On April 10th, The Girlfriend Experience — a 10 episode long series starring Riley Keough — premiered on Starz. The premise of the show centers around a law school student named Christine Reade (played by Keough), who decides to start working as a (very high-paid) escort on the side. The trailer portrays Reade’s new world as one filled with sex and affluence, mostly void of people of color or the working class.
Neither co-creator, Amy Seimetz, or executive producer, Steven Soderbergh (who directed a 2009 film by the same name), have lived experience in the sex industry, but reading about the creative process behind the project, you’d think that The Girlfriend Experince is a just neutral portrayal of the sex industry. Seimetz writes:
“My reservations about doing the show would be the same as any woman having reservations about doing sex work… Do I agree with women or men selling their bodies? I don’t know. The ‘I don’t know’ land is where I like to lurk. How else can we test the boundaries of who we are? I have never chosen to do sex work, but I know people who have. Whatever topic I explore; I try to be as nonjudgmental as possible.”
Who knows what goes on in the sex industry, really? What’s important it’s that we approach the topic without judgement. It’s not like there are countless people who lived through the industry themselves, and have made it their mission to advocate against its glamorization…
A young, white law school student in the US who moves through the world of high-end prostitution entirely based on personal choice is not only not representative, but also doesn’t acknowledge the privileged positionalities that a character like Reade carries, and how the intersections of her identity (white, wealthy…) are anything but neutral.
It’s strange to read articles about how the best sex on TV is sex that has to be paid for. It’s also strange for reviewers to present the The Girlfriend Experience as “multilayered” and “groundbreaking“ without any acknowledgement of what “the girlfriend experience” is and what it represents in the sex trade.
Survivor advocates who have direct experience in prostitution, as well as people who have done research on the sex industry, as I have, will tell you that “the girlfriend experience” is more than just a phrase; it is an actual term that describes a specific set of services (which includes both physical and emotional labour) that can be expected upon payment.
The sex buyer-run Punting Wiki describes GFE as such:
“… An escort experience like being with a real girlfriend. There is no agreed list of services included, but you expect kissing or DFK, oral sex and full sex. It does not include the more adventurous services you would expect from a PSE or fetish services.”
PSE refers to “the pornstar experience,” which is described as more “raunchy and adventurous” in nature and a counter to the GFE. Notably, the PSE doesn’t require a woman to fake emotional connection or the pretense of intimacy, whereas the GFE makes this paramount.
By definition, the GFE is not meant to reinforce the agency and power of the person performing it. Rather, it is meant to consolidate and perpetuate the imbalance of power and the weight of the preferences and desires of the person who paid for the service. GFE often means eye-contact during sex acts, cuddling, deep French kissing, giggling, gentle touching, etc. — the kind of physical and psychological cues that would arise organically from a genuine partnership between equally attracted and interested people… but in intervals of an hour or less, with multiple strangers, several times a day. The Girlfriend Experience is aware of this dynamic, to its credit — it is acknowledged that Reade is faking intimacy, despite her apparent enjoyment of the actual sex part. The problem is that this acknowledgement is embedded in the rhetoric of empowerment through choice. And while some level of empowerment may exist for some individuals in the sex industry, we know that those experiences are not common.
Keough said about her character:
“I liked the idea of showing a girl who doesn’t come from an oppressive background, who is intelligent and has a lot going for her, that ends up in sex work. Not the other story, which has been told before.”
“The other story” being: women in desperate situations, who have experienced trauma, and do not enjoy the work. As an actress, the narrative put forth in The Girlfriend Experience may be appealing but we must question whose reality is being portrayed and why. Oppression is not something we can treat as “passé” or “been there, done that.” And reinforcing a narrative that only benefits the privileged is not “groundbreaking.”
In my own research I have analyzed over 2,000 online reviews submitted by men on johns’ forums and, although many reviews are positive (meaning that the sex buyers were pleased with their experience), the negative (and most misogynist) reviews generally complained about the same thing: the interruption of fantasy. At one point the façade was lifted and the johns were exposed to the reality that many of these women did not deliberately join the sex industry to sexually empower themselves.
A john named “bad_hobbit” describes an experience that didn’t live up to his fantasy of a true GFE as such:
“I’ve had girlfriend experiences with current and past girlfriends and quite a few WGs [working girls]. Vicky would look spectacular on your arm, but she provided all the GFE of a blow-up doll. OK, so I’m old enough to be her dad, and I’m not the handsomest guy around, but neither am I the ugliest — she even complimented me on my fit body. A good WG knows how to flatter and please, and strike up a rapport with the punter. I also like to chat, have a laugh and a joke and turn it into more than just a quick fuck. Vicky clearly wasn’t interested in any of that, and just went through the motions to get paid, so unless you like fucking a beautiful but totally detached girl with limited English, steer clear of Vicky.”
This detachment that “bad_hobbit” describes is what psychologists identify as disassociation — a necessary survival strategy that most people in the sex industry deploy or develop as a way to cope with the work they do.
