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. Follow along, and read our Girlfriend Experience recaps here.
Nine years ago, I took a cab from my East Village apartment to the Mandarin Oriental, a luxury hotel just off of Central Park South. An escort friend was in town to see a client; with her appointment wrapped up and a fancy hotel room at her disposal for the evening, she figured we might as well have some fun. We invited a few friends over and shot a silly video in the massive bathtub. The next morning, my friend and I enjoyed an $80 room service breakfast, conveniently charged to her client’s tab.
We did not call up room service, demand to know the most expensive bottles of wine available, and charge nearly two grand in alcohol to her client. That’s how Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience introduces us to the world of, to use the show’s term, “high-end escorting.”
The Girlfriend Experience — a show that, the credits remind us, is “suggested by” the 2009 film of the same name — is a strange beast. Despite being made seven years after Soderbergh’s Sasha Grey vehicle, it feels, weirdly, more regressive in its attitude towards sex work. The film sought to draw comparisons between escorting and other service industries: Both Christine and her personal-trainer boyfriend relentlessly market their services, seek out innovative ways to grow their businesses, and navigate tricky client relationships that hover on the border between intimate and professional. In contrast, the show seems determined to double down on the “exotic” nature of the industry: the fancy hotel rooms, the luxury by proxy, and, yes, the thousands of dollars of liquor you can put on someone else’s tab.
But most of that is only hinted at in the show’s first episode, which is primarily concerned with establishing the life our protagonist inhabits before getting lured into sex work. Christine Reade is a second-year law student at the fictional Chicago-Burnham Law School. As the episode begins, we see her interviewing for various legal internships; she ultimately lands a coveted placement at corporate law firm Kirkland & Allen, LLP. She shares an apartment with a roommate she seems to despise. Outside of home and work, Christine’s life seems to solely consist of hanging out with Avery, the fellow law student and secret escort who serves as her entry point in sex work.
Perhaps the strangest thing about this episode is that at no point does Christine seem like a woman who would be drawn to escorting. I don’t mean that she’s “too smart” or “too driven” or that she has “other options” (many of the sex workers I know are smart, driven, and with plenty of career options). It’s more that she seems to completely lack any of the basic skills that are necessary for the job. Escorts who cater to wealthy gentlemen tend to place a great emphasis on being able to blend into expensive environments, something Christine seems incapable of doing even in her straight life. Most notably, she’s not very good with people — in most of her interactions throughout the episode, she seems distant, disengaged, and bored. In other words, she’s the exact opposite of what a good sex worker needs to be: empathetic and able to connect with other people.
When Christine accompanies Avery back to the palatial home where she’s been staying thanks to the generosity of Garrett, her best regular client, the show seems to be setting a lure for Christine: all this — the gorgeous house, the garage full of cars, the seemingly endless space — could be yours, if only you’re willing to give in to the siren song of sex for money. When we return to Christine’s apartment not long after, the contrast is clear. Sex workers don’t have to worry about crummy roommates who bring annoying girls home for one-night stands. Sex work can offer a path to financial freedom, which, let’s be serious, is a big reason why many people turn to it in real life, along with the flexible hours, the low barrier to entry, and, for some people, a genuine passion for the work.
Of course, all of this is just a setup for the real purpose of the episode: Christine’s first foray into sex work (or at least sex-work lite). It turns out that Garrett has a friend who’ll be joining him for drinks, and Avery needs to find a friend to come with her and even out the boy/girl ratio. “It’s just drinks,” she repeatedly stresses to Christine, and that seems to be enough to win Christine over. When Avery reveals that, while at work, she uses the name Ashley, Christine asks if she can be known as Chelsea. “You can be whoever you want to be,” Avery replies — and thus a baby escort is born.
One of the things that often comes up in a discussion of high-income escorting is the fact that clients are paying for more than just sex. Women who command fees of thousands of dollars per hour are able to do so because they’re providing far more than just a pretty face and willing vagina. They’re offering up the experience of being with a classy, educated, and accommodating woman; one who’s able to carry on an intellectual conversation, accompany a client to fancy corporate events, and happens to be eager to remind you how attractive, desirable, and virile you are — all while being emotionally present enough to create a genuine sense of connection. (A detail missed by both the show and the movie is that this sort of sex work is one where age can actually be a boon to the provider — both because 22-year-old women are less likely to have the emotional maturity to foster a connection with their clients, and because an older woman is far less likely to raise suspicion as a companion at corporate events.)
Experienced escort Avery provides none of that at drinks, acting less like a classy companion than a petulant goth teen. She’s distant, disengaged, and sometimes bitchy; when Garrett’s friend Martin asks how Christine and Avery know each other, she blithely responds that they used to date. Martin is clearly unamused, yet when the two girls regroup in the bathroom, Avery is confident enough to insist that he really likes Christine.
She passes her an envelope full of cash. Eying it with disgust, Christine tells Avery she doesn’t need it. “It’s just a gift,” Avery insists, reminding her that this is just drinks, that she doesn’t need to do anything beyond look pretty and be charming. Christine, of course, takes the envelope, eyes the stack of hundreds inside, and takes a deep breath. Returning to the bar, she suddenly shows interest in Martin. Because, friends, The Girlfriend Experience seems to believe that the only thing required to get a woman to do a total 180 on the issue of sex work is a reminder that sex work can, in fact, result in income.
In the next episode, we see Christine start to fulfill the promise of the show’s title — and I check in with a real-life law student/girlfriend-experience provider to get her thoughts.