Heels. The most beautiful vintage heels I'd ever seen! At least 7 or 8 pairs all lined up in a row, adorned with jewels, cherries, lace and leather. Would Kristin think I was a total freak if I started caressing them and trying them on? Probably, so I refrained. It wasn’t easy, but I managed. I peered around her hotel room, taking in my surroundings. When I used the bathroom, I took note of the pale pink lingerie hanging from the hook on the bathroom door. This woman is glamor all the way, and I was a bit intoxicated by the glitz.
I met Kristin DiAngelo for the first time on Saturday night. I was invited to her hotel room to watch her new documentary, American Courtesans, with my friend (and one of several courtesans in the film), Gina Robinson. Kristin answered the door in jeans, a casual top, and blond hair tied up with very little make-up on; a sharp contrast to the woman in the photos, but beautiful in her simplicity. Petite, with a porcelain doll's face and a soft feminine voice, Kristin has just finished production of her first documentary. It was Gina's first time seeing the finished product, and Kristin's first time receiving feedback from one of the women in the film. The energy and anxiety in the room were palpable. This was probably the closest that I'd ever get to being in a hospital delivery room, waiting on the new baby. Except this baby won't come out screaming and covered in mucus (gross!) It will come out as an unexpected tornado that ravages the public's preconceived notions about sex workers. If it's not already obvious, let me go ahead and say that I loved the film, and believe that a project such as this is a leap in the right direction for sex worker advocacy.
Watch the trailer here: American Courtesans
The film features several courtesans who candidly tell various parts of their stories, all the way from childhood to present day. The first thing that stood out to me was the lack of narration. I waited 3 minutes...7 minutes...10 minutes. It's not that the film needed a narrator, but every damn documentary has one! So, where is s/he?! Perhaps this was just a long introduction to the film. Somewhere around the 30 minute mark (yeah I know, sometimes it takes me a while) I realized that the women telling their stories WERE the narrators. The scenes switched from one woman to another, all telling different stories, but the transitions were seamless. The stories were chronological, and the longer I watched, the more each woman's story came together. I was very impressed with the film's editing. Each woman spoke, IN HER OWN WORDS, something that sex workers rarely get the chance to do. It’s unconventional, and it works.
This film is not here to convince America that being a sex worker is the best job ever. The stories are not sugar coated, no one is pretending that being a hooker was/is their dream job. The film does not have some phony overly sex-positive agenda, nor does it have an anti-prostitution agenda hidden amidst the stories. That's the beauty in this film- the only agenda is to give these women a voice. Their stories uncut, including the beatings, violence, pimps, drugs, arrests, and exploitation. The courtesans also talk of their triumphs, friendship, families, sexual exploration, and freedom that they found in sex work. Like anything else in life, there's the good, the bad, and the horrific. Many of the women are still in the sex industry, and some have retired or pursued other avenues. The sincerity of their stories is what makes this film so beautiful, and at times heartbreaking, to watch.
I chatted with Kristin for a while after we watched the film. I asked her why she decided to opt out of a narrator, and she said "I didn't want anyone else to tell our story." She explained that none of it was scripted; the women simply got together and talked to one another for hours, and from that footage, American Courtesans was created. I also appreciated that not only were the women interviewed, but their mothers, husbands, children, and siblings were as well. Wait, hookers have families?! *sarcasm*
The most noteworthy scene in the film was after Kristin recalled an incident of violence during her days as a street worker. Speaking through tears, she states that she's making this film so that no one ever has to go through this again. Several of the women tell stories of abuse, rape, and intimidation at the hands of cops, johns, and pimps. Although at times it may be painful to hear these stories, they NEED to be heard. The general public needs to realize that this will continue to happen until prostitution is decriminalized, until people (including law enforcement) start giving a shit about the lives of sex workers. Norma Jean Almodovar speaks to this in the film, and I would have liked to see more of Norma in the film. If there's anyone who can speak from a place of knowledge and experience about sex work and activism, it's Norma Jean. While the film was not meant to be political in nature, I would have appreciated more emphasis on the harms of keeping prostitution criminalized; on the fact that law enforcement labels prostitutes as “non-persons,” leaving them as unworthy of investigation or assistance. Isn’t EVERYONE entitled to help from law enforcement? Gina Robinson, escort of almost 30 years, is quickly becoming one of this generation’s powerful sex worker activists, stating "it's my responsibility to change the system for the next generation." Exactly, and that's why we do this work.
My advice to you is to get yourself to the NYC or LA to a private screening if you're able to. Details are here RSVP
Thank you to Gina Robinson for inviting me to spend the weekend in NYC with her, and to Kristin DiAngelo for welcoming me into her hotel to see the film. Also, thank you to Kristin for making this film, and for working so damn hard! It's ladies like the two of you, and the other courtesans who I hope to meet one day, who inspire me to continue with my work.
Thank you to all of the other incredible women in this film: Gina DePalma, Tamsen Crown, Pearl Callahan, Erin Marxxx, Emma Dupree, Juliet Capulet, Skylar Cruz, and Hilary Holiday. I hope to meet every one of you in the future.