 The life-drawing class set out to create an alternative workplace and business model to a strip club, and now provides a regular income to organisers, who are all strippers and share the responsibility of managing bookings and running classes. All models are from the stripping community and no previous life modelling experience is necessary; the only prerequisite is that they must have worked as a stripper, regardless of whether they engage in any other forms of sex work or not – their sex working status is not important to us. We set out to acknowledge the skill and proficiency of sexual entertainment. We’ve had some of the most talented pole dancers in the country model for us, and what they can do on the pole is breathtaking. The thing I’m most proud of is that ever since we began the profit from the class has gone to strippers themselves. Everyone who has been involved in running or modelling for the class has been a stripper or ex-stripper. The public pay £15 per head to attend. We pay a nominal hire fee to the venues we use, and the rest we divide between the models and the organisers. We call the shots and control the money – no strip club bosses or managers have any say in how the class is run, nor do they have their fingers in the pie. We’ve consciously chosen venues with a history of sexual entertainment, but always remained in control of the finances. We started the class at the White Horse, one of the last remaining old school strip pubs in the East End of London, where we ran the class for two and a half years. After it shut down we moved to another striptease venue, 23 Paul Street, before finally moving to the Crown and Shuttle, a pub that used to be a strip venue back in the day when any pub could book strippers, before licensing laws put a stop to it. The class is more than an opportunity to draw; it’s a defiant celebration of our culture. We don’t need an SEV licence to get naked for a life-drawing class, but we perform some of the same sexual labour for the artists who attend as we do for customers in the club. We’re updating the relationship between artist and muse by reasserting the reputation that sex workers have always held in the art world. From Manet, Picasso, Schiele, Lautrec – male artists have been consuming sex workers’ labour throughout art history. This time we are no longer just the muse, we are also the protagonists in the arrangement, and the beauty of it is that we’ve found a way of breaking down stigma. Men looking at naked women in strip clubs is gross says society, but middle-class people looking at naked women while drawing them is art, right? Sure. As long as we get paid we don’t mind. But we don’t see the people who attend our classes as punters, we don’t treat them like walking ATMs. We treat them with respect, since that’s how we expect to be treated in return. We’ve created a space where men, women and non-binary folk can appreciate the sensuality, strength, discipline and effort they see when strippers perform. The visual artistry of striptease is met with the visual artistry of drawing and illustration, and the results are often magnificent. People who attend our classes come from all walks of life – men, women, queer, all ages. Professional artists sit next to first-timers, and people travel into London especially. One of my favourite artists is Helen, a lady in her fifties or sixties (I’ve never had the balls to ask) whose enthusiasm and artistic practice has been a gift to us. She so loved the class that she brought her eldest daughter along when she was in her final year of art school. We had another mum accompany her teenage daughter, who had apparently been pestering her mother for months for permission to attend the class. Initially her mum had been horrified by the idea of her daughter having any contact with the sex industry, but eventually relented on the condition that she would sit at the bar while her daughter participated in the class. She did indeed spend the entire session sitting at the bar, closely monitoring proceedings. At the end of the session she approached us to say, ‘You’ve really changed my mind about all this. I thought strip clubs were dangerous places, but this is not what I thought. You’ve really opened my eyes.’ We know how much difference our life-drawing class makes and the potential it has for changing the powerful narratives about sex workers. ——– The publicity campaign that ushered in the release of Hustlers was impossible to avoid. The bright pink neon font used for the film title was splayed across billboards, on the sides of buses, it filled up half-page ads in newspapers and magazines, and online coverage was relentless. The movie trailer promised audiences the sexiest flick of the year, if not the decade – flashes of Jennifer Lopez’s unbelievable body (unbelievable by any standards, but all the more impressive at her age of fifty), carrying off athletic pole tricks with all the vivacity of a professional, were guaranteed to command attention. Alongside J-Lo, the roll call of actors and celebrities is impressive enough at the outset to ensure box office success. Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer, Trace Lysette and Julia Stiles perform alongside R’n’B superstars Usher and Lizzo; award-winning rapper Cardi B, an ex-stripper herself, exalted by an adoring fan base for her honesty and openness about her past occupation, was an obvious fit for the movie. The soundtrack also packs a punch with a list of heavyweight pop and rap legends, including Janet Jackson, 50 Cent, Big Sean, Rihanna, Fiona Apple, Fat Joe and Lil Wayne. The film’s production budget of $20.7 million was by no means modest; it grossed $33 million in its opening weekend, and within thirty days of its release hit $100 million in box office sales, placing it high up the ranks of top selling movies of the year. A good deal of its success can be owed to the amount of media coverage the film got. A sex industry plotline was always likely to get airtime, but in the post #metoo age a film written, directed and produced by an all-female team, in which all the lead