There is something telling about the prevalence and glamorization of an industry wherein the very skills and strategies that people on the supply side need to adopt in order to survive and cope become the things that the demand side abhors the most.
The essence of “the girlfriend experience” is captured perfectly by another john called “laptops,” who explains that “after being let down by my regular lady” he decided to pay someone to accommodate him. Everything is wonderful and agreeable in his eyes, as a sex buyer, so long as the woman pretends to be enjoying herself and does what he wants her to do. The second she reveals her own human feelings (disappointment, rejection, anger, boredom…), or that this is, in fact, a transaction, the spell is broken and he is exposed to the reality of his own actions.
“Now at this point I would have recommended Chloe, in spite of the very by the book, sex by numbers routine. However when I returned to the room, Chloe barely said anything and had her back to me as I dressed. Now I had been friendly, clean and thoughtful, or at least I tried. When dressed I walked past Chloe and she just looked at me & didn’t even get up. I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek & said goodbye. I couldn’t have felt worse [emphasis added].”
There’s your “girlfriend experience,” Soderbergh and Seimetz: a system wherein a woman fails when she lets the mask slip, revealing that she is not, in fact, in bed with a man she truly desires. The sex buyer becomes disenchanted and “pissed off by the nos” when the fantasy is not perfectly executed, so takes his fantasies elsewhere.
In the sex industry’s GFE, the free market rules. The buyer decides how a woman dresses, speaks, what positions she enacts, how she must react to each part of the sexual experience, how to properly orgasm or experience pleasure. He demands the woman he pays plays the part of a loving, caring, obedient girlfriend while simultaneously performing the role of “hypersexual vixen.” The second it becomes clear that, under the sexpot/sweet girlfriend façade lies an actual person with desires and a background, with preferences and an ability to feel pain (both physical and psychological), the GFE has failed. Where is the empowerment in that? Whose freedom and sexual liberty are we talking about here?
Meghan Murphy writes for Verily that “a newfound fondness for seeking ‘agency’ over victimization, introduced by third wave feminism and adopted by today’s Gender Studies programs, functions like The Secret for progressives, who use the power of positive thinking to theorize away power structures and abuse in favor of an ’empowering’ narrative.” This narrative is written in neon lights in The Girlfriend Experience.
In a hyperventilating ode, Maxim writer Chelsea Hassler describes Christine Reade as the femme fatale we’ve been waiting for — a modern day superheroine. She writes:
“It’s important to note that Christine’s superpower isn’t sex, it’s her distance from it. Introspective yet alarmingly self-assured… And that’s how she truly embraces her power; by identifying the one thing that she has no emotional commitment to, which enables her to engage and manipulate the outside world in a way that doesn’t compromise her sense of self. She crafts the act into something detached and calculated, a single-sum game that she only plays when she can get something out of it. She makes sex into a weapon, a means to an end; where others fall to mush in a tangle of limbs and loves, Christine is invincible.”
The “freedom” to be cold and distant, to show emotion on command, and to do as told by whoever is paying for the next half hour: victory at last, feminism! Our work here is done.
But before we put down our feminist banners, let’s not forget that, contrary to popular belief, most sex buyers are in partnered relationships, many of them with children. The myth of the sex-starved lonely man-child living with his mom and paying for prostitutes is only that: a myth. Outside of the sex industry, most heterosexual johns have wives and girlfriends (and daughters too). Totally real girlfriends — not just for 30 minutes, but every day. Why go to an escort for “a real girlfriend” experience when you have an actual girlfriend?
If we want to learn about a girlfriend experience, how about we ask the actual women who are in relationships with sex buyers? How do they feel about being in relationships with men who believe they are entitled to sex, who demand and complain when their fantasy girlfriend doesn’t wear the clothes they want them to wear, say what they want them to say, and don’t engage every sex act in the exact way that they want them to? What does it feel like to be in relationships with men who complain about having to see a body that has given birth, that has fat on it, or that shows any sign of age?
For the girlfriends and wives of sex buyers, what does it feel like to know that your partner’s idealized version of you is little more than an eternally youthful, automated robot that can be controlled by a wallet and will cater to every fantasy and desire, without any concern for your comfort or pain? What is it like to be in a relationship with someone who disregards your socioeconomic status? Thanks to shows like The Girlfriend Experience, we may never know the answers to these questions, because the creators are not interested in women’s experiences — either at home with sex buyers or behind closed doors in the sex industry.
The Girlfriend Experience has nothing to do with real women (escorts or not), and everything to do with glorifying the ultimate fantasies of johns, wherein women’s realities are invisible and only men’s misogynist illusions are entertained.
Raquel Rosario Sanchez is an activist, advocate and writer from the Dominican Republic. Her work centers ending violence against women and girls and investigating the demand side of prostitution. Her research looks at review boards and online communities for buyers in the sex industry.