Sex & Relationships

Sex Work Goes Mainstream on Reality TV

Prostitutes, strippers and porn stars are now as ubiquitous on cable as cops are on network TV. Is that good or bad for sex workers?

Just 10 years ago, if you saw a real-life working girl on TV, chances are Bill Kurtis was filming her with a hidden camera. But now, in the era of reality TV, the cameras -- and the hookers -- are out of hiding.

'Make Sure One of Them's a Stripper'

Prostitutes, strippers and porn stars are to cable what doctors, lawyers and cops are to network TV. It's a phenomenon that started with a little sideshow called "The Real World" way back in 1992. The premise was simple: Take seven people from diverse backgrounds, lock 'em up and watch 'em melt down. During casting, the producers, Van Nuys-based Bunim/Murray Productions, reportedly had only one requirement: "Make sure one of them's a stripper." The result? The longest-running series in MTV history.

Sure, the show's exploitive, with the participants getting drunk, nasty and generally humiliating themselves, but the exploitation works both ways. Just last season, exotic dancer Brianna Taylor parlayed her appearance into a lucrative recording career. She's one of many to emerge from the mosh pit of reality TV as a legit actor, model, writer or even Playmate.

This is the only payoff most participants get. Even sex workers work for free when they appear on reality television. "Real World" players, due to the months-long commitment, do get a small stipend, but by and large, there is no compensation for on-camera appearances, and no legal protection if you get in trouble with cops, lawyers or the IRS for anything you say and do on air.

Over the last few years, the "Real World" one-stripper minimum has been expanded by other reality shows to include those in the porn industry. On "Flavor of Love," the girls fight about which, if any, have stripped or done porn. (Our man Flav has no objections -- as long as the girls don't "dissemble" about it.) On "Rock of Love," last year's stripper finalist blamed "bad editing" on her 11th-inning loss of the affections of Poison rocker Bret Michaels. And on "Celebrity Rehab," adult entertainment star Mary Carey kicked up a ruckus during a run-in with a recovering Baldwin brother.

This year, Bunim/Murray raised the bar: After 20-some seasons of "Real World," they finally noticed that the strippers got the best ratings bump. So they created what is basically the same show, minus the virgins and any semblance of coherence, and dubbed it "The Bad Girls Club." Let the catfights and crying jags begin.

"It's gross. It's retarded," is how Portland's Liv Osthus, whose strip-club persona is Viva Las Vegas, dismisses such fare. "I don't like to see women brought down to the harpy level. We are not these Howard Stern, hypersexual, punch line characters," she says. "We are really entrepreneurial, healthy and intelligent and do this by choice."

But Osthus, an acknowledged exhibitionist, has herself felt the reality show siren call and recently auditioned for a yet-to-be-named reality series. Shot in Chicago, the show takes troubled couples (ideally with "sexual issues") and subjects them to intensive on-camera counseling. Osthus thought it might be a good venue: "I like the idea of presenting my opinions in a wider forum and enlightening society as to what strippers really are all about," she says. Plus, it was a way to score a free trip to the Windy City for herself and her mortgage broker main squeeze.

When Osthus got the casting people on the phone, told them she was a Williams College grad, in a rock 'n' roll band, and -- oh, yeah, a headlining stripper, the producers immediately put the couple on a plane. Once there, Osthus got the feeling they were in: "I definitely felt like they were intrigued; they wanted us on the show." But Osthus came down with a serious eye infection that almost blinded her. That physical handicap, combined with her boyfriend's cold feet ("He clammed up in the therapy sessions,") was enough for them to take themselves out of the running.

By then, Osthus had realized the show would not be the pulpit she had envisioned. "You're in a house filled with cameras -- the whole thing is scripted, really. They show what they want to show."

And they do want to show it. Look for more stripper-based reality shows in the works, including "Stripper for a Day," where non-pros get strip lessons from the pros, and "American Stripper," an all-stripper version of "American Idol" hosted by porn star Ron "Hedgehog" Jeremy.

Not-So-Dirty Little Secrets

Not everyone who does reality shows is willing to enter lockdown with a Baldwin brother or suck face with Flavor Flav. Though proud to be "the first man" on the hit WE TV series "Secret Lives of Women," porn star Buck Angel ("The Man With a Pussy" ™) is adamant: "You will never see me on 'Celebrity Detox' or whatever it is," he says.

"Secret Lives," like "Cathouse," "Family Business" and even "The Girls Next Door," is part of a kinder, gentler reality subgenre. Here, adult-industry participants are cast not as sideshow exhibits or human pit bulls, but as star attractions. Though equally voyeuristic, the pace is less frenetic, conflicts less orchestrated and the mundane is mixed in with the titillating to project a more balanced and positive image of participants.

"They were totally respectful," says Nicki Hunter of her experience with the "Secret Lives of Women" producers, who featured her and Buck Angel in the recent "Porn Stars" episode. "They gave me a very wide berth. They said, 'We'll only do whatever you feel comfortable with. We want to know all about you.' "

It was an approach that worked. For Hunter and other adult-industry workers, control is a big issue. They have no problem being exhibitionists -- as long as they control their public persona. And when a film crew moves in, that control goes out the window, a prospect that Hunter admits made her nervous. "I didn't want them to put a spin on things to make it more interesting. I'm in entertainment. I'm not dumb. I know how these things happen."

With some trepidation, Hunter let the five-person crew from the L.A.-based KAOS Productions follow her around for four days: at home, in the hospital (Hunter is in remission after a bout with leukemia), and at a Vegas adult-industry convention. The only line Hunter drew was at filming her children. At another point, she asked to see the footage. It was a test. They obliged. "I realized then that there wasn't a problem," she says.