characters were women, sent the news outlets into overdrive. Hustlers wasn’t just light entertainment, it was a statement; a powerful call to arms for all women and female identifying people, it represented a zeitgeist. Every major news outlet ran a story, whether focusing on the real life court case behind the film or simply using it as an excuse to publish pictures of Cardi B’s breasts; plenty of independent media channels ran with it too. Good Morning America, a prime-time morning TV show that regularly attracts average ratings of 3.5 to 4.5 million viewers per day, ran a piece on Hustlers featuring a joint interview with the stars of the film, Lopez, Wu, Reinhart, Palmer, Cardi B, and the director, Lorene Scafaria. The presenter narrated the movie’s sales pitch: ‘A star-studded female lead drama where the women flipped the script. Inspired by true events, Hustlers is about a group of strippers taking back their power from the men who run the club and their wealthy clients.’ Sounds great. Everyone knows strippers are abused and exploited, right? Who wouldn’t want to see them come out on top? In the interview, J-Lo makes an impassioned speech in support of strippers: For me, the women in the story are very strong, you know, they’re very powerful. You realise there’s a baring of soul, vulnerability, but also a power and a strength they have that is really impressive. It takes a lot of bravery, a lot of courage . . . We gotta be there for each other and we gotta take care of each other, and we gotta have a good time, and I mean we spent hours and hours on the set . . . We’re all hustling, that’s the point. That’s why the movie in a sense is very universal and people can relate to it.9 The problem with J-Lo’s statement was that, in reality, strippers in New York had suffered the indignity of being booted out of their club, Show Palace, for a week while the film shoot took place. Luna’s Autostraddle article explored the facts behind the making of the movie in more detail; co-workers told her that club management gave dancers little more than two weeks’ notice that the club would be closed. They were given the opportunity to audition for work as extras but not all were chosen, and they were offered less than Screen Actors Guild industry standard rates; the film jobs were not guaranteed, nor did they account for anyone who for personal or family reasons couldn’t be ‘out’ as a stripper in a major blockbuster and risk being forever identified with the sex industry. This meant that while the club was used as a film set, and paid a lucrative location fee for the hire contract, workers lost out on a week’s earnings. Workers with no employment rights or protections, no contracts of services with their workplace, no salaries or actual employment status ultimately have no power to claim indemnity for loss of earnings. Pressler’s original magazine article makes a light reference to the working conditions of strip clubs and the after-effects of the 2008 financial crisis on the New York club economy that the women had built their livelihoods upon. If Pressler had concentrated on writing about an industry that doesn’t recognise the employment rights of its workers she would have drafted a very different article, but explaining the impact of a sudden economic downturn on a relatively unregulated marketplace with virtually no protections against exploitation is less sexy than seductresses spiking drinks. The flavour of the story remains centred on the women and their choices (or lack of them) in a world where their actions seem clouded and confused by several different, often competing, narratives. Voices from inside the sex industry were, of course, mainly absent from the mainstream discourse about Hustlers. The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) published the following synopsis: Inspired by the viral New York Magazine article, Hustlers follows a crew of savvy former strip club employees who band together to turn the tables on their Wall Street clients.10 Strippers are not employees; had they been granted employee status Barbash and Keo may have been able to access some rights and protections that could have mitigated some of the devastating effects of the economic crash, without the need to go rogue. Much of what the film is actually about is what went on when a group of women who had discovered an atypical method of earning a living (stripping) then found themselves deprived of income in a context of precarious work. A sudden shift from abundance to scarcity causes suffering for everybody, but it can be particularly acute for marginalised, vulnerable workers, who have little to no social support or infrastructure to safeguard them. Of course, J-Lo can’t personally be held to blame for the alleged treatment of strippers at Show Palace, or any workers in a powerfully exploitative system; nor can Cardi B, director Scafaria or any of the Hustlers cast and production crew. The private business dealings of Show Palace and how they treat their workers is more of an issue for the Labor Commissioner’s Office, not a film location scout. But the real indignity for strippers comes when the film includes scenes that appear to be some kind of attempt at unpacking and exploring the exploitative conditions in which dancers work. Constance Wu’s character Destiny (based on Roselyn Keo) is the victim of wage theft and coercion, when she has to pay the club manager more than the agreed percentage, and tip his colleague, with no choice but to suck it up or lose her job. If it is no secret that clubs exploit dancers, then couldn’t the film production team have demonstrated some awareness around the subject? Were Show Palace contractually compelled to distribute a percentage of the corporate hire fee among workers, as a goodwill gesture? Did they offer any kind of structural support to the dancers who lost work? A week of no house fees, or at least a discount? According to dancers who worked there, they got nothing whatsoever.11 ——– The PR company offered us a decent corporate fee to put on a special one off life-drawing class for a specially