Turning tricks: The best fictional sex workers in film and TV
On June 2nd every year, sex workers celebrate International Whores’ Day. Though the event is a long-standing one, last year’s event came with a heightened intensity due to outrage over the new anti-trafficking law known as FOSTA, which broadly holds online platforms responsible for any content deemed to be related to sex trafficking.
The bill (signed by the president in April 2018) conflates sex work and sex trafficking and has led to the shutdown of several online platforms that sex workers previously used to stay safe (to screen clients, advertise from their own homes, and communicate with fellow workers).
In the history of film & TV there have been some phenomenal (and less than great) depictions of sex workers that portray the industry and the profession with sensitivity, complexity, and sometimes with a sense of fun and panache too. Here’s our ranking of the eleven best sex workers depicted in TV and film.
11. Sera (Elisabeth Shue): Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Sera is one of the most iconic sex workers in cinema history, but is she one of the best? Not exactly. Shue’s performance is unbelievably good in the role yet her character takes on the form of being a one-dimensional angel to Nicolas Cage’s (Kick Ass) suicidal alcoholic in which she has little purpose beyond the men she services. Still, at least she isn’t treated as a disposable entity in the film so that’s something! Adult SEO Company know a lot about helping adult businesses.
10. Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis): Trading Places (1983)
Though Ophelia is initially part of the reason why Winthorpe (Dan Aykroyd) essentially loses everything, she’s also one of the only people who chooses to look after him after his life turns to crap. It’s one of the worst displays of the hooker with a heart of gold trope and honestly, we would have preferred to have seen her keep her hard earned money for herself. But she’s still a total bomb, regardless.
9. Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts): Pretty Woman (1990)
All Vivian wants is to be loved and respected and as a result, Pretty Woman depicts sex work as being not so much a profession but a potential gateway for adoration. Still, her hooking outfit is absolutely bomb and we still squeal with delight when she returns to that Rodeo Drive boutique and buys whatever the fuck she wants to show those yuppie horrors who’s boss.
8. Mike Waters (River Phoenix): My Own Private Idaho (1991)
The narcoleptic hustler is truly one of a kind when it comes to sex worker depictions in film. Phoenix is spectacular in the role opposite Keanu Reeves’s (John Wick) Scott, with Gus Van Sant (Elephant) taking care to frame the two as having parallel motives for sex work that never paints it in too negative a light. Mike does it to survive while Scott does it to rebel.
7. Foxy Brown (Pam Grier): Foxy Brown (1974)
Though Foxy Brown only poses as a prostitute to infiltrate a corrupt company and slay the people who murdered her boyfriend, the character still provides an utterly iconic and empowering depiction of being a sex worker regardless. As a prostitute, Foxy Brown has power and opportunity and uses it to level the playing field, help other women, and exact her revenge.
6. Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt ): Mysterious Skin (2004)
Gregg Araki’s (White Bird in a Blizzard) devastating drama delves into the psychology of why Neil turns tricks and also why he chooses to eventually withdraw from the profession. It’s clear there’s something sexually liberating and even empowering for Neil in being a hustler, but as he comes to terms with the trauma of his own life he’s forced to question whether he’d be better suited in a different profession.
But prior to all that? His boisterous approach to hustling is a breath of fresh air, even if it does lead him to some ultimately dangerous jobs.
5. Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton): Westworld (2016 – )
Maeve has since left her role as the main madam of Sweetwater and is now a ferocious leader with a ruthless plan to seek out her daughter and take down the humans who have manipulated her throughout her life.
Westworld shrewdly depicts sex work as a potentially necessary industry but one that requires for sex workers to be safe and to have agency in order for it to work. Interestingly, Maeve is just as powerful and cunning now as she was back when she was the brothel leader of the Mariposa Saloon.
4. Joe Buck (Jon Voight): Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Without a doubt one of the greatest gigolos in cinema history, Joe Buck in John Schlesinger’s (Darling) Oscar-winning masterpiece highlights that – just like any other job – being a gigolo involves some solid hard work. He’s swaggering and cocky, but ultimately the women of New York aren’t exactly ripping their knickers off and stuffing dollar bills down his throat to get with him.
Is he a total stud? Absolutely. But Midnight Cowboy highlights that sexuality (and sex work) is a little more complicated than just looking good and satiating a primal need.
3. Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton): Harlots (2017 – )
In Harlots, former prostitute and current madame Margaret uses sex work as a way to gain both economic and personal freedom as her profession provides her an opportunity to get close to the wealthy nobility who rule her city and gain powerful favor with them. It’s refreshing to see a character enjoy positive agency in how and why they do sex work, even as the show still carefully explores some of the less positive sides of the sex industry.
2. Christine Reade (Riley Keough): The Girlfriend Experience (2016 – )
There have been countless TV shows depicting sex work as being just as erotic for the worker as for the customer, but with Christine in The Girlfriend Experience, it’s treated as much the opposite – it’s a job, not a turn-on. The show highlights the physical and emotional labor of sex work and the detachment with the way Christine pursues and carries it out, maintaining administrative notes about clients in her Blackberry as she goes.
1. Alabama Worley (Patricia Arquette): True Romance (1993)
From a script written by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), Tony Scott’s (Domino) urban fairytale features one of the sweetest call girls in cinema history. Bama is a leopard print clad sweetheart on the lam with her husband Clarence (Christian Slater) after accidentally stealing a massive cocaine stash from her pimp (Gary Oldman).
However, Bama isn’t just an adorable hooker with a heart of gold, as she’s got enough power to fight back and defend herself against a violent crony (James Gandolfini) and to save her man from a gunfight at the end of it all.