This is a conversation between Jessie Nicole, Vanessa, and Stacey Swimme of Sex Workers Outreach Project – Los Angeles. We attended a screening and subsequent Q&A with the creators and subjects of American Courtesans, a documentary exploring the lives and work of American sex workers. Below is a conversation that we shared about our feelings on the film, audience reactions, and how we see this film fitting into movements for sex workers rights. We’ve included the transcript below (with referenced links) for those without sound, or who simply prefer to read.
Jessie: So, hi, I am Jessie Nicole and we are here to discuss the movie American Courtesans
Vanessa: Yeah! SWOP watches movies!
Jessie: And with me, I have two of my friends from SWOP-LA
Vanessa: Hi, I’m Vanessa and I like the Sex Workers Outreach Project
Stacey: Hi, I’m Stacey Swimme. I co-founded the Sex Workers Outreach Project, and I like the Sex Workers Outreach Project too!
Jessie: It’s pretty cool. I think we can all agree on that! So, what in general, what are your thoughts about the movie?
Vanessa: I loved it. I think that one of the most important things that we’re fighting for with the outreach project, and with any sex worker rights organization, is for dialogue. It’s something that we need so badly. Especially now that there’s things like the anti-trafficking prop that just passed in California. It’s very clear that a dialogue about sex work – who’s doing it, how it works, how we feel about it as workers – that dialogue is sorely missing from the public conversation. I really think American Courtesan is trying to break into that dialogue in a way that’s really beautiful. It’s a humanizing project which is step one for all of us. I was thrilled to see it, and to see all those voices, and to see the real voices and the fact that they weren’t afraid to talk about trauma. I really admired it a lot.
Stacey: Yeah! Thanks, Vanessa! I agree with all of that. I enjoyed watching the film. I felt like it’s definitely a film that I would recommend to people if they really want to know more about the lives of a few sex workers. I felt like this film is really aiming to be sincere. The women in the film were really fearless in the way that they shared about their lives and the depth of what they shared about their lives. I felt like it was exciting to see this coming out in kind of the way that it’s made. They’re aiming to get it out really into the mainstream, into real theaters. It’s exciting to see this project progress and see where it goes
Jessie: I completely agree. One thing that really struck me was, what you were saying Stacey, the sincerity and courage that it took to even produce this, and let alone produce such a slick, high quality production. It was a really intimate look into these women’s lives and I really felt honored to be such an intimate part of that conversation. It was something that I felt I could really relate to as a sex worker. But also that other people would be able to relate to and see sex workers as more than just our job. I think that is an incredibly powerful message and I’m really happy that there’s another tool for getting that message out there. I’m very excited about this!
Jessie: So, since we’re all politically active, where do we see American Courtesans fitting in to the struggle for sex workers rights? It’s not an overtly political film. But what do we think?
Vanessa: It’s so interesting, because I see it as overtly political. Simply because the project of humanizing sex workers, and showing women in the sex industry as triumphantly resilient, and also smart about their money and their lives, showing sex workers who are doing that is truly a political act – whether it’s calling for any particular policy change or not. So, the film isn’t calling for policy change directly, but by showing sex workers as women with goals and aspirations and talents and skills and heart and all of that – there is a sense in which there’s a political call happening. It’s like, if you’ve been ignoring this population of people – now you can’t! And that is a political moment regardless of whether it’s a very specific political agenda. For me, this is a political film even if they want to market it as a personal story. But I see it doing very important political work regardless. It can self identify as apolitical, but whatever!
Stacey: I think that the thing about our policies is that the explicit result of our policies are that our lives are shrouded in secret. We’ve become these mysterious black market characters in society that people either fear or feel sorry for. That’s kind of the only two ways that people know how to relate to us. So, because that’s what the policies do, any time that a sex worker is using their real face and going out there and telling their story they’re subverting the kind of behavior that the policies promote. It’s totally political. And we saw a person at the end of the screening questioning the production of the film and saying “Did you choose to just tell the stories of a few women who had a triumphant story? Where are all the women that this didn’t turn out so well for?” And it was offensive for one thing, because these women really told a lot of their stories, and it wasn’t always rosy. It was kind of insulting that he just dismissed part of who they were.
