The Soapbox: What TIME Gets All Wrong About “Pretty Woman,” Prostitution & Sex Trafficking

A journalist from contacted me yesterday for a quote that ultimately appeared in an article that irresponsibly conflates sex work and sex trafficking. In recognition of the 25th anniversary of the film, “Pretty Woman,” the writer told me she was gathering what former sex workers— not victims of sexual exploitation, mind you — think of the movie, and whether it gives people unrealistic expectations of the job.

I wrote about the movie years ago for xoJane, and how it was one of my mom’s favorite movies when I was a kid. Not that I believe that influenced me to go into sex work, because it didn’t. But if it had, I don’t think the film’s portrayal of sex work is that far off.

I can’t speak for all sex workers— sorry,— but I’d agree with much of what Charlotte Shane writes in her contributions to a multi-part discussion of the movie over at the website by & for sex workers, Tits & Sass. I’d agree that it’s not terribly uncommon for sex workers to have romantic, unpaid relationships with men they first met as clients. As I told the reporter, I had a couple experiences where the lines got fuzzy, including one man who took me on an all-expense-paid trip to Paris and Madrid. You might say we dated awhile after that. This guy was young, attractive, intelligent, wealthy — if I were looking for my Richard Gere, I suppose he would’ve been it.

People think of clients as skeevy dudes who could never get laid under any other circumstances, but as I’ve written before, lots of different kinds of men buy sex. Lots of different kinds of women (and men, and transgender individuals) sell sex, too. I, personally, don’t look anything like Julia Roberts, but I’ve worked next to women who did. I’m thinking, specifically, of when I worked at Flashdancers, a gentlemen’s club in Times Square. The deejay called Flashdancers the “United Nations of Strip Clubs” because each night, it employed literally hundreds of beautiful— I’m talking stunning— women who’d originated from all over the world.

The term ‘transnational sex work’ refers to women working in sex industries outside their country of origin. Not all these cases are trafficking, as people seeking to abolish the sex industry — as if this were even possible — might have you believe. For many, migration is perceived as an opportunity to improve one’s socio-economic condition and sex work is one of the limited options available to women looking to migrate. Sex work was an option that the women I worked with at Flashdancers seemingly preferred over working as a domestic, for example, or working in a restaurant, or driving a taxi, or entering into a phony marriage.

As I’m ultimately quoted as saying, I think of “Pretty Woman” as being more about class climbing than it is about prostitution — and actually, for many sex workers, that’s what prostitution is about, too. For most of the women I met, as for myself, sex work was perceived as a means of improving one’s socioeconomic condition. Some women (sex workers included) do this by marrying up. Other women (sex workers included) work hard and save or otherwise use their earnings wisely, such as paying for an education or buying a home.

My quote, however, is the dissenting voice among a handful of sex trafficking survivors. Was Vivian, Julie Roberts’ character in “Pretty Woman,” a survivor of sex trafficking? No. She was a sex worker. Her participation in the sex industry was her choice, as was mine. These days, I work with survivors of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, and so I have a great amount of sympathy for those from this background. Although our stories share some similarities, our narratives are ultimately different. It’s irresponsible to conflate the two.

Of course, not all sex workers’ lives are dramatically or even incrementally improved by their chosen occupation, and it’s probable that some people’s lives are destroyed — or, hell, lost — by a decision to sell sex. I’ve written article after article on how prostitution was not the job for me. I’ve described my experience as spiritually bankrupting and a sign that something was wrong. One of the best pieces I’ve read and that I wish I had written is entitled “Sex Work Can Be Empowering, But the Sex Industry Isn’t.” I was one of those girls this article talks about: the kind of girl just not cut out for the job. At the same time, I was doing it (at least in part) for the right reasons and ultimately, thanks to sex work, I earned multiple degrees. Some may claim there’s nothing “pretty” about prostitution, but this belies the obvious: sex work pays, and handsomely.

Just as sex workers and their clients don’t look any which way, neither do our experiences. All in all, I think “Pretty Woman” does a pretty good job of showing a range. Sure, it’s a rags-to-riches fairytale but let’s not forget, the movie opens with a sex worker’s body being found in a dumpster. Vivian is the victim of physical abuse and nearly raped by a client. She talks to Edward about hating the work. But she doesn’t always hate the work, as illustrated by her interactions with Edward. And she gets taken on a crazy shopping spree. All of these things happen to sex workers. Some of this stuff happened to me.

Sure, “Pretty Woman” probably influenced me as a kid. So did Julia Roberts’ other movie from around that same time, “Mystic Pizza.” In both films, Julia plays a wise-cracking, working class beauty who, despite her street smart tough-girl exterior, falls reluctantly in love with the town’s rich-boy prince, who she ends up with in the end. In the nonexistent made-for-TV biopic they make of my life, I don’t get rescued in the end. Instead, I rescue myself. Thanks to sex work, I move from my small, working poor town in the the midwest to New York City to pursue and ultimately accomplish my goal of becoming a writer. I rescued myself by becoming a sex worker — and when it was time to leave the industry, I had to rescue myself again. All this sounds a lot more like the film’s original ending, which everyone describes as “dark” — but I wouldn’t. I can’t say ever after, but these days, I’m happy.