What comes to mind when you think of sex? Notice the different images, sensations, and emotions that might come up for you. What desires do you notice? This is an exercise that might be easier for some and more difficult for others. To understand why, we have to be curious about what sex is and what sex represents. At first glance, sex can be many different sensations, both physical and emotional proximity. Sex represents desire, need (both met and unmet), vulnerability, acceptance, openness, connection, and empowerment.
As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, these issues are central to my work and my mission to provide education and awareness of the value of sex work and the need for equal rights and protection for our sex workers to my professional and surrounding communities. Although there is a great need for educational material relevant to practitioners in my field, resources are rare, so I am eager to introduce a new film, American Courtesans, an invaluable resource for therapists, clients, sex workers, as well as the general public. Executive Producer Kristen DiAngelo and her film’s participants bring extensive and rare detail as well as raw strength and vulnerability as they tell their stories about how they got into the business and what it has been like for them to be North American sex workers in the 21st Century. Through the experienced perspectives of these women and men, DiAngelo provides a persuasive platform for a new level of understanding about sex work.
In order to experience the comprehensive impact of this film, it’s important to call attention to the sex-negative view our society holds. Overall, our mainstream culture is incredibly uncomfortable with discussions of sex. Desire makes us painfully aware of our own interdependence, which we tend to view as weakness. Needs have gone unmet so we cut ourselves off from them. We go to great lengths to avoid vulnerability. We crave acceptance and resent ourselves (and others) for it. Openness is just another venue for rejection. We fight intimate connection because of our fear of rejection and penchant to avoid vulnerability. Then we read books about empowerment and wonder why we’re still unhappy. The result is cut-off and judgment of our desires, needs, and vulnerability. Since these are sex’s front-runners, sex takes a big hit. Sex reminds us of what we want. We don’t want to want those things. Sex becomes taboo. Anyone who is open about their needs, desires, vulnerability, sex, and non-mainstream about sex can become a target for judgment, criticism, and even violence.
What does this mean for sex workers and clients of sex workers? Members of these groups are marginalized. Because society is ashamed of its needs and desires, it is fearful and resentful of those who speak to these needs and desires and of those who get their needs met. Society wants to “invisibilize” these needs and desires and sex work makes them explicit. This lights the fire of fear in many and fear begins to show up as anger or rage. The cultural climate surrounding sex work becomes one of fear, rage, disdain, and criticism, insightfully portrayed in American Courtesans.
From the first few words spoken in the film, American Courtesans introduces a couple of basic misconceptions: that sex workers dress a specific way and that what they do is immoral. We begin to understand the pressures and challenges, as Pearl Callahan relates the excruciating process of telling her father about being a sex worker, then about his unconditional love and support of her. The viewer is given incomparable insight into what it must be like to feel compelled to hide such an important part of oneself… and the rare beauty of the response of Pearl’s father. The viewer comes to understand how sex workers begin to feel that they have to hide their profession from loved ones and acquaintances due to this constructed stigma. This constant judgment and negative perception creates isolation and leaves more room for lowered self-worth. Kristen DiAngelo speaks to this on a more global level when she recounts the stratification (and some of its consequences), between sex workers and non-sex workers in a small town, “I remember the first time I walked in… and they looked at these women, all staring at us. You just didn’t want anyone to hurt you. You didn’t want a problem.”
Issues of relationships between sex workers and clients are also demystified in American Courtesans. There is a great deal of abuse of women in general, of sex workers in specific, and of sex workers in the most marginal circumstances, in particular. Clients (or perpetrators posing as clients) have few to no consequences if they harm a sex worker. Since we live in this self-hating, sex-fearing environment, sex workers encounter men who take this self-hate out on the sex worker in an aggressive and violent way. In addition to sex, sex workers themselves represent a wish for acceptance, a means of meeting desires and needs, human vulnerability, empowerment, and connection. When someone desperately longs for this and has intense hate for that longing, it can be a recipe for disaster. American Courtesans speaks to the presence of trauma in a sex worker’s life, either prior to becoming a sex worker, while on the job, or both. For some who have experienced sexual, physical, or emotional trauma, being the one who now makes the decisions can give a sense of mastery over a situation where they previously felt powerless. They can explore their wounding by exploring their power. When a sex worker who has engaged this part of herself encounters someone who is aggressive and insecure about their own desire and vulnerability it can be dangerous (generally for the sex worker). The perpetrator is forced to confront the deep desire for what the sex worker has and they can react in a violent way to counteract their own feeling of powerlessness.
Although we hear much about violence against sex workers and there is a presumption that all clients treat sex workers badly (anywhere on the spectrum), what about the clients of sex workers who treat sex workers with respect? From sex worker literature (such as the recently published, Johns, Marks, Tricks, and Chickenhawks) we learn about the nuances in sex worker-client relationships. Many people experience close intimate bonds with those who have provided sex work. They feel healed from wounds they had suffered for years. Our society provides no forum to honor their experience. Instead it shames them. Juliet Capulet discusses the men she sees whose wives’ libidos are gone, the clients who have different physical capabilities, and the clients who are in need of this healing human touch. She also reports, “Fifty percent of clients I see have wives who use sex as a tool.” People who have been suffering come to Juliet for help. They experience connection and healing within the bond of their relationship and our society attaches a thick stigma to it. There is nowhere for them to rejoice. The wounding was isolating and now their private healing must be isolated.