Vanessa: I think that’s really important, that people measure the healing wrong. A sex worker who seems ok is somebody for whom something really bad hasn’t happened to in his mind. And a sex worker who has had really terrible things happen to them, who has been raped, or who has been traumatized by law enforcement, who has been to prison, or whatever. A sex worker who has had a traumatic experience and still thinks that sex work is a good choice is either deluded or the trauma gets completely devalued in that situation. For this film to show women who have been through serious trauma and who have been able to heal and keep going was really important to me. And that person’s question did erase the trauma of the film. It was like “oh, well you guys seem ok, so where are all the people who are devastated by sex work?” Well, you know what? There’s plenty of those people. However, what we’re actually trying to do is not focus on that aspect since that’s already what people fear. But to take those stories and say, look a lot of people have a lot of trauma in this industry. However, there is still a great draw and it can be fulfilling and it can be heartfelt and it can be good work!
Jessie: Yeah! And there’s not one story or one narrative of the sex industries. We all sort of know that intuitively, but seeing the way he had this image of “This is what the sex industry looks like. This is what sex workers go through, and if you don’t show what I think sex work is about, then clearly you as a moviemaker, or even you as a sex worker are wrong.” is insulting. I love the power of storytelling and personal narratives. I think as an activist I’ve seen that be one of our most powerful tools in terms of changing minds, and even eventually changing policies. I think it really disrupts the image that people have of sex work and the way the sex industries work. I think he was a really clear example of how badly that disruption needed to happen. I agree with both of you. This may not have been a project that started as consciously a piece of political resistance. But, you know, I tend to think that if it isn’t political in itself, it can definitely be used, and I mean that in a very complimentary way.
Vanessa: And I want to offer a real respect and solidarity with Kristen DiAngelo and all of the other women who were involved in the project who were willing to come forward. Coming forward as a former worker is one thing, but coming forward as somebody who is currently working is extremely brave and a big risk for them in a way that I really respect. I think that if more of us were able to be out and in communities of other workers… that’s really what we’re trying to build. I love that part of the project.
Jessie: I also just want to say that it’s not just sex workers talking. It’s also clients and partners and family members. I thought that was brilliant, and I was so excited to see that as a part. You know, we all have families… “we all,” I mean we all as sex workers. The royal we, not just the three of us. And without clients this industry wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t exist. So, I was really really happy and I want to really commend the bravery, especially of the families, to be able to come out in support of their family members. I was really really touched to see that.
Stacey: I think that’s really a helpful point. Prop 35 just passed in California and I just put up a blog post this morning saying that for sex workers, more than ever, we need our family and friends and allies to be speaking out for us. Because this is really scary. There is a war on us, literally. A social war going on here. And the only thing that is going to reverse these trends is to really really humanize sex workers. And if they’re going to make that increasingly harder for us to do ourselves, we really need our friends and families and allies helping.
Vanessa: This is a really good tool. For those who aren’t familiar, American Courtesans is a documentary that is mostly centered on conversations between sex workers, and some interviews with family and with clients. And it’s a very intimate look at a few workers lives and experiences. I think it’s a really good tool for this humanizing project. Really, it inspired me to do some brainstorming about what other sorts of films or what other sorts of media I’d really love to see. It was like “Oh! If this is possible, let’s keep pushing away!” And I’m grateful for it for that reason as well. It inspired me to think we could make projects that have this level of production value, that have this level of conscientiousness. That doing more historical work, working with trans folks and more people of color and let’s talk about some male hustlers! I just got excited about all the possibilities of what kind of projects this could inspire. I can’t find another word. I’m just going to keep saying: inspire inspire inspire! That’s how I see this project, as a foundational piece of the bigger project to keep making films like this and to keep making media like this.
Jessie: That’s awesome. Because the more media and the more sex workers voices we have, the more powerful we’re all going to be!
Jessie: Alright ladies, any final thoughts you want to have to wrap up this conversation?
Stacey: Well, my final thought is always that people should be thinking about December 17. December 17 is the International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers. This will actually be the 10th annual. We did the first one back in 2003. Several cities are coming together in Los Angeles for the weekend of the 14-17. And we welcome all activists and allies who want to come down and have an opportunity to network and workshop with our colleagues and do some action for December 17. So, if you’re interested you should contact SWOP-Los Angeles. And our website is www.swoplosangeles.org.
Jessie: Yup! You can also find us on Twitter at @swopla