chosen guest list of ‘social media influencers’, which we accepted. As the date approached, however, we started to have second thoughts. I’d heard from fellow stripper colleagues in the States and picked up from disgruntled social media posts among the online stripper community that the film wasn’t going to have a positive impact, and we shouldn’t be supporting it. I kept an open mind and asked around – Jordan Kensley put me in touch with strippers and pole performers who had been directly involved in the making of the film. I asked them what the beef was and a picture began to emerge about strippers being let down and put out of work when the other club used as a location, Show Palace in New York City, was closed for a week for the film shoot. No workers’ rights, contracts or salaries make us precarious, so of course the New York strippers were left out of pocket when the film was being made. I knew Jacq the Stripper, a kind of celebrity of our community, had been brought in as a consultant and some actual strippers were hired as extras. And Cardi B can do no wrong in our eyes. But either way it started to look like another worrying piece of cultural appropriation – we had a dilemma on our hands. I don’t like to jump to conclusions based on what I hear from others, and always reserve the right to judge things for myself. The night before our life-drawing class we were invited to a premiere screening of the movie at Leicester Square, so I was glad of the opportunity to scrutinise the film before our event. By coincidence the cinema complex used for the screening was near a strip club, and the PR company were savvy enough to organise a special pre-party there before the screening, which we were also invited along to. It all felt quite exciting – we gathered together a small crew of ELSC members and arranged to meet each other at the party. I dressed up in a slinky red cocktail dress and strappy black heels, I even did my nails which I hardly ever do, wondering who else was on the guest list. I arrived at the party and found Jade, a fellow ELSC organiser. She was wearing thigh-high iridescent stripper boots and drinking a mocktail through a straw. I looked around at everyone else and asked her, ‘Why is this club full of teenagers?’ Scanning the crowd I instantly recognised a particular demographic – young social media influencers, for whom attending high-profile events was a business strategy. The average age of the audience seemed to be about nineteen. The company had put together a guest list of image conscious party kids with huge Instagram followings, dressed up to the nines with the latest iPhone fused to one hand. They were taking selfies everywhere, standing in front of the stage with the pole in the background, tweeting ‘OMFG! GUESS WHERE WE ARE???? IN A STRIP CLUB!!! #tweetyourhustle’. Party-goers could get their nails done at the pop-up nail bar, and branded photo booths ensured the Hustlers logo had maximum impact on the combined social media reach within the room. There was a twerking competition and fake money being thrown around like a jamboree. Party bags were filled with packets of fake nails and eyelashes, free cocktails were being served at the bar with names like ‘Karma’s a Bitch’. As I took it all in I observed with dismay that we were the only actual strippers at the party. This event wasn’t for us. This was for our culture to be consumed. The venue weren’t prepared for the number of people at the party; the bar was mobbed and there was a twenty-minute wait for a drink. One of the managers appeared behind the bar, not to jump in and help serve drinks, of course not. Instead he strutted around with the intimidating physical arrogance of someone who was displeased, like strip club managers do. I knew he wasn’t seeing the potential of this situation to generate new custom and increase their client base, only the nuisance of having more people to serve than the usual handful of male clients propping up the bar throughout the evening. I got sick of waiting so when the staff had their backs turned I grabbed one of the bottles of champagne from the display on the bar and found some empty glasses on a nearby tray. My fellow stripper colleagues were entertained by how brazen I was. ‘Well, we’re supposed to be hustlers, aren’t we?’ I felt no hesitation about stealing a bottle from the venue, given how much money I knew they would be making from dancers’ fees later. I felt my frustration quickly rising – and it was focused on mainly one thing. Where were the actual strippers? Why weren’t any girls from No. 14 on the floor working the crowd? The club wasn’t officially open until 9 p.m. and the party started at 6 p.m. So the club was packed full of people but no lap dances in the private rooms, no strippers on the stage. There was one performance, an incredible pole show performed by a highly accomplished aerial pole dancer, but we couldn’t tell if she was a stripper. She didn’t tease the crowd or remove any of her dazzling costume; none of us recognised her from any clubs we’d worked in. There was a very good chance she was a member of the pole fitness community who has perfected the art of pole dancing but never worked in a strip club. A horrible realisation was sneaking up on me, and everything I observed began to confirm it. There was clearly a lot of money changing hands to make this party happen – the free cocktails, the gift bags, the nail bar. There was a budget for this party, and a serious portion of it was going into the pockets of the club owners for hiring out the venue. And was a single penny of it going into any strippers’ purses? A massive event celebrating strip club culture was happening, and the strippers hadn’t been invited. The film was scheduled to start at 9 p.m. so we all started moving next door to watch the film. As we were leaving a handful of dancers started turning up on the club floor, early birds eager to catch the first customers of the night. They looked conspicuous in their lingerie and heels, wondering what the party was for, and as I walked past them I knew they would still have to pay their house fee to the club that night – despite the corporate hire fee the club had just made. The familiarity of strip club economics left me feeling sick. As I walked up the stairs to leave I heard some of the Instagram kids screaming excitedly, ‘Oh my GOD, did you see those girls? They were real strippers!’ I mean, would it have done any harm to invite the dancers to the party before starting work? Or offered them a small cash fee to perform, a discount on their house fee for the night even? Would it have sullied the mood of the party if the crowd had been confronted by their own feelings in the presence of real life sex workers? We grabbed some popcorn and settled into the VIP theatre seats at the front, the massive leather reclining ones. Watching it was slow motion carnage. Once we saw what direction the plot was going in whatever sense of pride and elation I had left began to plummet. Everyone else in the movie theatre behaved like they were at a panto, shouting out words like ‘Liar!’ and ‘No, Sis! Don’t trust her!’ at the screen. One of the other ELSC members was going mental, yelling at people in the audience to have some respect, ‘We’re real strippers, for fuck’s sake! Shut the fuck up!’ We were seeing live in action the direct consequence of turning strippers into characters in a film, and sex work culture into something to be consumed. The audience weren’t relating to us; strippers hadn’t been humanised one bit. Our stories, struggles and realities had been commodified and packaged into pretty pink bow-tie bags, packets of fake nails, paper money and a beautiful pole dancer with an amazing body but no voice. Just before the film was announced some young women representing the production company, STX Films, made a proud announcement that the film was written, directed and produced entirely by women. The declaration was met with rapturous applause. I was staggered. I felt such a disconnect between their enthusiasm for the film and my own trepidation. What difference did it make to have an all-female team produce a movie, if the actual women at the centre of the whole concept – strippers – had been sidelined? I’d just witnessed a real life edit of a strip club in which the women being celebrated on screen had been erased from their own workplace. What the actual fuck? By the end of the film I was appalled. All my fears had been substantiated. We went for a late dinner together and there were mixed feelings among us. As an Asian-Canadian, Jade wasn’t as hurt as I was; she could identify with Constance Wu’s character, based on Rosie Keo. ‘I felt like I was watching myself!’ she yelled, happily. ‘I used to sit and study at the bar with my college coursework like that. The old house mom backstage? That was basically Susanne!!!’ There had been moments in the film that were entirely accurate portrayals of our world, that had felt so completely true and validating. The strip club scenes, J-Lo’s pole dance, the soundtrack – it was all so beautifully shot and perfectly produced. If anything that made it a particularly bitter pill to swallow – seeing Jacq the Stripper and Cardi B, real strippers killing it in a Hollywood blockbuster, was everything. The joy and camaraderie backstage, the sisterhood and friendship, it was all in there attached to a storyline that none of us could relate to. The thought of being represented as criminals, drugging people, stealing their money and leaving them unconscious made us shudder. We’ve been collectively fighting to overcome stigma for years, and it felt like we’d just had a whole new fresh, steaming pile of stigma dumped on us from a great height. I felt cornered. And I knew the film wasn’t something I could condone. As much as I felt disappointed by the plotline, I also felt there had been positive intentions poured into the film. From talking to Jordan Kensley and the strippers she had put me in touch with, I got the impression that loads of people had got involved in something that looked and sounded amazing from the outset, but they hadn’t foreseen the longer-term outcomes. But that didn’t matter to the hundreds of enraged voices coming from within the sex industry, screaming blue murder that the film was a misrepresentation of their reality. The director of the film, Lorene Scafaria, eventually posted an apology to the New York strippers who lost work and pledged to donate money to the sex worker-led organisation SWOP Behind Bars. I wondered if three years ago, right back at the start of the project, Scafaria had just stumbled across a storyline that looked like a great film plot, not realising what a can of worms she was about to open. Next day I decided to use our life-drawing class as an opportunity to move forward. I didn’t want to pull out and lose the nice juicy corporate fee that was being shared between ELSC members. And I didn’t want to miss the chance to share a message among a room of people with a massive combined online following. The ladies from the PR company turned up looking nervous; by then they had picked up on the tension among sex workers surrounding the film. It struck me that they were all so young, mid-twenties (prime stripper age), and that they were totally out of their depth, not very switched on to the issues coming to the surface. They’d organised food and brought some branded banners and posters; they had some cute cupcakes especially made with tiny edible dollar bills, champagne bottles and of course the Hustlers logo on them. I had to hide a lot of eye-rolls. Once the guests were in their seats, we got their attention with a jaw-dropping pole dance routine given by ELSC member Sasha Diamond, arguably one of the best pole dancers in the country and a proud stripper. They did some drawing. Then we spoke. We talked about the threats of strip club closures and how that makes us more vulnerable, we explained the economics of a strip club and the exploitation we deal with on a nightly basis. We unpacked stigma and explained the definition of the term ‘sex worker’. We opened up the room to questions and by holding space for dialogue this way we