Hulu just released the first episode of its new original series called Harlots. As the title suggests, it’s about the machinations and bureaucracies of a brothel in late-18th-century London where, according to the opening credits, one in five women make a living selling sex. Margaret Wells is a mother and madame looking to expand her business. Fierce competition, constant persecution from law enforcement, and smear campaigns from religious zealots threaten the upward mobility that she and her daughters/workers are after. It all sounds a little too familiar, though. What the series makes painfully clear is that very little has changed for sex workers.
Today, sex workers are still a vilified demographic in our society, despite the integral role that they play in it. They’re still targeted by police, and often unable to go to the police themselves when they face violence or danger, for fear of arrest. Politicians still use sex work — often incorrectly conflating it with sex trafficking — as a hot-button issue to collect votes on a platform of moral superiority. Systems that are in place to facilitate safer conditions for sex workers are still constantly under attack. There are actual laws in New York City that allow police to use condoms as evidence of prostitution and arrest women carrying them — essentially forcing sex workers to choose between decreasing their chance of arrest and using protection with clients. The recent censoring of Backpage, a move made by the company itself to protest what it views as an attack on its right to free speech, has driven sex work further underground, making it even more dangerous.
Harlots, which was written, directed, and created by women, has done an excellent job of framing sex work as legitimate work, at least in this specific historical context. Viewers get a glimpse of the diverse range of personal and professional takes on the industry from the perspective of those who populate it. With some costume adjustments and a set change from the streets of London to a Wi-Fi enabled apartment in New York, Harlots could still capture the realities of the sex industry today.
Sex work makes for good TV. It involves money, passion, an element of secrecy, and a unique way of conceptualizing one of humanity’s most natural impulses. Yet, as great as Harlots is, its depictions are fictional. The real-life working women among us, some of whom are our mothers, sisters, friends, co-workers, daughters, and neighbors, have experiences that deserve our attention, too. I wish that we were as invested in them, and their well-being, as we are in sensational portrayals of sex work.