The Review: American Courtesans (2013)

(this is a blog for my non-professional posts, not related to my writing or productions, but that I think I’d like to share.  First up: a documentary I am happy I watched on Netflix: American Coutesans (2013))

AMERICAN COURTESANS is a documentary collecting interviews with a number of women who work or have worked in the sex trade industry, where they discuss their lives and careers from their childhoods to their current lives as escorts, producers, and activists.  I felt it was a great film, and it did a good job of showing the true face of the industry, good and bad.

The main interviewer is Kristen DiAngelo, who is also interviewed by one of the stars, sharing her own story while supporting others as they tell theirs.  I think this works well because it is honest about the context of the film maker, saying openly that this is her story, just like the other stories, take it as it is.

In the film, the stories of the women are sorted by stages rather than chronologically: childhoods compared, initiations into the industry compared, and so on.  While the ages of the courtesans means the stories happened at different times, the technique works to show how similar and yet different each one is.  Some had abusive parents, others had supportive parents; some had truly horrific introductions to the industry, some had positive experiences.  By the end you see how different they were, as well as how similar the challenges they faced have been.

I thought it worked well.

My own bias: before going into publishing, I had the privilege to work in homeless shelters and supportive housing, and during that time worked with a number of men and women involved in the sex trade.  While there, I helped one young woman who disclosed she had been raped by several men, and she was in shock.  One of the disturbing parts of this was that she could not go to police for help, as she was a sex trade worker, as well as a number of other marginalized demographics (history of incarceration, addiction to drugs, etc.).  Her job as a sex trade worker meant getting justice for being assaulted would be difficult if not impossible, needing a level of education and money and mental clarity she doesn’t have while in crisis.

The issues that are being targeted by the laws – pimps and drug dealing – are not the sex trade, they’re pimping and dealing drugs. Because she’s a sex trade worker, though, she can’t do things through normal legal processes, meaning she has to operate illegally.  The excuse is that it’s for her benefit, saving her from the pimps; but it means she can’t get free from pimps because she’s not able to operate legitimately on her own.

I was privileged to work with a few wonderful ladies and gentlemen, many of whom only needed help with mental health and addictions issues, and just someone to believe in them.  Not change them, not demand change from them before offering help, but just be there, where they are at right now, not judging.  Okay, so they go out at night, fine: here’s some safety kit, and remember to take your meds so you don’t get confused, and call in so we know you’re safe. Done. They started to make positive choices for themselves, with simple things like cleaning their housing, taking medication, seeing doctors, doing laundry, smiling, eating.  So they are sex trade workers, what do I care?  They’re also really funny, very intelligent, have valid contributions, and are part of the community. If they’re trapped, cutting them off from the community doesn’t empower them to be strong individuals; it makes them more vulnerable, traps them in crisis, and makes the community weaker for it.

The women in American Courtesans are not street-level sex trade workers, some never were, and all of them are at least private, independent escorts.  Many of the stories mirror those of the people I worked with, and what a miracle they’re alive now: struggles with abandonment from their families, addictions, crises of every kind.  Yet they are on camera, alive, laughing, sharing emotional stories.  They seem like good, brave people who have seen some of the worst life can throw at a person and lived, and know the value of life.

Kristen DiAngelo’s story in particular struck a nerve for me, along with the others, and prompted me to write this: when in crisis, going to the police for help, covered in blood, she was told there was nothing they could do as her attacker was a wealthy businessman who was pressing charges against her; had they acted in her defense, as they did for later victims, he would not have attacked several other women.  The only difference was they were not sex trade workers.  And she’s right, as in Canada we had the Picton case, of a farmer who killed dozens of sex trade workers and destroyed the bodies with his pigs.  Natives have hundreds of women missing, and society doesn’t look for them; we have news stories, we have “outrage”, but no action.

People accuse.  It’s not just judging, which requires though.  No, it’s accusing, searching for any way to poke at someone: a gap in their armor, a hair out of place.  It’s not based on evidence, it’s looking for weakness.  It’s the inflicting of pain to promote someone’s own agenda.  Abusers do this in relationships, using a human being like an inanimate object, as a form of self-gratification.  Sometimes this is physical attacking, starting with little shoves until, whoops, when did it get to punching?  I think it’s a whole a spectrum of behaviour.  All people do it, but some do it with substances, from candy to cocaine, and other do it with people or pets.  What it comes from is a sense that we are out of control, and react by grabbing at the first thing we can. It’s a fake sense of control, it hides the reality that we have weakness, and we can pretend we’re fine.  It’s an illusion of health ignoring the “disease of fear”, and that makes us even weaker.

The women in American Courtesans just happen to be sex trade workers. That’s something people aren’t supposed to do, and it’s permissible to accuse them, so all hell can come down on them with no consequences. Failing to mind our own business, which is to treat people like human beings, the accusations fly.  We ignore the real hurt, the real need: people are preying upon members of the community, and laws as well as attitudes are letting them get away with it.  Bad behaviour gets rewarded.

The careers of the courtesans each developed so they took control of their lives. Those whose sexuality had been attacked took control of their sexuality back through their work.  In fact, they went on to see it as a therapeutic act for their clients, with one describing working with a man who couldn’t have normal sexual interactions because of physical issues, but was trapped in a body that still had the same physical and emotional needs.

Please watch the film.  It is thought-provoking and great work, the subjects are very interesting people, and it’s a narrative that needs to be heard.