invited everyone to think and feel differently about the sex industry. If the PR company didn’t know how to humanise us, we’d just do it ourselves. And if any good could come out of our involvement with the film it would be to use the publicity to draw attention to the really pressing issue – the lack of rights and protections that leave women who work in the industry vulnerable to exploitation. The event was a success. We left with a restored sense of purpose, like our efforts had made a difference. Some of the people in the class became genuine allies, whose concerns for other marginalised communities aligned with ours. We felt the balance tipped back towards something that may look beneficial to sex workers. And we got so many kind words of support online, the extra boost really helped. A few days later I was scrolling through our ELSC feeds and stumbled across a post from the PR company. It turned out that there was a grand finale planned for their week of promotional events: a special private screening of the film at an intimate members-only cinema theatre in Soho, with a discussion panel afterwards. I quickly Googled the chosen speakers for the panel. A former lap dancer who found fame as a Love Island contestant, a pole fitness instructor and studio owner, a content creator and ambassador for the Young Women’s Trust, a plus size model with a child psychology qualification, and trans rights activist and DJ. No working strippers then. No members of our trade union. No one to talk about efforts to establish workers’ rights in strip clubs. No activists to share insight about the industry and explain the exploitative economics and nonsense regulations. No one to explain that when sex workers are constantly made invisible, powerless and vulnerable they turn to more risky and aggressive activities to survive. Even after we’d spent a couple of hours face to face with the PR company, unpacking and explaining the problems in our industry, the hypocrisy of being silenced on social media and misrepresented in mainstream culture, they didn’t invite a working stripper to join their discussion panel. I felt my bile rise; there is still so much work to do. The problems in New York were not the only shortcomings of the film identified by the stripper community. Much of the public excitement fixated on J-Lo’s pole dancing, which many members of the pole fitness community saw as a progressive milestone. Professional pole dancers have long been fighting to establish pole dancing as a serious vocational activity, and in 2017 their endeavours were fruitful when the Global Association of International Sports Federations officially recognised pole dancing as a sport. The trouble is that at least some of those efforts are spent on trying to distance pole dancing from stripping, exemplified when the hashtag #notastripper began trending in 2016. The hashtag prompted a rapid backlash from strippers and sex workers, who quickly pointed out the dire sanctimony of learning a skill invented and perfected by strippers while at the same time rejecting its originators. Kitty Velour is a prominent British pole dancer and champion of stripper-style pole, who began her journey working in UK strip venues, including the White Horse, Shoreditch. ‘I definitely felt that stripper style wasn’t encouraged when I started, and people did turn their nose up at it. There were lots of competitions that restricted anything too sexy, using specific rules – like, the gluteal fold must be covered, no twerking, no removing any clothes on stage. It was as though it was something unnecessarily frivolous.’12 Restrictions on ‘sexiness’ in the pole fitness world have only served to stigmatise the sex industry further, but thanks to those willing to resist and demand a reappraisal of this emerging culture, like Kitty Velour and Jordan Kensley, there has been a recent sea change within the pole community. More pole dancers do now seem willing to acknowledge and support sex work culture, from which pole dancing is derived, in order to avoid inflicting further harm on marginalised women. After all, stealing culture from a marginalised group, divorcing it from and/or practising it outside its original cultural context, while disrespecting or refusing to acknowledge its origins and giving nothing back in return is the very definition of cultural appropriation.* ‘One of the things that bugs me,’ says Kensley, ‘is that the pole artist who coached J-Lo, Johanna Sapakie, worked at Cirque du Soleil for ten years and was a pro-athlete before that – but she’s never been a stripper.’ Sex workers are no strangers to watching their work being appropriated in mainstream popular culture, by performers and artists who have little to no lived experience of the sex industry. The appropriation of sex work in pop culture has become such a ubiquitous feature that it’s now practically impossible to imagine a world without it. Female artists who have championed the sexually suggestive imagery that was once denigrated and assigned to the sex industry have become household names: Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Cristina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Madonna, Janet Jackson and Lil’ Kim are just some of the music industry legends who have borrowed heavily from the sex industry, strip clubs in particular. When Kate Moss pole danced her way through the music video for the White Stripes hit ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’ in 2003, it was considered a ground-breaking piece of performance art. When compared to the stripper-style pole dancing and explicit choreography used in Rihanna’s video for ‘Pour It Up’, released ten years later in 2013, it hardly raises an eyebrow these days. It therefore was no surprise, given the history of strip club facsimiles in pop culture, that when real life former stripper Cardi B moved into the music industry she was propelled to fame over night. Cardi B certainly isn’t the first mainstream celebrity to have a past as a stripper (Lady Gaga, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem to name a few) but she is probably one of the first to make it a central aspect of her identity, using it proudly to capitalise on recently emerging anti slut-shaming, sex-positive and pro-women attitudes. Her arrival may herald a new era in which former sex workers may no longer have to conceal their past lives in favour of a sanitised version of themselves, although that remains to be seen.