Angel was equally loath to let his guard down. "I wanted to make sure they portrayed me and my life in a positive manner," he says. "People can misconstrue things. Someone can say 'We're not going to do this,' and then everything can change in editing."

What Angel wanted was assurances that he would not be labeled, that he would be shown "as a normal person." He was also nervous about his past drug use. To reassure him, the producers gave him a DVD of a previous show about a transgender subject. It brought tears to his eyes. Angel was in.

Angel let them film him at home in Mexico, talk with his partner and follow him to the AVN awards. On the show, he talks openly about his private life and the controversy over whether someone who has not taken the final surgical step should be nominated for a transgender performance. At one point, Angel tears up talking about his difficult childhood and his parents.

Hunter's footage is even more intimate, or as she puts it, "About as close to accurate as they will let you get." The episode shows photos of her hospitalization; her husband chokes back tears as he talks about her illness. The segment on her recovery and her work to help others in the porn industry who find themselves seriously ill and without insurance (conditions that often go hand-in-hand) is downright inspirational.

"I'm really amazed how many people saw it," says Hunter. "A friend of mine, the biggest, toughest, biker guy I know, sent me a text message after, saying, 'you just made me cry.' " Angel, too, got nearly all positive feedback. In one e-mail, a 64-year-old grandmother wrote him to say, "I'm not into porn, but you really are amazing."

"You have to educate people," Angel says of the experience. "Not everyone in the business is a drugged-out loser."

From Cathouse to Your House

But some reality series featuring adult-industry workers have been bashed for being too glossy and not gritty enough.

In Showtime's "Family Business," the porn maven family is portrayed as a struggling single dad who longs for true love even as he lines up money shots. E! Television's "The Girls Next Door" plays like a pampered Playmate slumber party, and in HBO's "Cathouse," day-to-day operations of a Nevada brothel find the girls orgasmic, well-paid and all but whistling while they work.

Carol Leigh, aka the Scarlot Harlot, director of the Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network, finds the "Cathouse" premise "cute."

"It made me want to sit down and be friends with some of these women," says Leigh, who appeared on an episode of HBO's "Real Sex" a few years ago. "I like the way it shows the communal situations that you rarely see portrayed; the fun that you sometimes have; the sisterhood; the interesting bonding that takes place." She also found footage of how "the clients just lie there passively and the women do all the work" to be a truth rarely told elsewhere.

But Leigh, like Shakti Ziller, of Sex Workers Action New York, is only too aware that the show is, in Ziller's words, "a promotional advertising" piece. "There is no way to escape the fact that every girl who is on the show knows that every time she appears she is promoting the ranch and herself to potential customers, as well as reinforcing with her boss that she is a true Bunny Ranch girl," Ziller says.

Does that fact destroy its credibility? To Leigh, the show is no more real than if you took cameras into the offices of Exxon or Hewlett Packard. "The people who are on-camera are employed there," she notes. "The owner of the business is privy to the comments they make. So how free are they to express anything?"

Leigh, perhaps not the series' typical target viewer, has other criticisms as well. Condom use, especially for oral, is not emphasized enough. ("Can't they get some product placement?" she wonders, not unreasonably.) "But what's really missing," she says, "is how they talk about the money; what they do with the money; what they need to do with their money. And stories of children taken away, discriminations and the families that treat you shitty because of what you do."

But Ziller counters, "Just because the negatives are basically left to the wayside, doesn't mean these kind of observations that emphasize the positive aren't true."

Emphasizing the positive can spark a backlash. "Family Business" was criticized for skirting the drug use that is so much a part of the videos its protagonist, Seymore Butts, produces. When ratings declined, the series was not renewed. The Bunnies, meanwhile, were recently featured in the National Enquirer for Vegas peccadilloes that won't be seen on "The Girls Next Door." HBO was picketed earlier this year by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, who showed up outside the corporate headquarters with signs reading "HBO = Pimp." The series, they charge, "glamorizes" prostitution, and by extension, human trafficking, a charge that industry insiders like Leigh, Ziller and Chicago SWOP member Serpent Libertine dismiss.

"Why don't they protest 'The Sopranos'?" Libertine complains. "That's about illegal activity; that's about violence. They are so focused on this trafficking issue, and it's such a small part of the industry. We're not saying it's not a problem [or] it's not terrible, but it has nothing to do with the majority of sex workers."

"Those who are anti-prostitution try to define [prostitution] in a very narrow way," Leigh agrees. "It's hard for society to embrace the diverse truth of the sex industry."

We're just so tired of it," says Libertine. "As a result, not a lot of us trust the mainstream media. We get media requests every day, but nobody wants to talk to them."

This kind of backlash is what worries many in the industry, even though, in general, advocates favor a higher profile for adult-industry workers, even if it's only on reality TV.

"Decreasing the invisibility and silence of sex workers is a good thing," says Ziller.

"We need a more healthy public discussion of sex," Leigh agrees. But at the same time, she adds, "Things become cheaper if they become seen as commonplace."

Liv Osthus, the stripper known as Viva Las Vegas, sums up the conundrum: Reality shows, she says, make sex workers more mainstream, more acceptable. For the first time, she notes, she was interviewed "by my fancy college newspaper."

On the other hand, "Overexposure is bad for the sex business. I've always admired the mystery of sex work; and it's the mystery that's sexy. A lot of these shows, they don't want mystery. They want train wrecks."