Here’s How TV Has Portrayed Sex Workers Over The Years

Sunday night, Starz premiered the second season of The Girlfriend Experience. The series follows two different sex workers offering clients the eponymous “girlfriend experience,” which is more than just the physical act of sex. As the name suggests, there’s also an emotional and psychological component as well.

For an obsessed TV viewer like me, it feels as though Girlfriend is only the latest show of 2017 to explore sex work. There was already March’s Harlots, September’s The Deuce, and even Top Of The Lake: China Girl, which followed the investigation into a sex worker’s violent murder.

Still, there were shows before the likes of Harlots and Girlfriend Experience that delved into their topic du jour long before they were a glint in some TV executive’s eye. To help put these series in context, we put together a gallery of the many ways modern television has portrayed sex work over the years. Keep reading for the TV education you didn’t know you needed.

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The Crime Procedurals

Sex workers tend to sadly be the easiest form of murder and assault fodder for many of broadcast television’s most popular serialized crime procedurals. Although shows like Law & Order: SVU usually treat their sex worker victims with the utmost respect, they’re still just that — victims. Othan than SVU, sex workers have fueled the cases of the serial killer-ridden Criminal Minds, the murder-filled CSI universe, and the many other Law & Order spin-offs.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997)

Buffy will go down as one of the most feminist TV shows in history, but even the supernatural classic has some problematic themes hiding underneath all the girl power. In season 5’s “Into The Woods,” Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) finds out her boyfriend Riley (Marc Blucas) has been visiting a vampire sex worker (Rainy Jo Stout) to drink his blood. Although the vampire’s coven is only feeding on willing humans, Buffy still brutally kills the creatures and stakes the sex worker who drank from Riley through the back.
The Wire (2002)

Season 2 of the HBO favorite begins with lead cop Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) fishing a dead woman out of a harbor. Separately, 13 dead women are also found in a shipping container. All of them end up being victims of international sex trafficking.

This upsetting mass murder boils down to a plot device, as it only helps drive McNulty’s plot in the sophomore season of his show.
Firefly (2002)

Thankfully, not every show wants to end a sex worker's story with grisly tragedy. Firefly, on the other hand, has an entire class of sex workers who are worshipped, rather than judged or used as a plot tool to inject more violence into a series. Inara Serra (Homeland’s Morena Baccarin) is a beautiful, intelligent, and self-possessed Companion, or courtesan, who chooses her own clients.

There are endless rules to being a Companion in the Firefly society, and years upon years of “training,” before sex is even discussed with students, breaking the myth sex work always involves the specific act of sex.
Arrested Development (2003)

The iconic FOX sitcom found a way to make everything funny, from pined-for incest to simple chicken sounds. So, it’s no surprise Arrested Development figured out how to make sex work — which is usually just a macabre plot device — into a perfect satire. Due to a bizarre Bluth family plot, Buster Bluth (Tony Hale) ends up passed out next to a cake, which is hiding a stripper inside of it, with fake blood around his mouth. When the stripper (Lauren Bowles), who is narcoleptic, wakes up to see a passed out, bloody Buster next to her, she assumes she accidentally killed him for groping her, the narrator explains.

“Not again,” the stripper says, hinting she’s murdered a handsy client before. So, she runs out of the party.
Deadwood (2004)

Although sex workers are now all over our television screens, this wasn’t so in the early aughts, when Friends was still on the air and the revolutionary Lost had only begun. That’s why Deadwood was immediately so groundbreaking.

The Wild West-set series’ central location was a brothel in the titular town, which gave us sex workers with complex storylines and rich inner lives. There were no easy “hooker with a heart of gold” tropes to be found in the town of Deadwood.
Hung (2009)

In reality, men are sex workers too, so HBO gave us a series reflecting this fact. Suburban, divorced dad Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane) finds himself entering sex work, thanks to his eponymously massive penis, when he runs out of money to provide for his family and keep a roof over his head.
Dollhouse (2009)

We’re sadly used to seeing shows murder sex workers to move a story along. What we’re not used to is the premise of short-lived sci-fi drama Dollhouse, which showed us scientifically-modified sex workers. In the FOX show, the “dolls,” or actual human people, were given temporary characteristics and rented out to clients for exorbitant amounts of money.

Then, after their sexual encounters — among other types of missions — their memories were wiped. The sci-fi twist did remind viewers real-life sex workers are not able to do this.
Game Of Thrones (2011)

Anyone with an HBO password, or anyone who’s met someone with an HBO password, knows Game Of Thrones is filled with sex workers. It’s likely the fantasy epic has given more total screen time to the subject of sex worker than any other show not directly about the profession. Yet, Thrones hasn't had a fully fleshed-out sex worker character who wasn’t brutally murdered by a powerful man. Joffrey “Baratheon”-Lannister (Jack Gleeson) killed Ros (Esmé Bianco) in a graphic, bloody manner, while we watched fan-favorite Tyrion choke his former lover Shae (Sibel Kekilli) to death.

Notably, no one ever talks about the fact the beloved Tyrion savagely killed a woman like Shae.
Gigolos (2011)

Sex work got the reality TV treatment with Showtime’s Gigolos, which showed us the true-life experiences of actual men selling sex in Las Vegas. While Gigolos tried to be realistic about these men's lives, the men often focused on the more glamorous parts of their profession.
The Client List (2012)

The Client List follows the previously financially stable Riley Parks (Jennifer Love Hewitt), who enters sex work after her husband abandons their family amid the economic crisis. The Client List was nothing if not a timely show.
Westworld (2016)

Westworld took the Dollhouse method of sex work — with sex workers immediately forgetting their encounters — and dragged it to an even more scientific, dark place. Gone are the humans of the FOX drama, and in their place are extremely lifelike robots who forget their entire “lives” the moment an engineer programs them to.

At least the robots of Westworld start to fight back against their forced, abusive sexual servitude, as brothel madame Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) goes on an equally violent uprising in the park’s headquarters.
Harlots (2017)

While Deadwood simply included a woman-led brothel, Harlots is 200% about one. The Hulu period drama gives viewers an unblinking look at the realities of sex work, from the demonization of the profession to certain clients’ problematic obsession with the concept of virginity. It also shows what the women get in return for their work, from independence to economic stability. Oh, and the costumes are gorgeous.
The Deuce (2017)

The Deuce was heralded as “HBO’s porn drama,” despite the fact camera-free sex work dominates the action long before anyone starts talking about adult film. The sex workers of the '70s-set series are the most complex, interesting, and lovable people inhabiting the world of the Deuce, or the two-block radius around Times Square, especially none other than Queen Darlene (Dominique Fishback). While the Deuce shows us these women’s lives, there’s absolutely no romanticism here about sex work, as it’s surrounded by judgmental police officers, violent pimps, and even more violent clients.
Girlfriend Experience (2017)

Where The Deuce gives us a realistic portrait of sex work in the 1970s, Girlfriend Experience shows viewers the fearless truth of acting as a call girl in this day and age. Especially in the upcoming season 2, the Starz drama explores sex workers as women first, then people in the profession.
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