* It’s by no means just the music industry that deliberately appropriates sex work culture, nor is it a new phenomenon; Hollywood has been using sex workers as subject material almost as far back as the dawning of cinema itself. Narratives of ‘fallen women’, who are lured into forced prostitution often rescued just in the nick of time, date back to at least 1900 with the silent, black-and-white production The Downward Path, directed by Arthur Marvin. Other titles of short silent films directed by Marvin included The Slave Market, A Raid on a Women’s Poolroom and Rescue of a White Girl from the Boxers. The film industry’s obsession with prostitution has only grown over time, with many high-profile actors nominated for and awarded with Academy Awards for their portrayal of sex workers, almost as a rite of passage. Who can forget Charlize Theron’s indelible role as real life prostitute turned serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, 2003? Or Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential, 1997? Silver screen icons Jane Fonda, Susan Hayward and Elizabeth Taylor are among the many celebrities who have been awarded Oscars for their work playing sex working characters, while the inventory of nominees, too long to list, includes Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Jon Voight, Marisa Tomei and Audrey Hepburn. In the 2019 documentary Whores on Film, director and sex worker Juliana Piccillo points out the double bind those in the sex working field find themselves in as a result: It’s really uncomfortable being a sex worker and on one hand being used as a source of entertainment and inspiration, and on the other hand being thrown in jail and having your children taken away for what you do for a living.13 When human rights organisation Amnesty International released their draft policy on sex work recommending full decriminalisation in 2015, it was quickly followed by a knee-jerk public outcry. A petition demanding that Amnesty International reverse their proposed policy, by adopting heavier punitive measures and criminalisation, immediately picked up momentum, catching the attention of celebrity advocates. Among the thousands of co-signatories were Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson, Lena Dunham and (perhaps most egregiously of all, due to her Oscar nomination for her role as the prostitute Fantine in Les Misérables, 2012) Anne Hathaway. Sex workers were quick to point out the hypocrisy of a petition calling for tougher criminalisation of the sex industry that was supported by a host of film stars and celebrities, many of whom literally ‘get paid to have sex on television’. Is there a single Hollywood A-list actor who hasn’t performed sex for the camera? A Canadian sex worker and writer, Fleur de Lit, subsequently published an article titled ‘What’s Lena Dunham got against sex work?’ that deftly cut straight to the core issue: It wasn’t long ago that hookers and women actors enjoyed more or less the same questionable reputation . . . Because of our connected history (those of us who were known to do both were referred to as demireps), I often wonder what would have happened if sex workers had been the ones who ended up with the more respectable social profile. Would we be signing petitions that claim acting ‘is predicated on dehumanization, degradation and gender violence that can cause life-long physical and psychological harm’ to those exploited by Hollywood executives, agents and unattainable beauty standards? Would we declare that acting, especially for women, ‘is a harmful practice steeped in gender and economic inequalities that leaves a devastating impact on those sold and exploited’ in the acting trade? Would we want to make sure a woman actor never again had to shave her head, spend months practising crying while she sang to make sure she could hold the tears and the note simultaneously, lose ten pounds and then another fifteen on a near starvation diet that consisted of two puny servings of oatmeal paste a day, as Hathaway did to prepare for her role in Les Misérables? . . . Would we be using Hathaway as a symbol of the suffering and degradation faced by all actors, gravely and knowingly saying things like ‘And Anne is one of the lucky ones. There are so many actors struggling in complete obscurity, forced to attend parties with fondling executives and giving blow jobs to bigwigs just for an opportunity to get an audition’?14 Given this article was written well before the Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby scandals demonstrated the extent to which sexual coercion and sexual predation has been rife within the film and TV industries for decades, it seems remarkably insightful. If the #metoo movement has proven anything it’s that women everywhere are vulnerable to sexual violence, including precariously employed women working in the arts and entertainment. The glaring double standard embodied by the celebrity petition flagrantly disregards voices from within the sex industry, while being championed by women who have directly benefited from playing the roles of prostitutes, appropriating the lives and stories of the very people they wish to save. There were rumours flying that Jennifer Lopez was tipped to receive an Oscar nomination for her role as Ramona in Hustlers, adding her to the illustrious register of stars prized for their ability to perform a role in the realm of fantasy that is so heavily reviled in real life. In the end she didn’t, and one has to wonder if the Academy Awards just didn’t want the associated furore that might follow if an Oscar nomination had been on the table. How would it go if sex workers turned up to protest outside the ceremony? She did, however, get a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. What is it that authenticates these roles according to the viewing public and awards ceremonies? Is it a performer’s bravery for degrading themselves that is so deserving of the accolades and trophies that inevitably follow? Their boldness? Which begs the question – where are the prizes for the women with, in J-Lo’s own words, ‘a lot of bravery, a lot of courage’ to perform sexual labour in clubs, flats, brothels, hotels, restaurants, on the streets and behind closed doors every day? There is a common in-joke between sex workers, when they successfully complete a challenging booking or endure a gruelling night with a difficult customer in VIP – ‘I should’ve got an Oscar for that.’ Strippers by now are quite used to seeing their intellectual and artistic property being ransacked to sell records, lingerie, and boost ratings. But raids on strip clubs in New Orleans, restrictions on licensing in New York City, and feminist campaigns to shut strip clubs down in the UK, while Hollywood executives grow rich from a movie that depicts their private domain, is a stretch too far. These disparities reflect the precise transfer of power and economic growth that leaves sex workers forever on the back foot. One of the very real after-effects of FOSTA/SESTA in the US, restricting the use of internet advertising platforms by sex workers, was that strippers and sex workers were booted off the internet by social media giants like Facebook and Instagram. Social media accounts are regularly suspended and deleted for any suggestion or depiction of adult material, while on the other side of the hill Hustlers appeared to have no problem distributing sexually suggestive images of Cardi B’s boobs or J-Lo’s bikini-clad flesh writhing around in a pile of money, on any of the major social media platforms. Sex workers are compelled to become activists and start petitions, like UK-based alternative model, webcammer and content creator Rebecca Crow,15 who started an awareness campaign to challenge the inconsistent and seemingly discriminatory practices of censoring, deleting and ‘shadowbanning’ on Instagram. To the uninitiated, it may sound fair; social media wasn’t created with the needs of sex workers in mind, and the average public member probably doesn’t want to be confronted by sexually explicit content, particularly when children are involved. But by the same logic, the internet becomes a reflection of the high street and the arguments used to ban sex workers online mirror the same justifications for shutting down strip clubs – It’s harmful! It’s objectification! In fact for sex workers themselves, using the internet has become an essential tool for harm-reduction. It’s not merely a matter of self-promotion; sex workers, like anyone trading on their image or profile such as actors, performers, personal fitness instructors, life coaches (or just about anyone selling themselves in the new Neoliberal era), use the internet to build their brand, grow followings and most importantly screen clients. It also enables members of the sex-working community to share info and red flags with each other, build community and safety networks. The awful truth is that the FOSTA/SESTA laws are more likely contributing to higher levels of violence and coercion for sex workers, not only in the US but around the world since social media platforms are global, by removing one of their best weapons for self-determination. Whether inadvertently or intentionally, Hustlers as an entire production manages to touch upon some of the most fraught and fiercely debated issues in mainstream feminism, intersecting with, race, class, gender and sex workers’ rights, albeit in some cases clumsily. As director Scafaria put it in her Good Morning America interview, ‘I was excited to explore . . . the humanity of it, and I mean we’ve seen a scene in a strip club in every single TV show and movie ever, and so few have been told from their perspective, and that’s what really interested me just from a human level.’ It’s clear, particularly from the scenes in Hustlers that were more accurate than most usual Hollywood depictions, that the production went to some lengths to avoid the usual pitfalls of cultural appropriation. Several strippers and former strippers were brought in as performers and consultants on the project, as a conscious endeavour to bring authenticity to the scenes. Much care and attention was spent on trying to get the depictions right. Casting Cardi B was a shrewd move in this respect, not least because of her embodied experience of working in Manhattan throughout her stripping career. As she says on GMA, ‘I knew that scene very well, like, I have danced in the New York City Manhattan strip clubs, because there’s different types of strip clubs, you know what I’m saying. And it’s like, oh man, I’m having flashbacks.’ Jacq the Stripper, a comedian, writer, artist and stripper was also given a role. Her inclusion as a consultant on the film, as well as a short cameo, helped define it as one of the most convincing representations of a contemporary strip club. Another celebrity who had first hand knowledge of stripping in New York during the period the film was set was Trace Lysette, a prominent transgender actor, who has since spoken candidly about previously working as a stripper at Scores, the club at the centre of the story. Her rise to fame as a transgender woman, landing mainstream roles on prime-time TV before being cast as a stripper in Hustlers, is heralded as a progressive development in the movement for greater trans visibility. Including Lizzo, a plus size woman of colour whose larger physical proportions have rarely been affirmed by mainstream acceptability, as one of the Hustlers strippers is another example of diversifying from the typical white-skinned dominant ratios of Hollywood productions, by centring on sex workers of colour. In fact, if Hustlers set out to be one of the most diversely represented films of the twenty-first century it has succeeded. In preparation for playing the lead character, Destiny, Constance