Pretending to love is impossible.
As a sex worker, sometimes I want to believe the Pretty Woman fairy tale exists — the one where the dirty slut gets a makeover, a Hermes bag and polka dot sundress; the one where a rich guy and a broke girl live happily ever after. So I sat down eagerly to watch Starz network’s episodic half-hour dramedy, The Girlfriend Experience, which delivers a trope mainstream audiences crave: an understated high-end, well-mannered, well-groomed call girl, Christine Reade (Riley Keough) who decides to make a splash sucking cock for profit while studying law and straddling an internship at a prestigious law firm. Silly as the show’s premise is (ever been to law school?), it’s also disappointing as a woman. I am deeply interested in the lives of people who work in the sex industry, not just because it’s an inherently rich habitat to explore, but it has potential for all kinds of elegant turmoil revealing the inner lives of those of us working in the adult industry.
We need more stories that give voice to the often invisible workforce and the complex intimacies and sorrows specific to its realm.
Unfortunately, The Girlfriend Experience is void of any such humanity. At no point does Christine ponder the choices before her with any emotional risk or dire need. The internal and external stakes are tepid. We are never privy to her inner life or the krakens splashing around in her heart. We are led to believe Christine doesn’t fuck for cash because the money is amazing and she needs money, but because she enjoys it. The Girlfriend Experience suggests that the job of trading sex acts for profit is a “fun” one for women, when in fact, it costs women a lot: mentally, emotionally and physically.
As a sex positive woman with a history of sex work spanning over decades, I can attest to the fact that sometimes I’ve enjoyed my job and sometimes not. When it’s good, the hit of sexual power and pocket of cash is euphoric. When it’s bad, the stark loneliness of giving a smelly, rude man access to my body clogs my arteries with an emptiness so complete, it’s hard to imagine anything close to love is possible.
In The Girlfriend Experience, layers of the actual GFE daily operations are ignored while the relentless business of objectifying Christine dominates the show. In every scene, Christine is listless, blank and zombified — not in a Don Draper kind of way where his duplicitous mask melts and spills a seedy past that eats at him. Don Draper cracks and we know his trauma. But Christine just reads dead inside, because that’s what guys like.
It takes a special type of sex worker to be a paid pretend girlfriend and I’m not special. I’m one of legions of pretty girls that became a pretty woman panhandling in my panties, landing in the laps of the lonesome while trying to learn something about love. Getting it wrong every time. Trying to get it right. Feeling dreamy and sick in my gut when the person I love cheats on me with his ex and gets caught. Emails are circulated and I go insane then dart into work and perform some other kind of love that doesn’t require me to be there when it counts: at the end of your life. In the middle of the night. When you piss blood. In the morning. When your dog dies. When I am paid to be there, it’s not love, right?
Love is the only thing worth a shit and the only thing that cannot be bought.
I never was a boy crazy sex worker, looking for love in the strip club. In the beginning, I had a girlfriend, Maggie, a leather tailor with a cleft chin who played the French Horn. I met her at a queer BDSM party. She wore a leather hood and scratchy Catholic schoolgirl miniskirt and a heavily tattooed, popular German Domme led her on a leather leash. At the party, I followed them both though the warehouse where a crowd gathered to watch a naked bald boy hang from hooks from the skin on his back and shoulders as he dangled from the ceiling for our viewing pleasure.
“Who are you?” I asked. She didn’t answer. She teetered on black platform buckle boots behind her mistress. Rubber garters dangled beneath her skirt. When she removed the leash and left the Domme, she became my girlfriend. Having a girlfriend made stripping more clear. It’s not like I hated men or wasn’t attracted to them, but I erected a wall. On one side was my real girlfriend, Maggie, our bicycle rides, purple dildos and Earl Grey Tea; the other was my work life as “Lolita,” one of my seventeen stage names.
Lolita was a punk lesbian with pierced septum and pink hair: a lap dancing, Women’s Studies, Mills College girl. Singer in a band. I fucked women. I danced for men. At work, fighting off fingers was a necessity, like getting soaked in the foggy rain waiting for the 22 Fillmore and the smell of cum and bug spray in the lobby as I entered The Market Street Cinema for my 4-hour shift.
Kurt Vonnegut said “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” I wasn’t careful. I became Lolita.
My wall crumbled when I agreed to meet certain special clients outside of the club, but I didn’t realize that was happening at the time. Maggie began to hate me. As I left for work one night, she chucked an entire bouquet of white lilies at me. They hit my back, wet and hard, then stained my skin orange from the pollen. Maggie was gone.
My customer, Kevin took me to “Stormy Leather” and bought me tight pencil skirts, harnesses and sex toys. Craig offered to pay my student loans, and then vanished. Michael took me on a motorcycle ride on his red BMW through the forest in Santa Cruz and then to a restaurant with an outdoor patio. He was soft spoken and kind. Not bad, I thought. Maybe I could fuck men again. I imagined my new life sipping coffee at Michael’s and making arugula salad every night while we cuddled on his couch and watched South Park. But back at his house he couldn’t get an erection. He blamed his erectile dysfunction on his psyche meds, then drove me back home silently on his bike. A few months later, he showed up at the club again, told me he got a real girlfriend and would never be back. I sat next to him and dug my chipped nails into my thigh as we watched a woman named Versace enthusiastically hump the pole on stage. Next was Willy, the PC magazine exec who took me to an expensive dinner then drugged me with GHB as I sipped from a water glass that had been waiting for me. Some nights included marriage proposals and drunken promises.
Every single time I believed them when they said they cared about me and every single time I was mistaken.
While watching The Girlfriend Experience, it occurred to me that in the show, Christine’s transactional relationships were mostly sad and empty experiences that had nothing to do with love, power or even adversity, but more to do with a woman posing: agreeing to disappear while appearing to be in control—even to herself.
There is the spin that sells. The real issues of sex worker’s lives are trivialized and dressed up and bleached away. Their economic reality and concerns silenced.
The Girlfriend Experience did one thing well: it dosed me with a familiar emptiness by showing me how I have grasped at love when I was scared that I would fall for another ghost, a liar, a fake.
How do we know when we are pretending?
Is real love what happens when the 36 questions are answered with eye gazing and hand holding, or is real love what writer, professor, Steve Almond calls, “Sustained attention ending in eventual mercy?”
Years ago, I kissed a Marine. My boyfriend at the time said he no longer loved me so I moved out. I wanted to hurl my car over a cliff every day, mostly because he was on the lease. So I stopped driving until I ran out of cat food and it was time to go back to Desert Showgirls. I met Chris, a 42-year old fully decorated Marine tanker who’d been to Afghanistan many times. He lifted me up and held me so firm and strong, I felt small and shielded from the war raging in my gut. After we kissed in the red, black club and again in a nearby coffee shop, he promised to write. Six months later, I saw him on CNN. It was Thanksgiving. He said hello to his kids and his wife. He never wrote.
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Reference: Almond, Steve. This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey. Essays by Steve Almond. Publisher: Author.
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