Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls Forever Changed Sex Work On-Screen

Photo: Courtesy of Janus Films.
Sex, money, drama — for the women of Lizzie Borden's Working Girls, it's just another day at the office. First released in 1986, the revolutionary film tracks a group of New York City sex workers as they go about their daily lives, navigating everything from breakfast to condoms. Now, a new restoration of the film is set to premiere at New York's IFC Center on June 18, with a Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-Ray release to follow in July.
Inspired by some of Borden's own acquaintances, Working Girls marked a turning point for depictions of sex work on-screen, turning a lens on the transactions and economics involved, rather than presenting it as salacious or erotic.
"Several women I knew —  artists, graduate students, photographers —  worked at a small brothel in the East 20s in New York," Borden told Refinery29 over email. "I’d never seen this kind of middle-class 'working girl' portrayed in films before — only high-priced escorts or low-level street work. My friends did it because they needed jobs that would give them time to make their own work or to study. I was also interested in the gray area between 'working' — the actual exchange of money — and sleeping with someone for dinner, clothes or rent, which was socially acceptable."
Shot on the heels of Borden's seminal 1983 feminist classic Born in Flames, Working Girls was instrumental in pioneering the female gaze. The bodies we see aren't airbrushed or idealized, nor are we looking at them from the perspective of the men who are paying for sex. In her email, Borden compared Working Girls' positive and non-judgmental attitude to sex work to more recent films like "Leaving Las Vegas, TangerineAfternoon DelightCam Girl and the upcoming Zola."
But 35 years ago, that vision wasn't easily realized. Distributors and producers feared that such a film would be too pornographic for mainstream distribution. In the end, a brothel set was assembled in Borden's own loft, and everything was shot on a tiny budget of $300,000. In the end though, Working Girls grossed nearly $2 million at the box office, and took home the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival— proof that audiences were hungry for a real, honest look at a taboo subject.
They still are. Put aside the perms and shoulder pads, and the trailer for the upcoming restoration feels shockingly modern. It opens on Louise Smith as Molly, a queer sex worker who wakes up next to her girlfriend, makes some toast, and gets to work. These banal everyday tasks set the scene — for her, this is just a regular day. Rinse and repeat. Likewise, the woman who runs Molly's brothel isn't a stereotypical villain. She's just another business owner, sometimes exploiting those who work for her in pursuit of profit. In another thirty years, we might have called her a girlboss.
In that sense, the film's core premise remains as relevant as it was when Borden first picked up the camera: "I was asking then and now: Which is worse, spending 40+ hours working a low-paying job you hate and barely getting by; or a few hours a week “renting” your body and having time for yourself and paying your bills?"
Watch the full trailer below:

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