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How The Girlfriend Experience gets sex work right

Though the anthology show is far from perfect, it goes above the sheen of glamour, imposed victim-status and punchlines usually forced on TV’s sex workers

The first episode of the new season of The Girlfriend Experience begins with Girlfriend Experience provider Anna Greenwald (Louisa Krause), sitting with her client and high-powered political strategist Mark Novak (Michael Cram) in an elegantly bland hotel room. “You’re beautiful,” he tells her, before winding a hand around her throat and forcing her into rough oral sex, while spitting a series of misogynist epithets. “Bring a friend next time,” he says post-orgasm, “I’m getting bored.”

Anna smoothes her hair, rearranges her outfit and flatly responds that that sounds “fun”. It is a bleak, stomach-lurching encounter that the camera sheerly exposes – likewise, it doesn’t leer. It stays with Anna as she quietly allows the experience to roll off her, the surgical precision with which she speaks, the way in which she manages this volatile and violent man. The Girlfriend Experience is by no means without flaws but in terms of dignifying sex work as work, it asks questions no other show on the subject has bothered positing.

The second season of The Girlfriend Experience is currently airing in the UK on Amazon Prime, and features two separate storylines. One in which Anna collaborates with Erica (Anna Friel) – the Finance Director of a Republican PAC to blackmail Mark during the 2018 US midterm elections. Another in which Bria (Carmen Ejogo), a former escort, enters into the Witness Protection Programme to escape her abusive husband. Series creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz have described this season's’ themes as being “power dynamics and control”.  

The Girlfriend Experience is a term denoting a specific type of sexual and emotional service, one in which sex workers provide a superficial version of a romantic partner or girlfriend: attending social functions, offering emotional support, providing sex – according to the stipulations of their client. An anthology series based on the 2009 Steven Soderbergh film-of-the-same name – the first season followed burgeoning lawyer Christine (Riley Keough) supporting her expensive law school and (presumably unpaid) internship with high-end escort work. On discovering a friend works as an escort, she meets a client and makes the decision to work as a GFE. Initially working for her friend’s booker, then working for herself; discovering the autonomies and vulnerabilities of the work.  

Keough delivered a steely, inscrutable performance as Christine, demonstrating the sharp efficiency with which she reflected her client’s desires to them, both in her legal and escorting work. “You say their own words back to them” she tells a colleague at a job fair at her law school, intuiting the requisite performativity necessary to both roles, and invariably – to all work. Christine treats sex work with the same conscientiousness with which she inhabits her legal career: she makes notes about client’s lives in her Blackberry in order to pick up conversations later; she maintains a detached anonymity: a blank canvas onto which her clients can project whatever they want; she works out relentlessly, the implication that maintaining her physique is essential to her work. She often looks really, really bored. In surfacing this side of the work, the show dignifies sex work as a form of labour, considering how complicated and multifarious the work is. It characterises the emotional and physical labour. It validates the vulnerability of the role. It asks, what might this, as a career, look like?

“It positions sex work as a function of both capitalism and patriarchy, likewise women using their sexuality to accumulate power and wealth – a somewhat grim inevitability”

Television has a murky history of failing to humanise sex workers; sex work alternately glamorised, victimised or used as a punchline. Sex workers routinely act as devices or ciphers. Rachel in House of Cards was allegedly not given a proper name until they expanded her character arc. David Simon told The New Yorker Radio Hour in writing The Deuce he created a character called “Thunder Thighs”, based on a real woman’s real street name, and it took a female staffer to point out they might want to, y’know, name her beyond that, if they were going to actually nuance and develop her character on the show. The actual work is often abstracted, with little interrogation of how workers might manage their businesses, their brands, their finances.

If The Girlfriend Experience is critical of anything, it is of global capitalism – and men’s disproportionately dominant role within it. It positions sex work as a function of both capitalism and patriarchy, likewise women using their sexuality to accumulate power and wealth – a somewhat grim inevitability. In a Season two monologue, Bria the former GFE-provider talks of pretending to enjoy sex with her husband more than she actually did, how that was instrumental in his financial support of her. “I’d say nice things” she says, “and I’d get nice things.” If male / female sexual relationships are already intrinsically transactional, her statement suggests, why not further capitalise on that?

The show is far from perfect. It demonstrates a very specific and lucrative iteration of sex work. It features very little people of colour. We understand little of the characters’ backstories. It doesn’t necessarily seek to empower. Though in terms of portraying sex work as work – it at least has the guts to think of it as such.