Inara Uses Backpage: Sex Work Representation in Firefly

Charli Renken
Fandom Forward
Published in
8 min readJun 18, 2018
Photo of Inara Serra who is a Companion on the show Firefly (20th Century Fox)

Say the word “Firefly” at any pop culture convention and the crowd erupts into excited murmurs, whoops and hollers. The short-lived cult science fiction show has had a passionate fan-base ever since the show’s original airing in 2002, though most fans of the ragtag crew of rebels didn’t come in contact with the series until after its cancellation in 2003. Firefly is a gritty science fiction western set far in a future after the Earth becomes uninhabitable and settlers tera-formed new planets to live on. After a gruesome war between the Alliance government and a group of Browncoat rebels, the Alliance took the new planets under one rule. Six years later, the crew of Serenity, some of which fought in the war, traverse the galaxy looking for work to keep their little ship flying.

“The Term is Companion”

One aspect that makes Firefly such a fascinating story for many fans is its representation of sex workers. In the Firefly ‘verse, sex work is legal and regulated. “Companions” are people trained by the Companions Guild, inspired by Geishas in Japan. Not only do Companions receive training in how to have sex with their clients, they are also taught etiquette, tea ceremonial practices, music and more. Companions must also have regular doctor appointments and keep records of their clients, both good and bad. It’s a lot of work to be a Companion.

Not only are sex workers seen as legitimate business practitioners in Firefly, Companions are highly respected by the majority of society. When we are first introduced to Inara Serra in “Serenity” (episode one), she’s referred to by the crew as “Ambassador.” While Malcolm Reynolds calls Inara a whore (due largely to his feelings for her and jealousy of her clients) he acknowledges to Shepard Book that without a Companion on board, the ship wouldn’t have any respectability.

Pasha Ripley is the executive director of Red Light Resources International

Sex worker rights advocate Pasha Ripley says that “Companions are a step forward.” Ripley is not only a Firefly fan, but also the executive director of Red Light Resources International, a non-profit that fights against human trafficking and supports consensual sex workers rights.

“Companions are held in high regard… and to see a Companion took wealth, so if you’re a client, even that is considered okay. That’s completely different from how the United States and most Western countries see sex work.”

Sex work isn’t a legal profession in most countries and with the recent passing of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) in the US, it just got even more dangerous. More on that later.

Screening Clients

In the sixth episode of Firefly “Shindig,” Inara is seen screening her clients through video submissions sent to her. We see her literally swipe left on a potential client she doesn’t want to work with. In Firefly, Companions choose their clients, not the other way around. When Inara decides to do business with the Persephone socialite Atherton, she does so after screening him first. She then decides to accompany him to the local ball, similar to an escort service. However, after nearly killing Malcolm and deeply insulting Inara, she decides to put him on a list of bad clients. “You see you’ve earned yourself a black mark in the client registry. No companion is going to contract with you ever again,” she tells Atherton.

The way Inara screens her clients is similar to how many sex workers have used websites like Backpage, which was recently seized by the US government. Backpage was an ad posting site similar to Craigslist which allowed for sex workers to screen their clients before meeting them. This method of getting work is much safer than street work, where sex workers can’t pre-screen. A sex worker named Sarah told The Cut, “Backpage helped keep me safe during one of the scariest, most dangerous times of my entire life.” The loss of the website and others like it has been a huge blow to the sex worker community.

Inara and other Guild registered Companions use the client registry to warn others about dangerous people. This is true for real life sex workers as well. Bad Date lists are community-based intervention tools where sex workers can report violent and/or abusive clients to a database in order to warn other sex workers. For many sex workers, the lost of Backpage also meant the loss of these lifesaving lists, although many communities still have these lists up and running for now. “Because these websites are being taken down, it drives the industry further underground, which makes it more unsafe,” says Ripley.

Screencap of Youtuber Riley J Dennis from her video with the words “The Dangers of FOSTA-SESTA” written in white letters over a blue background and a photo of a group of people at a protest with a banner that reads “Sexworkers Rights=Human Rights”


You may have heard a lot about FOSTA/SESTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act — Stop Enable Sex Traffickers Act), which was signed by the President last month. While this legislation was written with the intention of stopping sex trafficking online, it actually harms both sex trafficking victims and sex workers alike by driving both further underground. The bill allows for websites to be held legally responsible for anything their users post that might facilitate sex work or sex trafficking (which it labels as the same thing.) Not only does this mean the government can seize any site they suspect might be enabling sex trafficking or sex work, it also violates the first amendment right to free speech. Craigslist took down its personals section long before FOSTA-SESTA was making major news and now websites like Backpage and other sites that make sex work safer are being seized by the US government. The sex workers advocacy group Survivors Against SESTA says, “Denying these resources exacerbate the risk of violence and victimization for sex workers, including those who are victims of trafficking.”

