The Girlfriend Experience and What It’s Like to Navigate Family Relationships As a Sex Worker

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 11, “Fabrication” (check out her pieces on episode onetwothree, four, five, six, seven, eight/nine, ten, and eleven). Follow along, and read our Girlfriend Experience recaps here.

In the penultimate episode of The Girlfriend Experience’s first season, Christine takes a trip back home for her parents’ anniversary party — and the show begins to explore the complicated relationship between a sex worker and her family. Not surprisingly, family can be a fraught and difficult topic for sex workers, whether or not they’re outspoken about their profession. To learn more about how escorts navigate their family relationships, I reached out to Berlin-based sex worker Rosi (who offered her own opinions of the series on the sex-worker blog Tits and Sass). We chatted about sex workers’ relationships with their parents, making the decision to out yourself, and why certain media portrayals of escorts can do serious harm to real-life sex workers.

How realistic was the show’s depiction of sex workers’ relationships with their families?
I feel like her relationship with her family is not unsimilar to my relationship with my family. What really blew my mind is that the family gets this email [with her sex tape], and they just naturally assume she sent it. And when she tries to explain that she wouldn’t do that — because who would fuck up their life like that? — they don’t believe her. And, I mean, she didn’t send it, and she wouldn’t have sent it, because it basically ruined her life. And they just make it about, “Oh my God, this terrible thing happened to us,” when really this terrible, earth-shattering thing happened to her.

I think a lot of vaguely dysfunctional families, or even families where you would consider the relationships somewhat harmonious, there’s a thing where if something happens to you, they make it about their feelings about what happened to you. It’s a very common thing, and it’s what a lot of people do, and parents do — their child is having a hard time, and they make it about their feelings about it. Which is human, I guess.

Personally, I’ve never been forcibly outed to anyone. One time someone I knew professionally found my personal blog and recognized me. Nothing came of it, they didn’t press the issue, but I immediately considered damage control if they had sinister motives.  And Christine did that with her internship, but she didn’t actually seem to have done that with her family or her personal contacts. Which I think is interesting, because she obviously saw the whole work situation as something that she needed to fix immediately, and something that she needed to put energy and resources in, whereas obviously she doesn’t enjoy having this sex tape sent around to her friends — I use this term loosely — and her family. But it didn’t seem like something where she really thought, “Okay, this is something I need to deal with.” Or maybe dealing with it seemed too overwhelming.

You mentioned over email that you wanted to talk about how sex workers’ relationships to their families are depicted on TV and how that can harm sex workers. I’d love your thoughts on that.
When I talk to other sex workers, there are quite a lot of people that have a difficult relationship with their families. Sex work is something you can do when you have a mental illness. And people who have been abused by their family, or just generally abused, often are mentally ill. They suffer from PTSD, they suffer from depression, and when you’re depressed and you have PTSD, holding down a 9 to 5 job, or working 16 hours a day, is really fucking hard. Getting up in the morning? Really hard. A lot of sex workers are members of the LGBT community, like me, which can lead to families withdrawing support and leaving you in a tough spot.

Sex work has a flexible schedule, you get a lot of money for relatively little time, depending on what you do. So when you’re mentally ill, you have a history of trauma, you’re without a support system, or you have chronic health issues, it’s a job that you can do. It might not be the nicest job, or the job you always wanted, but it’s something that you can use to deal. People assume that you’re drawn to sex work because you have bad self-esteem or you seek out abusive situations (the misguided idea that sex work is intrinsically abusive), and don’t consider that maybe it’s the best fit for you. Sex work isn’t about seeking out validation or love from men either, which is where the popular offensive term “daddy issues” stems from. The vast majority of sex workers are motivated by a need for money and flexible work hours.

