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 six (check out her pieces on episode one, two, three, four, and five). Follow along, and read our Girlfriend Experience recaps here.
Workers in the service industry are often required to feign emotional connections with clients – your hairdresser’s less invested in your personal life than you might think, and that bartender’s listening to your sob story in hopes of getting a better tip. Sex workers take that transactional intimacy to its natural conclusion, offering physical as well as emotional connection to clients.
But what happens when a client can’t separate the intimacy they’re paying for from intimacy that’s freely given? In the sixth episode of The Girlfriend Experience, we’re introduced to Jack, a client who seems to confuse “girlfriend experience” with actual girlfriend. I chatted about the episode with Holly, a long-time sex worker who primarily focuses on bodywork (also known as sensual massage), occasionally providing full-service sex work to select clients. She told me about clients crossing boundaries, the importance of a phone security code, and why sex work is sometimes like dealing with a toddler.
I want to go to a moment that happens early on in the episode. She’s out with Alex, and she runs into Jack. The show has a lot of chance meetings, but I found it odd that someone would run into a different client while they’re out with a client. It’s always possible, but …
I’ve certainly run into clients in public before, but — I guess the closest I’ve ever come to that was I was attending an upscale party in [a neighboring state] with a person I was romantically involved with and saw a client. The client just acted as if they had never met me, which is the appropriate thing. And then I had sex in the bathroom [laughs]. With my date.
I’ve run into clients on the train. Any time I’ve ever accidentally run into a client in the outside world — as in unplanned, fancy meeting you here — nobody has ever initiated contact with me.
I would assume that in most cases, a client would not want to acknowledge you. Because you’re not a part of their social life, and in many cases, it would be suspicious to other people in their lives that they would know you.
Right. But even if it’s been just passing on the street or on a subway car or somewhere innocuous, I’ve never had a client initiate contact. And I don’t know if they’re so caught off guard by the idea of seeing me outside of work, or maybe it’s that they’re actually being lovely people who are trying to respect my boundaries, but the idea of a client coming up to me if I were clearly with somebody else and being like, “Hi!”? I can’t see that happening.
Unless, I guess, the client is super-stalkery, which is apparently where they were going with this. But I feel like it’s a little heavy-handed.
Let’s talk about Jack, this stalkery client who starts to think Christine is actually his girlfriend. He takes her to meet his friends, he takes her to see an apartment, but then also steals her phone, gets her actual phone number, gets her legal information, and doesn’t seem to realize this is highly inappropriate. Have you ever had any experience like that, or even on the lower end of that, where maybe a client thinks a relationship is something that it’s not?
One of the reasons, on some level, that sex work has been emotionally sustainable for me is that I actually do make genuine emotional connections with a lot of my clients. However, I have had people confuse that. They’re like, “Okay, you actually care about me as a human being, and you like me as a person, but what does that mean?”
I did have a client [who I occasionally saw outside of work]. He knew my real first name, but not my last name; he knew a handful of things about my identity. Fairly insignificant details. And he was able, through some Googling, to find my full name, which he then used to find my Twitter, my Instagram, my OkCupid profile — all of my stuff. And he looked at all of it.
But then he shows up for his appointment a couple days later. He comes in holding a box and sits down, and I was like, “What’s up?” And he said, “I have to tell you something, and I think you’re going to be angry with me.” And I was like, “What?” And he’s like, “I found you on the internet. All of it.” And I was like, “Tell me everything you found” — I made him go through the list of everything he read and saw, and I was like, “That was pretty fucked up. I really appreciate you telling me. Is there anything you feel that you need to talk about from what you read?” Because obviously there’s plenty of stuff in my internet life that I don’t necessarily disclose to clients. And he’s like, “No, but I brought you this coffee-table book.”
And we left it at that. He agreed to not look at my shit in the future.
It is always possible that there is that kind of client who is going to fall in love, who is going to cross boundaries …
I think when you’re clear about your boundaries, clients actually hear that. And I say that with over a decade in the industry. When I have been truly clear, people don’t just fall in love like that. It’s a process. And if you create the space for people to actually fall in love with you, sure, you might make more money off of them for X amount of time, but a) what are you doing karmically, and b) I think that’s where you get into dangerous territory. You can be compassionate and friendly and warm and engaging but also deeply, deeply boundaried.
Let’s also talk about Christine losing her phone at Jack’s apartment, because that’s a turning point in the episode.
Why doesn’t she have a security code on her phone? I don’t know anyone who is a sex worker who doesn’t have a security code on their phone. I’m not actually sure I know anyone who isn’t a sex worker who doesn’t have a security code on their phone. But especially if you were doing sex work, and you were an independent, and you were doing your own verifications and your own client communications — why the hell are you not protecting your clients’ data if you are a high-end escort?
Anything else that comes to you about the episode?
Can we talk about sad blow-job face? Sometimes you are interacting with a client and you’re not feeling it, or you’re in a weird emotional space. You are allowed to make unpleasant faces. But you do not make them toward the client. And you also don’t make them towards a mirror. Just for any sex workers out there who haven’t thought about that — don’t make them towards the mirror.
If a client wants you to do something that you aren’t feeling, or you’re not okay with … it seems like in that scene, she sort of stared at him and then did it, but I feel like that’s not the best strategy.
Not to suggest that clients are like toddlers; however, I’ve always been a really big fan of the redirect both with clients and toddlers. The child wants toy A and toy A is too loud for right now or whatever. So rather than be like, “No, you can’t have toy A,” you’re like, “Ooh, would you like toy B or C instead? I think that this awesome game that we could play with toy B would be so much fun.” And so instead, child gets over lack of toy A. Clients are the same way. They’re like, “Oh wait, why can’t I do this thing?” You’re never just going to be like, “No, no you can’t have that.” It’s better to be like, “Oh, but look at this other thing.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.