Writer and sex educator Lux Alptraum will be walking through each episode of Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience for Vulture, gauging how closely it approximates what it’s like to be a sex worker, in a series of essays and interviews. Here, she breaks down episode five (check out her pieces on episode one, two, three, and four). Follow along, and read our Girlfriend Experience recaps here.
Five episodes into The Girlfriend Experience, Christine’s become relatively established in her new line of work. She’s collecting new clients while deepening her relationships with regulars, and, as the first season approaches its halfway point, we’re presented with an episode that simultaneously manages to be emotionally resonant and utterly baffling.
First, the emotionally resonant part: After several episodes devoted to setting up Christine as the antithesis of the “hooker with a heart of gold,” we’re finally given a hint that, beneath her stony exterior, Christine might actually be able to feel. Months into her relationship with Michael, the two have developed something approaching a real rapport: The two lounge on his boat in the middle of Lake Michigan, sending his staff on errands so they can have alone time, and winding up discussing the possibility of Christine going exclusive.
That offer isn’t particularly shocking. Christine’s brand of sex work has always hewed closely to sugar-baby-style arrangements. It’s not hard to imagine that, for the right price, and with the right client, Christine might be willing to drop the rest of her clientele — especially given that such an arrangement would allow her a lot more time to focus on law school and her internship.
But, alas, it’s not meant to be. After some heavy foreshadowing, Christine receives news that Michael has passed on, leaving her a sizable chunk of change in his will (which we’ll address in a moment). Here again, it’s nice to see Christine experience real, human emotions. She breaks down during an appointment with a couple who’ve hired her as a third in their threesome, crying in the bathroom as the male half of the couple angrily complains about the money he’s wasted on her.
Is it weird that Christine — who, let’s not forget, is charging top dollar for her services — is unprofessional enough to let her emotions get in the way of her work? Perhaps, but it’s also nice to see the showrunners acknowledge that — despite all previous evidence to the contrary — Christine is a human being, with actual feelings, feelings that, yes, can be felt for clients. Though a good deal of sex work involves maintaining boundaries between one’s work self and one’s real-life self, it’s not unheard of for escorts to develop genuine emotional bonds with clients (one of my friends developed real-life relationships with clients so frequently she jokingly referred to escorting as her “dating service”).
Which brings us to the baffling part. Christine learns of Michael’s death when his attorney calls to inform her that she — or, rather, Chelsea Rain — has been left half a million dollars in Michael’s will. But since the sum was only left to that name and a phone number, she’ll have to do some work if she actually wants to collect it (specifically, hiring a lawyer of her own and proving to the probate court that she is, in fact, Chelsea Rain).
When I called an escort friend to fact-check, she assumed I was asking whether a sex worker would ever provide her legal name to a client looking to leave her cash; the idea that a wealthy, successful man would list an obviously fake name in his will was too bizarre to comprehend. You can’t even get into most elite office buildings without proffering up a legal form of identification — why would a successful businessman assume his favorite escort would be able to claim hundreds of thousands of dollars with just her work name and phone number?
But while Michael’s blunder strains credulity, Christine’s decision to pursue her inheritance, knowing that his family is preparing to contest her claim, feels truly unbelievable. As a law student, Christine is doubtless aware that probate-court records are public; going after the cash Michael has left her means creating a permanent, public connection between Chelsea Rain and Christine Reade.
Just an episode before, Christine stressed to a wife looking to buy her out that she only takes payment in cash, presumably to cover her tracks and protect her identity. Why would a talented, driven law student — one who’s sworn to uphold the law — run the risk of permanently connecting her legal name to her illicit work? Is her greed so powerful that it’s worth sacrificing her career and civilian reputation for the chance to add half a million dollars to her bank account?
At one point during “Insurance,” Christine comments that it’s odd that Michael’s family is going through so much trouble to prevent her from accessing what’s ultimately just one-fortieth of his estate, a relatively trivial amount given the massive amounts of money he’d amassed in his lifetime. But the same argument could be made about Christine’s. If her base rate is $2,000 per appointment, she’d easily be able to rack up a few hundred thousand dollars after a couple of years of work; even faster if you assume that overnight appointments would likely earn her somewhere on the order of $10,000 per session.
Both lawyers and sex workers are constantly required to assess and analyze risk, doing their best to minimize the possibility of negative outcomes for both themselves and their clients. Christine never seems to take seriously the massive risk she’s undertaking by pursuing her stake in Michael’s will, or the troubles she might be creating for herself by going up against his family’s wishes. In a show that repeatedly offers up an unrealistic view of sex work, this might be the most unbelievable detail of all.