The sense of community amongst sex workers, well documented in American Courtesans, also runs counter to presumptions. Inside the field, many sex workers (who are usually identifying, female expressing, and female bodied, though it’s not a rule) find solidarity and chosen family with one another. They find a deep and unconditional love for one another which provides strength and understanding when they are, often, otherwise totally misunderstood and marginalized.
Imagine coming from a place where you don’t feel appreciated, good enough, understood, and that your one purpose in life is for your pain to be exploited. You try to escape in search of something better so you leave wherever you are and find your situation to be not so different from the last, but this time you’re making money. Everything around you tells you that your situation will never change, that you will always be in pain, and that people will almost always be the cause of this pain. You start to meet women who do the same work you do and you are surprised at yourself, that you can trust them and feel connection in relationship to them. You begin to learn from one another. You’re self-esteem increases. Eventually, you feel more ownership over your work and your body and, though slowly, you begin to see your clients differently. Your clients sense this and they begin to see you differently, too. You are beginning to open one another’s eyes to the hope of healing. You grow curious about yourself, what you want, what you don’t, your needs, and you incorporate what you find into the work you do, into your daily life, into your relationships. You realize that everything you need has been inside you all along, that as much as you needed to get out of that harmful childhood situation, there is no need for escape from where you fear it has taken you. Where it has taken you is on a journey of self-awareness, healing, empowerment, love, solidarity, acceptance (for yourself and others). You have become what nearly all parents dream for their children and what most of us long for, but toward which many of us are too afraid to strive.
The bond between producer Kristen DiAngelo and Pearl Callahan is palpable as we watch them support one another through the telling of their stories. As one recalls an event, it is clear that the other understands in a way that only a sex worker can. Their mutual respect and love for one another is raw, powerful, and beautiful. In American Courtesans we see that they share an unbreakable bond, which others can appreciate but never fully understand unless they, too, have experienced the life of a sex worker. They are the ones who share in one another’s triumphs of a successful practice or successful client interaction. They are the ones who weep for one another when one experiences the rejection of a loved one based on their profession. They are the ones who fight for one another when one of their group members experiences an injustice. We all benefit from it, but we might never truly understand the depth of their bond. As DiAngelo’s film demonstrates, there are many sex workers who feel that they owe a large part of their self-awareness and ability to assert and maintain their own boundaries to their field. Some of this is that because they cannot rely on a larger system to protect them from danger so they must create their own rules and limits and some of this is because the nature of the work brings so many different opportunities for experimentation that they are able to learn what they are open to and where they draw the line. Many sex workers begin to integrate this into the rest of their relationships and lives.
Sisterhood, increased self-awareness, and development of a strong connection to their own boundaries are really only a few of the treasures gifted to some members of the sex work field. Many sex workers experience a sense of first-time or renewed connection with humanity. Some report that they have found connections with particular clients incredibly healing.
The women of American Courtesans know their worth now and they are working to give that gift to others. Gina DePalma grew up in daily fear of her mother and learned to believe that attachment to anyone is dangerous. Kristen DiAngelo learned to believe that she is not enough. Tamsen Crown learned that she is unworthy. Through their work and the relationships brought to them by this work, they learned to challenge and overcome these beliefs. The connections they made with clients helped them to trust themselves, which helped them to trust others. Through their work, these women have turned their wounds into a deep strength from which they now draw every day.
One of the most crucial contributions of DiAngelo’s vision is the breaking of a silence. Because of constant attack and critical evaluation of their field, many sex workers feel they have to remain silent about any negative experience incurred prior to joining the sex work force or while on the job. American Courtesans demonstrates that, if they share that they survived any sort of abuse or difficult upbringing, our society responds with a statement along the lines of, “Oh of course you’re in sex work. You just didn’t know any better.” I wonder how the average citizen would respond to someone saying this about their profession in relation to their childhood experiences. If a sex worker experiences violence on the job they are almost assured this response, “I mean… what did you expect?” This is incredibly isolating and harmful to the field since it encourages both silence on the part of the sex worker and disrespectful, uneducated, blind eyes from the community.
The producer and cast of American Courtesans were brave to break numerous taboos in such an open and loving way. They have also charted very new territory as they demonstrate how their journeys have ultimately lead to strength and empowerment. Each participant courageously shares with us some of the most painful experiences that they have survived, how these experiences impacted them, and how they have woven them into their lives to become healers in our community, stable mothers, and educators. Often, these women have not been treated with the respect they are due yet they show respect, love, and understanding for those who are unable to provide them the same. The women of American Courtesans wanted change in their lives and in their world; they are the change they wanted to see. These women are no one’s victims. They are champions.
American Courtesans is an important film for everyone to see, and especially for therapists and clients of sex workers because a) we need to advocate in solidarity with our health and wellness providers, sex workers. It’s about time we address that we are providing different facets of the same job; b) we need to address the pathologization of sex and sexual behavior in our community in order to create a safer environment for one another (since sex isn’t really just about sex); and c) we need to advocate on behalf of one another on a human rights level in a way that educates our community about sex and sex work in order to abate and abolish the misunderstandings, criminalization, and violence against sex workers specifically, and against one another on a more global level.
We share with friends (and our therapists) about how lonely we are, about what a negative turn the world has taken, about how unsafe we all feel. Sharing is great, but so is action. I recommend that students, therapists, medical providers, and social workers view American Courtesans as a step forward in their exploration to creating more awareness and curiosity, something healthcare providers regularly encourage in our own clients. We need to take our own advice. This is what we need to increase solidarity and create more action and bigger strides toward what we say we want.