The film is being lambasted for its questionable approach to sex work – while Rashida Jones and Meryl Streep are set to produce, Laverne Cox has distanced herself from the project
For non-sex workers, it appears sex work is en vogue right now. Celebrities are joining OnlyFans, people are taking up pole dancing for fitness, and Louis Theroux even did a documentary about the industry. Though you might think more exposure = less stigma and more respect for sex workers, the opposite is often true. Narratives about sex workers are frequently told without sex worker input – or with their contributions twisted to fit narrow, pre-conceived notions of the industry – while others profit off platforms and activities popularised by sex workers (particularly women of colour) without giving proper credit.
This appears to be exemplified by a forthcoming documentary, which is set to explore the tired question: is sex work exploitative or empowering?
On Tuesday (January 5), playwright and performer Sarah Jones announced her feature directorial debut, Sell/Buy/Date, based on her 2016 stage production of the same name. It was reported that the documentary was set to be produced by Meryl Streep, Laverne Cox, and Rashida Jones, the latter of whom produced the controversial 2015 doc about teenage porn stars, Hot Girls Wanted, and its namesake follow-up series.
However, after significant backlash from sex workers and allies, Cox announced yesterday (January 7) that she would be stepping down from the project. “When I agreed to come on as an executive producer of Sell/Buy/Date, I did so because I was so deeply moved by Sarah Jones’ brilliant play and her unbelievable, undeniable talent as an artist,” Cox said in a statement. “But I am not in an emotional place to deal with the outrage by some around my participation in this project, so I have decided to pull out.”
Sell/Buy/Date started as a one-woman show, which, according to Jones, asked: “What does empowerment look like in a time where we want to be sexual beings, where we get to decide what is powerful?” The show is set in the future, and is told from the perspective of a sociology professor giving a lecture about the evolution of the sex industry throughout the 21st century. In the play, Jones portrays 19 different characters, including a ‘sex work studies’ student, an anti-sex work activist, and a former pimp.
Speaking to Rolling Stone, sex worker and activist Allie Awesome said of seeing an excerpt of the play: “Many of the characters are portrayed as one-dimensional and as caricatures.” She also accused Jones of treating sex workers and their allies as “a punchline”.
So fucking insulting these complete outsiders think they can just read our Twitter feeds, and watch some porn movies, and think they know ALL about us, when they don’t. They are *exploiting sex workers*! THEY are going to make a lot of money off OUR LABOR - but we won’t get any. https://t.co/iAIvzpgKkA— Mistress Matisse (@mistressmatisse) January 5, 2021
Before writing Sell/Buy/Date, Jones reportedly spent three years interviewing sex workers and their clients in order to develop her characters. The film adaptation will follow the filmmaker (along with several of the characters from the play) as she does further interviews with current and former sex workers and the men who buy their services. According to Deadline, the documentary will explore how the sex industry sits at the intersection of race, feminism, power, and economics in our current cultural climate. It will reportedly tackle themes of inequality of criminal justice, race, sexism, and poverty through the lens of the debate around the sex industry – namely, is it good or bad, and does it count as work?
People’s criticisms of the film stem from a variety of factors. First, there’s skepticism around its subject matter, with many questioning why those who don’t work in the sex industry continue to interrogate the validity of sex work as work. Adult creators are also dubious of its intentions, criticising it as another case of filmmakers turning sex workers’ livelihoods into salacious money-making stories.
Addressing this, dominatrix and writer Mistress Matisse said: “So fucking insulting (that) these complete outsiders think they can just read our Twitter feeds, and watch some porn movies, and think they know ALL about us when they don’t. They are *exploiting sex workers*! THEY are going to make a lot of money off OUR LABOUR – but we won’t get any.”