Decriminalization VS Legalization

In the episode “Heart of Gold,” a group of unregistered sex workers work illegally in a brothel on one of the border planets. Nandi, a former Companion who left the Guild due to its strict rules, leads the brothel with love and respect for her employees. However, being unregistered with the Guild causes problems for the brothel. They have no protection under the law which prominent landowner Rance Burgess takes advantage of. He knows Nandi’s group can’t report his behavior to local law enforcement, so when Burgess threatens their lives over a child one of the sex workers is carrying, the brothel reaches out to the Serenity crew for help. This episode shows why decriminalization versus legalization of sex work is so important.

Making sex work legal would come with laws that regulate and control how workers can make their living. With those laws could come corruption that would ultimately end up hurting sex workers. Legalization currently just isn’t a good option for work that exists on the kind of spectrum sex work does, from no-touch service like stripping and cam modeling to full service sex work like escorting.

Screencap of Juno Mac giving a TED talk. A transcription of this TED Talk can be found here.

Decriminalization of sex work would mean that people could press assault charges without fear of being arrested, something that keeps many sex workers from reporting crimes committed against them by their clients. In Firefly Nandi didn’t want to feel tied down by the Guild’s strict rules so she struck out on her own. However, the work she was doing was illegal, so she couldn’t press legal charges against Burgess. Were unregistered sex work decriminalized in the Firefly ‘verse, Nandi would have legal protection under the law. This is the same reason many sex workers and allies are pushing for decriminalization.

Good V.S. Bad Representation

While Firefly has a lot of great sex worker characters in it, not all of the show’s representation is quite as shiny. Firstly, there’s no evidence that the writers consulted anyone in the sex industry, something that would have made depictions of sex workers and their rights far more accurate and amplified their voices. Firefly also has a lot of issues with cultural appropriation. Despite the ‘verse’s mix of American and Chinese cultures, none of the main characters are Asian. “I’ve watched the show several times and I’m fairly certain that there isn’t more than 15 seconds of footage with an Asian person on screen,” says writer Mike Le.

While a show can have empowering representation of one group, it can still fall short in representing others. What’s important is to praise and point out good representation and call out bad or lack of representation. We can use both good and bad representation to point out issues in both real and fictional stories. When it comes to sex work, Firefly is a great jumping off point for talking about sex workers rights and begin social action to save the lives of sex workers and sex trafficking victims alike.

GIF of Inara smiling and pointing a gun at a person off screen

Talk it Out

  1. How do you feel about sex work? Why do you feel that way? Do you feel differently now knowing more about it?
  2. Do you yourself face stigma for something in your life? How does it make you feel when you encounter that? Can you show the same kind of empathy for sex workers that you would want to receive?
  3. Does seeing representation of a group you’re not apart of increase your awareness and empathy for that group? Why or why not?

Take Action

  1. Talk about sex work with your friends and family. One of the greatest threats to sex workers lives is stigma. Firefly is a great resource to start a discussion about sex worker rights.
  2. Support legislation that protects sex workers rights. Did you know it’s legal in many states for a police officer to have sex with a sex worker before arresting them? That’s so messed up! Thankfully, there’s legislation being pushed in many cities right now to make this illegal. Call your representatives and tell them why this kind of legislation is important to you.
  3. Read up on accurate statistics about sex work and sex trafficking. Understand the difference. Tell your friends. Wrong information makes it easier for sex work to be dismissed as illegitimate work. Some good places to start are listed below in the resources section below!


Amnesty International’s Policy on Sex Work

Amnesty International on Sex Work Rights

Survivors Against SESTA

Queer Sex Ed Podcast on Sex Work

Whorecast Podcast

Red Light Resources International

Sex Workers Rights in India

SWOP USA on Backpage Shutdown

This new law is getting sex workers killed | Riley J. Dennis

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Charli Renken
Fandom Forward

Writer, activist, nerd. Resource Coordinator for the Harry Potter Alliance. Former Secret Chicago editor. They/them pronouns, please!