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 two, “A Friend” (check out her piece on episode one). Follow along, and read our Girlfriend Experience recaps here.
One of the challenges of evaluating The Girlfriend Experience for accuracy is that there is no one universal sex-work experience. Sex workers get into the industry in a variety of ways, and what they go through on a day-to-day basis can vary wildly from person to person. But I figured if anyone was qualified to weigh in on the show’s relationship to reality, it would be a woman whose real life was so close to the show’s premise, she felt compelled to make sure none of her former clients happened to be members of its production team.
What makes a bright law student with a competitive internship turn to sex work? For Christine, it’s still not entirely clear. But for Becka, a 28-year-old lawyer who worked as a girlfriend-experience provider during law school, the answer was pretty simple: money. “Doing sex work was my only means of supporting myself while going through school,” she told me over the phone. Because law school involves a heavy course load, tons of homework, and a time-consuming (and often unpaid) internship, there’s not a lot of time to pursue another job as well. For Becka, the flexible hours and high income associated with escorting allowed her to keep a roof over her head while earning her JD.
The second episode of The Girlfriend Experience draws us further into the world of sex work, showing what happens after Christine accepts that fateful envelope full of cash. She learns the tricks of the trade from Avery; gets connected to Jacqueline, a stylishly appointed woman who promises to connect her with clients in exchange for a 30 percent commission (which, according to Becka, is a relatively accurate rate for a booker); and books her first three clients.
Like Christine, Becka was drawn into sex work through friends who were already in the business. Unlike Christine, full-service sex work wasn’t her first foray into the industry. Prior to escorting, she’d worked as a stripper for a number of years. When she decided to make the switch, she was fortunate to have a mentor who guided her through the details of sex work and taught her everything she needed to know about avoiding danger (from both clients and the police). In contrast, “the way in which [Avery] kind of tricked [Christine] or pushed her into doing sex work [was] quite alarming” to Becka. “I didn’t see [Avery] as a very good friend.”
Another difference between Becka and Christine? Becka made every effort to remain as discreet as possible about her work. “Being a sex worker, in general, can open you up to a lot of ridicule, and a lot of shaming, by your peers in any school setting, but especially so in law school.” When Becka was juggling law school, internships, and sex work, there were often times when she had to respond to clients or update her website while on campus; when she found herself in that situation, she made every effort to ensure no one would see what she was doing.
Christine, on the other hand, flaunts her foray into the sex trade: We find her sitting in the student center, paging through Avery’s escort site in full view of anyone who might walk by; she peruses nude photos of herself in the same brazen fashion. Later, Avery alludes to the woman who secures her clients for her, asking if Christine is interested in an introduction. If there’s one thing that rings true about this exchange, it’s Avery’s assessment of what sex work entails. “All I really have to do is listen and ask questions,” she notes. (“And fuck,” Christine replies, which Avery admits is part of the gig as well.)
Theoretically, the following scene — which has Christine joining Avery, Garrett, and Martin for another night of drinking — should be set up to show this brand of work in action, and it does, sort of, but as in episode one it’s all very weird. Though Christine is, certainly, engaging Martin in conversation, her manner remains cold, disaffected, and aloof; not the warm, thrilled vibe a man like Martin would be paying for. (Becka describes Avery and Christine in this scene as “weird modernist Barbies transplanted into these really intimate scenarios.”)
Post-drinks, Martin and Christine cab it to a hotel, where she shares a drink with Martin and, yes, finally goes full-on sex worker with some breathy, fully clothed sex. Once Christine’s officially popped her sex-work cherry, it’s off to meet Jacqueline. Though the show’s copy repeatedly refers to Jacqueline as a booker, her role is really more that of a madam. As Becka explained to me, a booker tends to work for a sex worker, managing her website and screening clients, but not exerting much influence over the course of her career. In contrast, Christine and Avery are working for Jacqueline, who wields total control over their marketing, client selection, and even the location where they handle their sessions — something the show seems to downplay (at least for now) with Jacqueline’s cool insistence that it’s a non-binding agreement Christine can walk away from at any time.
One of the show’s ongoing mysteries is why Christine is so compelled to pursue sex work. A later scene with Jacqueline seems to offer a shred of insight. Christine and Jacqueline take a tour of a beautiful two-bedroom apartment, one that Christine sadly notes is far beyond her budget. “What if I cover the deposit?” Jacqueline asks, remarking that if Christine continues to see clients, the financials will all work out.
But is a fancy, roommate-free apartment really worth the risk that comes with sex work? Unlike Becka, Christine seems capable of getting through law school without working a side job — and, grateful as she was for the income, Becka was always aware that working as an escort put her in a precarious position. “When you enter law school everybody takes this oath to uphold the law and be model citizens,” she told me. “Law students are required by the bar association, in addition to the school policies, to not engage in criminal activity.” Being revealed as an escort could get a law student expelled from school, or prevent her from passing the bar exam (and thus prevent her from practicing law). And Christine is still pursuing a law career: Right after the scene in the new apartment, we’re taken back to Kirkland & Allen. Why is she taking such a major risk?
Save for one brief date Christine takes with a kindly old widower, the rest of the episode is largely concerned with the Avery-Christine dynamic, which feels truly like a squandered opportunity. The Girlfriend Experience team is doubling down on the idea of sex workers as cold, aloof, and distant — and seeing them extend that to friendships as well feels like a misfire. Sex work can be isolating, and sometimes terrifying, work; without genuine, supportive friendships, it can be hard to survive in the industry. The show had a chance to explore the schism between a sex worker’s work life and home life; instead, it’s offered up a scenario in which women who sell sex are universally detached and unfeeling.
In the episode’s closing moments, Avery joins Christine in bed. She’s worried, she tells Christine, because Jacqueline won’t call her back; somehow this results in Christine and Avery having sex — sex that doesn’t feel intimate or loving, but unfeeling and detached. For a show that’s ostensibly about women who enjoy sex — so much that they’re willing to do it with strangers in exchange for money — there’s a lot of effort made to make that sex seem as menacing and unsexy as possible.
But we can get more into that in a future episode. For now, one final insight from Becka: “Law schools are competitive spaces — it’s a super-competitive profession regardless of whether you’re going into corporate law or the nonprofit world. The structure is set up to make it so that law students don’t support one another and, in some cases, exploit the perceived weaknesses of their peers. Being a sex worker in law school … can make it really dangerous for a student. If that info goes in the hands of the wrong person, that can really change your future.” Whether or not The Girlfriend Experience will tap into that genuine sense of danger remains to be seen.