Sex workers have often been misrepresented on the big screen. Be it a flowery-Disney-certified representation of the trade, like in Pretty Woman, where Julia Roberts’ sole purpose in life seemed to be to wait for her knight in shining armor to sweep her off her feet. Or how sex workers are often represented as crass, rude people and almost given a villain-like aura.
This is why an accurate representation, or even one that has been fictitiously cooked up but executed well, can look oh-so-pleasing to the eye. After all, how many more times can you roll your eyes at a cringey man-saves-sex-worker movie?
If an enthralling viewing session is what you’re after, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s take a look at shows and movies about sex workers that are bound to leave you telling all your friends about them right away. You can thank us later.
7 Shows & Movies About Sex Workers
When Bonobology spoke with Mia Gomez, a transgender sex worker in Columbia, she candidly shared with us the perils she goes through. Not only were death threats and physical assaults a regular occurrence in her life, but the stigma she faced from society could also sometimes suck away her lively, optimistic spirit.
Former sex worker Naaz Joshi told Bonobology about the difficulties of being accepted into society when a label of sex work is plastered on you. From human trafficking to illegal sex work, she’s witnessed it all.
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This goes to show that sex work, in reality, isn’t as pretty as Pretty Woman made it out to be. It isn’t as black and white as we’re led to believe, and no, the movies about sex workers needn’t always be about the gut-wrenching tale of a woman pushed into the flesh trade (movie number 5 is probably what you’re looking for).
Let’s take a look at some of the most insightful and entertaining ways in which the big screen has portrayed sex workers, so you don’t end up halfway through your meal with nothing to watch.
1. Hot Girls Wanted
Released in 2015, this documentary follows women in their late teens trying to break into the pornography world. What follows is an insightful look at what goes on behind the scenes, and how easy it is to make porn but how difficult it is to make a name for yourself in the industry.
The documentary also features multiple conversations between the pornographic actresses and their family and friends, which showcases how particular families tackle conversations about sex work being a viable career.
In parts of the documentary, the overwhelming nature of the industry will grip you, and you’ll be caught in a whirlwind of empathy and curiosity.
2. The Girlfriend Experience
This drama series follows the life of law student Christine Reade, who’s lured into the world of sex work. As a high-end escort, she develops a specialty for providing the “girlfriend experience,” which results in her establishing interesting relationships with clients. Let’s just say the signs of a healthy relationship aren’t all too noticeable.
Now in its third season, this dramatized and perhaps even glorified portrayal of the industry continues to glue fans to their screens. Our suggestion? Get on it before it becomes mainstream.
3. Louis Theroux’s “Twilight of the Porn Stars”
If Disney-esque glamorized versions of sex work have left you with an urge to take a look at the real deal, this Louis Theroux documentary about pornstars is without a doubt one of the best things you can watch. Back in 1997, Louis made a documentary about pornstars and porn. The “Twilight of the Porn Stars” sees him follow up with those very people 15 years later.
What he finds is essentially the aftermath of how internet pornography severely damaged the businesses and constructs of porn as people knew it in the 90s. An investigative, insightful look into the world of porn and how internet pornography almost desolated the entire industry.
4. Talaash: The Answer Lies Within
This psychological thriller follows police inspector Shekhawat as he attempts to solve the mystery of the unreported murder of a sex worker, Simran, a.k.a. Rosie, played by Kareena Kapoor. As you watch her interact with the inspector throughout the movie, this slow-burning concoction of mystique and curiosity is bound to keep you on the edge of your seat.
A brilliantly delivered monologue by Kareena captured the hearts of viewers, as she shone a light on how society undermines and discriminates against the lower strata, especially against sex workers. If horror, thriller, or crime movies to watch with your partner are what you’re looking for, Talaash should be at the top of your list.
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5. Mandi (The Marketplace)
This 1983 star-studded Bollywood movie shows us the story of a brothel and the survival of the sex workers inside it. The movie also has an empowering quality to it, as Rukmini Bai, the Madame of the brothel looks out for the sex workers as her children.
Though the movie features sex workers who have not been forced into the sex trade, the turmoil they face still speaks volumes. Mandi also acts as a commentary on the hypocrisy of “respectable” men who look down on sex workers.
Within the brothel, however, there’s no stigma attached to the label. Some even proudly proclaim it, and Rukmini Bai reiterates that her children are all artists and should be treated as such. If you’re a self-proclaimed lover of cinema, you should give this movie a go.
This critically acclaimed series follows the story of sex workers, or shall we say, harlots, in the 18th century. With a brilliant cast and a clever script, Harlots entertainingly portrays the competition between rival brothels and the social standing of courtesans.
The added element of being set in the mid-1700’s only adds to the show’s charm and adds some incredible aesthetics in terms of architecture and costumes. This one is binge-worthy, so don’t warn us when you’re up till 3 A.M., 4 hours after you first said, “Just one more episode.”
Tangerine follows the story of a transgender sex worker, Sin-Dee, whose boyfriend cheated on her while she was in prison. In an attempt to exact revenge, she tries to unearth his whereabouts across a spectacularly displayed Los Angeles.
Entirely shot on iPhones, the aesthetics of this movie are to be marveled at, outshone only by the spectacular performance of newcomer Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. There’s a unique appeal to watching Sin-Dee tactfully orchestrate chaos in an attempt to find the person who broke her heart.
Some movies get it right, some get it disastrously wrong. Life’s too short to be wasting a meal watching a movie you regret starting, fifteen minutes in. Give one of the shows or movies we listed out for you a try; we’re sure you won’t even notice where the time went.