Dean Balsamini get cancelled for outing sex workers but @iamrashidajones gets a pass?@SFFILM@yesimsarahjones@Lavernecox@FordFoundation@harnischfound are creating another anti-sex worker "documentary" to stigmatize us & conflate sex work with trafficking to earn some cash! https://t.co/DETLW8LoMR— Mary Moody🌿FREE ONLYFANS😛CB & Xbiz & PH 2020🏆 (@missmarymoody) January 5, 2021
LA-based sex worker Mary Moody accused the creators and producers of “creating another anti-sex worker ‘documentary’ to stigmatise us and conflate sex work with trafficking to earn some cash”.
The latter criticism echoes comments made by journalist Cate Young in a 2019 Ampersand review of Jones’ play. She said: “Jones makes the critical mistake of conflating sex work with sex trafficking and the exploitation of minors – incendiary topics that flatten the discussion by elevating the extreme to sensationalise the mundane.”
This damaging amalgamation was recently seen in a New York Times investigation into non-consensual content and child abuse on Pornhub. The founder of an anti-sex work Christian organisation, Laila Mickelwait (of the Traffickinghub campaign), was revealed to be a primary source of the exposé, leading many sex workers to question the true intention behind the article. As many explorations of sex work in popular culture feed off the narrative that those in the sex industry must be there against their will – a dangerous stereotype for both sex workers and genuine victims of trafficking – it’s unsurprising that adult creators are hesitant about yet another documentary into their work.
Do NOT fall for this shit. I was a real sex worker they took advantage of. You think they won’t do that to you too!??? Look at the track record and stay far away from anything that has to do with them and sex work. They DO NOT CARE about us they just know we sell well.— 🥛MILK TANKER🍼Ho-kage🍃 (@GiaPaige) January 6, 2021
Onto point two: further criticisms of Sell/Buy/Date come from the names attached to it. Rashida Jones has previously faced backlash for her 2015 film and 2017 follow-up series, Hot Girls Wanted, which have been accused of demeaning “the women (they) want to empower”. After the show aired on Netflix, several adult performers came forward to say that Jones and the other producers used their images without their consent. One woman claims her name was exposed in the documentary, putting her at risk of being stalked or outed to friends and family.
Gia Page – who alleges that the Hot Girls Wanted filmmakers “doxxed me and put me in real life danger” – said of the new documentary’s announcement: “Do NOT fall for this shit. I was a real sex worker they took advantage of. You think they won’t do that to you too!??? Look at the track record and stay far away from anything that has to do with them and sex work. They DO NOT CARE about us, they just know we sell well.”
“Here we go again with @iamrashidajones acting like she represents the sex industry???” added adult industry life coach Dee Siren. “When have you ever participated in any part of our industry? You’ve done nothing but cause issues by sensationalising sex workers and connecting consensual workers with trafficking. GO AWAY!!!”
Here we go again with @iamrashidajones acting like she represents the sex industry??? When have you ever participated in any part of our industry? You’ve done nothing but cause issues by sensationalizing sex workers & connecting consensual workers with trafficking. GO AWAY!!! https://t.co/L4EtfH6ho6— ⭐️ Dee Siren ⭐️ “The Love Siren” (@mrssiren) January 6, 2021
Others have taken umbrage with Meryl Streep’s attachment to the project, owing to her stance on the criminalisation of sex work. In 2015, the actor signed an open letter to Amnesty International, urging the organisation not to decriminalise the sex trade, despite experts giving evidence that criminalisation leads to greater abuse against sex workers and makes their work more dangerous. Streep has also advocated for FOSTA-SESTA, the 2018 US bills which make life more difficult for sex workers online, forcing them to turn to less safe methods of working.
Responding to the backlash in a statement on Twitter, Sarah Jones said: “As a Black feminist artist, I have always centred the stories of traditionally marginalised people, especially women and femmes struggling for liberation and self-determination. My sisters in the sex industry are no exception. I am committed to deep listening to folks with lived experience, not only in my interviews, but also in those we hire behind the scenes.”
At a time when many sex workers’ incomes and livelihoods have been decimated by the global pandemic, another documentary into the ethics or validity of their work is far from needed. Those in the industry are tired of having their stories told for them. As dominatrix and erotic recording artist Jenny DeMilo says: “Nothing about us without us.”