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Actresses and Sex Workers Aren't So Different After All

Do A-list advocates like Kate Winslet and Lena Dunham really know anything about sex workers? One hundred years ago, both would have been considered fallen women.
In the 19th century, Anne Hathaway might have been branded with a scarlet letter for this look. (Photo: Warner Brothers)

In the 19th century, Anne Hathaway might have been branded with a scarlet letter for this look. (Photo: Warner Brothers)

What do actresses and prostitutes have in common?

That's a pointed question if you look at the latest debate around prostitution laws. Last week, Amnesty International proposed the full decriminalization of sex work, which would remove criminal penalties against prostitutes, clients, brothel owners, and pimps or procurers. Though the draft policy has been greeted with some support from sex worker advocates, last month thousands signed an open petition opposed to the draft policy on the grounds that it would facilitate “gender apartheid” after an early version of the proposal leaked. Most conspicuously, a group of A-list stars—including Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Claire Danes, Lena Dunham, Anne Hathaway, and Lisa Kudrow—joined in signing a letter supporting the petition. Dunham in particular has been vocal on the issue, engaging in a Twitter feud about the rights of sex workers. "While there are clearly sex workers by choice," she tweeted, "the majority globally are there because of poverty, homelessness etc. Aka lack of choice."

If you think these actresses have no idea what they're talking about, you aren't alone. A number of sex workers, on social media and elsewhere, attacked Dunham and others for their perceived attempt to sound like experts. Writer, model, and pornographic performer Stoya summed up this argument in a tweet last month: "Oh, you played a prostitute in a movie?” she wrote. “I played a nurse in a porno. Does that qualify me to talk about working conditions in hospitals?”

Stoya, and those who echoed her opinion, aren't wrong to question the righteous opinions of famous people who likely don't have firsthand knowledge of the sex-working profession. But it's also true that, historically, actresses and sex workers have had more in common than meets the eye today. For centuries, actresses and sex workers faced similar stigmas due to the performative, public nature of their professions—which, in the case of acting, has only recently fallen away.

For centuries, actresses and sex workers faced similar stigmas due to the performative, public nature of their professions—which, in the case of acting, has only recently fallen away.

Kirsten Pullen, an assistant professor of performance studies at Texas A&M University, has written at length about the overlapping categories of “actress” and “whore” throughout history. In her 2005 book Actresses and Whores: On Stage and in Society, she writes that there is an "enduring tie” between prostitutes and performance. From Eleanor “Nell” Gwyn, who was both an actress and mistress to King Charles II, to Mae West, who was arrested for her stage performance of a sex worker, actresses have often been branded with stigma due to a combination of eroticism and visibility. Because they worked outside the home and occasionally emphasized their attractiveness and sexuality in performances, actresses on the stage were also perceived to be disreputable, publicly available women—whether or not they actually sold sex for money.

Not so long ago, it was thought that women who acted for a living needed to be pulled out from a bad employment situation. In the 19th century, social workers who took prostitutes from the streets and trained them for “respectable” jobs also “rescued” dancers and actresses. This, Pullen wrote me in an email, was because these do-gooders assumed actresses “were only a small step away from prostitution (if that).” Two centuries ago, activists and reformers might have signed petitions calling for Meryl Streep to be saved from violence on the set of It's Complicated, or argued that her workplace should be criminalized in order to protect her from casting directors and talent agents.

When did this conflation of acting and exploitation end? Pullen says acting professionalized in the late 19th century, a shift that transformed actors into artists who could achieve stardom and respect. The reputation they achieved in this period is the one we’re familiar with today, though it took some time for them to be able to perform in revealing costumes, or mime intimate contact, without fear of being branded with a scarlet letter. Today, however, the reversal is complete: When Anne Hathaway portrayed Catwoman in the Dark Knight Rises, coverage focused on the grueling diet and exercise regimen that allowed her to squeeze into the skin-tight suit. When Kate Winslet portrayed a morally questionable former Nazi guard who initiated an affair with a teenage boy in the Reader, she won an Oscar. Sexiness for sex workers is still frowned upon; for actresses today, it can be prestigious.

Sexiness for sex workers is still frowned upon; for actresses today, it can be prestigious.

The same cannot be said for modern sex workers, who face some level of stigma, whatever their skills. That's true for legal workers like porn stars, who often face scorn and ridicule from family members and friends, as well as discrimination from banks and payment processors. And it is true for illegal workers like prostitutes, who can be harassed and arrested—which was the case for Amber Betts in Alaska, who was just sentenced to more than six years in jail for running an escort agency and screening clients for other sex workers. The fact that actresses can capitalize on their sexual performances without having to face any of this same public recrimination is an irony that is not lost on Nix 66, an online dominatrix I spoke to for this story. "Why should the cast of Girls be paid for raunchy sex scenes?” she asked me. “Shouldn’t they be doing this for free if their heart was really in it?” she said, noting the point that acting, like sex work, is a business, some of it erotic.

Indeed, despite the current gulf between the respect afforded to acting and that afforded to sex work, the two professions share some crucial similarities. Nix, who works primarily in phone sex and occasionally private cams, has just started experimenting with making clips of these performances. "I feel like a performance artist,” she told me. "But what I do, specifically, I see more in line with raunchy comedy and improvisation, as well as psychotherapy." Other sex workers, she says, create different kinds of performances that draw on diverse sets of dramatic skills. Full-service providers deal in touch, presentation, smell, and conversation; porn performers "master scripts, character, and camera angles."

There’s no denying the existence of exploitation in sex work (or, for that matter, in acting), which was the primary concern raised in the actresses’ letter to Amnesty International. But this kind of advocacy also comes with some historic baggage. When reformers strived to “rescue” prostitutes and other sexual performers in the 19th century, they tended to benefit from the charity work more than their wards did. In her book Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, Laura Agustín argues that, during the rise of social work in the 1800s, “saving” poor and marginalized women gave middle-class women the means of earning respect and power that was otherwise not available to them. These women displayed their virtue and agency by joining in campaigns to rescue prostitutes, who were then perceived by respectable society as victimized, debased, and diseased. “The slippery category 'prostitution' provided work for those intent on eradicating it," Agustín argues. "A central irony of this story is that these middle-class women's occupations aimed at doing away with many working-class women's means of support." Middle-class rescuers landed on respectable work, in other words, by taking away less-respected livelihoods.

Hollywood stars like Streep, Dunham, and Winslet aren’t exactly grasping for better employment like the 19th-century moralists who preceded them. But by arguing for the continued criminalization of some kinds of sex work, they are similarly passing judgment on performances that are acceptable, and those that are exploitive. These actresses present themselves as rescuers even though, a hundred years back, sex workers and actresses were all seen as fallen women in need of rescuing together.