Wu worked in a strip club for real for three nights. She didn’t have to audition, but she did have to pay her house fees and commissions to the club, and tip out to the DJ and security like everyone else. At the end of her three nights she donated her earnings back to the women who were working in the club as a gesture of thanks for showing her the ropes of the club, which is perhaps the only example of solidarity with strippers in the entire production. Wu’s contribution to the GMA interview went a little deeper than her fellow co-stars as she attempted to critique societal norms: I feel like in our society, once you hear that type of a profession, whether it’s stripping or sex working or anything like that . . . the judgement stops there, and they don’t get to know people as humans and understand their stories . . . In, like, the patriarchal society there’s only, like, one position for a woman. But that’s a comment on scarcity, not gender. I think our relationship in this movie really proved that because it was all run by women.16 Despite her best efforts, the confused messages conveyed in her statement reflect the confusion inherent within the film. Wu has been one of the only celebrities to use the term ‘sex work’ on her public platform, which may be deemed as progress. But the mixed messages about sex work, as rightly pointed out by Jordan Kensley, don’t help move the conversation on if they include a storyline loaded up with stigma. Throughout Hustlers the lines between victim/abuser are obfuscated, not least because everyone’s motivations appear compromised by greed and self-interest. Between the male patrons looking for a good time, the strippers working the clubs, the scammers working their client lists, the hookers and dealers who were cut in on the scams – by the end it becomes impossible to figure out who is screwing whom (no pun intended). Once again we see the clubs get away scot-free; club bosses are virtually absent from the story. Of course, from a feminist angle that’s a good thing – who wants to hear and see male characters in positions of power anymore? But by focusing on the personal stories, proclivities and rationales of individuals as players in a dangerous game, it is no longer necessary to explain or critique the working environments in which the story plays out. Understanding strip clubs as places of work, and understanding the complex power relationships within them, is such an integral part of the fight for sex workers’ rights; but this seems to be a fact that mainstream media has not yet reconciled. If the aim was to prioritise female voices and storytelling over male ones, Hustlers has been a triumph. Post #metoo, mainstream feminism seems to be working overtime on countering centuries of culturally dominant male voices and narratives. But is it simply enough to swap the presiding gender, subjugating men instead of women for a change? And in the case of Hustlers, is it feminist to prioritise women’s stories if they actually help to perpetuate stigma, violence and regressive tropes about sex working women? Regrettably, the only male voices within the Hustlers narrative, besides one or two of the victims, are those of policemen; their contribution to the plot was to ridicule both the male victims and the female perpetrators. It is yet another serious oversight on behalf of the Hustlers production team to disregard historical abuse of police powers against sex workers, and allow the male voices of authority to be occupied by cops. Antonia Crane is a stripper, adult entertainer, professor, activist and writer based in the US, focusing on the labour rights movement and trade union activism in the sex industry. Following the release of Hustlers she wrote an article titled ‘Hustlers Is Ugliness Wrapped In J-Lo’s Chinchilla Coat’, providing the following analysis: Hustlers assumes we’ll root for this brand of poetic justice and its ‘hurt people hurt people’ lazy logic, when in fact there is no settling of the score without addressing the systemic global market and the corruption within it . . . As beguiling as certain authentic moments were to watch, Hustlers’ failure to interrogate its own logic was distracting. To drug and rob strip club clients (and assorted strangers) in order to even a score is supposed to be funny, but it’s acutely sad.17 Hustlers has since proven to be a highly divisive piece of popular culture. Films that represent sex workers have a notable role to play in popular opinion, and with an audience reach as considerable as that of Hustlers they have the potential to influence vast numbers of people. Opportunities to move the conversation on only come along once in a while, and when they do they reveal just how far we have (or haven’t) come. It’s clear from the perpetual representation of sex workers as fallen, disgraced women who do bad things that more discussion is needed. What is badly missing from the cultural narratives are sex working characters for whom their job is not the source of their demise. We are missing stories about sex workers who provide for their families, start their own businesses, raise kids, go to college, overcome poverty, or just happily exist on their income from sex work, without the need for virtuous self-improvement storylines to justify their choice of livelihood. We are lacking tales about sex workers who don’t get arrested, killed, beaten up, raped, demoralised by their clients, partners, pimps or any other male abuse figure. We are starved of examples of sex workers building resilience, learning how to stay safe and establish their rights in the workplace. We are in need of storylines that illuminate how sex workers are contributing members of society with value and worth, and how criminalisation and workplace exploitation have deleterious effects not just on individuals but on the wider community as well. When we see J-Lo playing a character in full stripper get-up, demonstrating outside her local city hall with a placard proclaiming SEX WORK IS WORK and demanding employment rights, perhaps then we’ll know the conversation has moved on.