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Sex & Relationships

'The Girlfriend Experience:' Is it Possible There's a Decent Movie About Sex Workers?

Thankfully it's not a romantic comedy or sappy morality play in which the prostitute leaves the business to be with the guy.

I'll admit I was skeptical. Even biased. When I heard about "The Girlfriend Experience," a movie about a high-end prostitute who provides companionship as well as sex -- and what happens when she gets emotionally entangled with a client -- I expected one of two things.

I expected a) a morality play about the consequences of turning love and sex into a commodity, with either a sadder- but- wiser ending in which the guy just can't live with his girlfriend being a prostitute, or -- more likely -- a happy ending in which the prostitute leaves the business to be with the guy ...

or else b) a wacky romantic comedy, the kind that might star Ashton Kutcher and Sarah Jessica Parker, full of amusing secrets and misunderstandings and cross-purposes that all come to a head at the end of the second act and all get resolved in the third. With, of course, a happy ending, in which the prostitute leaves the business to be with the guy.

I was wrong. It's neither. Steven Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience" is thoughtful, complex, emotionally nuanced, and thoroughly grown-up. It's definitely a flawed movie (I'll get to that in a moment), but it's an interesting movie and is very much worth seeing. And, although the prostitute is the central character, in an odd way the movie isn't really about prostitution. Instead, the movie uses prostitution as a way of commenting on the economies of human connection, underscoring the link between money and emotion in a variety of non-prostitution relationships ... both professional and personal.

Told in a "several days in the life of" format, the story is about high- end prostitute Chelsea (played by adult film star Sasha Grey, in her mainstream film debut), and an assortment of people in her life: clients, other sex workers, her personal trainer, her financial adviser, her website designer, a journalist interviewing her for a story, the proprietor of a sex worker review website, and her boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), another personal trainer. While there's no one simple story being told, the central event in the movie happens when Chelsea forms an emotional connection with a client ... and begins to want a relationship with him that goes beyond the pleasant companionship and sympathetic ear she typically provides as part of the professional "girlfriend experience."

The movie is not pure pro- sex- work propaganda. It doesn't shy away from the psychological complexities and downsides of providing a personal, emotional experience for money. But far from pointing a judgmental finger, it uses Chelsea's work as a "girlfriend experience" prostitute to underline the connection between emotion and money in a whole host of relationships.

The clearest example is Chelsea's boyfriend, Chris. Chris works as a personal trainer with wealthy Wall Street types, and he faces many of the same issues that Chelsea does: having to convince clients that he likes them in order to stay in business, needing to maintain both an emotional presence and an emotional distance, balancing his clients' stated desire to hear the truth and what he suspects is their real desire to be flattered and praised, maintaining a friendly and personable relationship with very rich people who he has little in common with and might even be hostile to, not being clear on where or how to draw the line when clients want to shift the boundaries of the relationship and become friends . .. I could go on an on.

But there are loads of other examples as well. When Chelsea sees a customer with another escort, it immediately triggers both a professional insecurity about losing financial support and a personal insecurity about her own sex appeal ... insecurities that are deeply tangled, even difficult to distinguish from each other, and that echo the insecurity of a wife who's supported by her husband and suspects he's stepping out on her. When Chris tells his boss that he wants a promotion and has been looking for other work, his boss replies, "You've looked at other places? After all the times I've helped you out?" ... and their subsequent conversation about commitment to work is indistinguishable from a conversation about commitment to a romantic relationship. When Chelsea works out with her own personal trainer, the physical connection and ease the women have with one another is almost shockingly intimate. When one of the Wall Street jerks says that "I want to know that someone likes me for me. At least for an hour," it's not immediately clear whether he's talking about his escort or his trainer. When one of Chris's clients asks him to go an a weekend jaunt to Vegas, he has many of the same qualms Chelsea has when one of her clients asks her to do the same thing. And when Chelsea meets with a financial advisor who talks about expanding and marketing her brand, there's an unsettling undercurrent coming from the fact that her brand is herself ... an undercurrent that reminds you more powerfully than anything of what musicians and actors and other artists go through to "sell themselves."

And in one of the most upsetting scenes of the movie, Chelsea visits the proprietor of an "erotic connoisseur" escort-review website (Glenn Kenny), a grossly unpleasant man who blows right past the pleasantries of the screening process and bluntly demands free sex in exchange for a review on his site. The scene highlights the crass, tacky, ugly aspects of a business that prides itself on class and sophistication -- a theme that's repeatedly echoed when the movie takes a hard look at the Wall Street financiers, and the ugly, self-involved bigotry that underlies the slickness and class of that scene. And while the movie depicts the social niceties of personal/ financial relationships as complicated at best and hypocritical at worst, this scene also makes it clear just how important they are ... in sex work, but also just in life in general.

So while the movie doesn't shy away from the idea that sex work has emotional consequences (an idea I think few sex workers would dispute), it's surprisingly non-judgmental about it. It presents sex work as just one of many types of human relationship -- both business and personal -- that have complicated, sometimes problematic dynamics when money and emotions mix. (To emphasize this, the movie is set in October 2008, right before the Presidential election and at the height of the economic panic and freefall ... a time when emotions and insecurities about money are running unusually high.)

And now we come to the flaws.

The Number One flaw, alas, is actress Sasha Grey in the starring role. Her character seems lifeless, with a flat affect that's somehow both disturbing and dull. You almost never get a sense of how she feels or what she wants: her entire character is a blank canvas, pleasant and easy-going, but unfathomable and largely passive, giving virtually no clue as to what, if anything, is below the surface. (A little like the actives in "Dollhouse," if you ever watch that show.)

Now, to be fair, this may be part of the point. One of the main concepts of the movie is that, when you sell emotion as well as goods and services -- or, more accurately, when emotion is one of the services you sell -- you can lose touch with your own feelings and desires. (And speaking from personal experience -- not only with sex work but in other jobs as well -- I know that this can be true. There's an entire book about it, in fact: The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, focusing not on sex workers but on flight attendants and collection agents.)

But there are two big problems with this approach. One is that the movie overdoes it by about twenty zillion degrees. Yes, doing sex work can make your relationship with your own emotions and desires complicated and sticky. But it doesn't turn you into a passive automaton. The sex workers I know have very strong personalities indeed, with passionate feelings and vivid hopes and dreams. The pleasant but impenetrable blankness of Chelsea in "The Girlfriend Experience" is a misrepresentation of sex work -- and a serious one at that.

The other problem is purely one of entertainment. It's kind of hard to sit through a movie where the main character essentially sleepwalks through her life; where pretty much all you see of her is the pleasant professional face she goes to great lengths to compose; and where you almost never get a sense of how she feels or what she wants. It's just not very engaging. It's a fascinating intellectual exercise -- the movie had me thinking practically nonstop, and I was very rarely bored -- but it left me a little cold.

That being said, I can still recommend "The Girlfriend Experience" pretty strongly. It's not as emotionally engaging as I would have liked ... but it's smart, complex, and nuanced, with plenty of food for thought. And it has a unique take on prostitution: not condemning it for connecting emotion and money, but using it as a lens to look at the connection between emotion and money in the world at large.

Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.
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