The constant portrayal of sex workers as powerless victims makes it hard to be open about your own feelings and experiences. As soon as you talk about being an abuse survivor when you’re a sex worker, there’s this automatic assumption, “Okay, so that’s why you’re a sex worker.” They assume causality, that being a sex worker is the result of being abused. That takes agency away from us, like we’re not adults making our own choices. So it can be really hard to talk about family life, because if you say, “Oh, I have a good relationship with my family,” then people think you’re lying; and if you have a bad relationship with your family, or no relationship at all, then obviously that’s the reason why you’re a sex worker. So you can’t win.

When you have TV shows that repeat this idea that sex workers have to have bad relationships with their families, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And obviously when your family consumes sex-work-related media, and they see this depiction of sex workers as having been abused, even if you try to come out to them, they’re going to associate this with sex work. And then it becomes, “Oh my God, what did I do wrong that you became a sex worker?” There are fucking Mother’s Day cards that are like, “Mommy, you did a good job because I’m not a stripper.” Your daughter not being a stripper isn’t proof that you did a good job, and vice versa.

How do you, or other sex workers you know, navigate the question of deciding who to be out to, and how to out yourself?
The thing about sex work, when you’re not out, is that it can be a bit isolating. Because you have to constantly lie to people. You meet someone at a party and they ask what do you do, you’re going to lie because people have negative perceptions of sex workers, even here where it’s legal.

Non-sex workers have this tendency, especially when it comes to family and stuff, to ask really personal questions and get really offended when you say, “Well, that’s a really personal question.” You tell them, “I’m an escort,” and they ask you very invasive questions about your work life and your clients immediately. You often become a sounding board for their harmful ideas about sex work and you might have to spend the whole evening educating people or dodging their questions. All you wanted was a night out and you end up being stuck between someone who saw one too many rescue documentaries and another person who pesters you for deep-throat tips to please their boyfriend.

So lying becomes easier, but it’s isolating, because you have to lie constantly, and you don’t want to lie. I’m not someone who enjoys being dishonest, so that’s hard. I don’t have many friends, but the friends I do have know what I do. I wouldn’t try to be friends with someone who I can’t tell about my job. Because that seems like — if I can’t get to that level of honesty with someone, or I can’t trust someone to be nonjudgmental about my job, then it doesn’t seem reasonable to invest in having a relationship with them.

Different people have different methods of outing themselves to potential new friends and partners. Some are totally upfront from the very beginning, others test the waters first, bringing up sex-work-related issues, for example, and gauging the person’s reaction. You can generally assume that you know a sex worker in some way, and that every single shitty thing you say about sex workers is heard by one eventually.

I mostly just talk with other sex workers because you can be honest with them, and they have a level of understanding about your job. And I think that what I actually dislike about the show is that she doesn’t have this with other sex workers. It’s such a wonderful thing to connect with other sex workers.

Sometimes the decision is taken from you — sometimes people are forceouted, especially by former spouses. That’s why finding partners can be hard, because what if you break up with them and they decide to fuck up your whole life? Sex workers who have children are especially vulnerable here because being outed often means losing custody.

With family, since they’re in your life forever, or until they kick the bucket, not outing yourself is often the better option. Because a lot of times you don’t have a choice about having them in your life. And once you open the box, and it turns out awful, then it’s just going to keep being awful.

So it’s very complicated.
I’m gay and I’m not out to my family because it just doesn’t seem worth the trouble. Some of them might be fine with it but others won’t be, and they will still have to interact with each other. I hardly see them, and why make the interactions that I do have even harder? This way I can just stick to uncomfortable small talk.

Anything else?
The more [the media portrays] us as people who are unhappy, people who don’t have friends, people who don’t have good relationships with their families because we entered sex work, the harder it becomes to be out as a sex worker. Shows like The Girlfriend Experience contribute to the stigma that forces us to either stay in the closet or risk rejection, social isolation, and violence when we venture out. We need to be portrayed as we are, as people, not as a stereotype. And I think it’s gonna stay that way as long as media about us is created completely without our input and ignoring everything we say about our jobs and our lives.

TGX: Coming Out to Your Family As a Sex Worker