Why Sex Workers Are Angry With Meryl Streep and Rashida Jones
Sex workers are fuming over “Sell/Buy/Date,” an upcoming documentary produced by Meryl Streep and Rashida Jones that they say will conflate consensual sex work and sex trafficking.
It seems that non-sex workers in Hollywood can’t leave the topic of sex work alone, even at the behest of people who work in the sex industry.
Last week, Tony Award-winning playwright, screenwriter and actress Sarah Jones announced her directorial debut Sell/Buy/Date, based on her 2016 one-woman show of the same name. The off-Broadway production has been described as “an exploration of commercial sex with a sci-fi twist,” with Jones playing multiple characters, including a “sex work studies” student and a former pimp. The upcoming documentary will explore whether sex work is “empowering or exploitative” with interviews from former and current sex workers, their male customers, celebrities, and experts. It will also tackle themes like “inequality of criminal justice, race, sexism and poverty.” Additionally, the press release reported that Laverne Cox, Rashida Jones and Meryl Streep were set to produce.
Only two days after the announcement, however, Cox rescinded her role in the documentary after sex workers began expressing their concerns and frustrations with the film on social media.
Cox wrote in a statement she posted to Twitter, “When I agreed to come on as a producer for Sell/Buy/Date, I did so because I was so deeply moved by Sarah Jones’ brilliant play and her unbelievable, undeniable talent as an artist, as an actor. I signed on to support her incredible talent. I have so much love for her as a human being. But I am not in the emotional place to deal with the outrage by some around my participation in the project. So I have decided to pull out. To be clear, I am no longer in any capacity in Sell/Buy/Date. I have to take care of my mental, physical and emotional health. That is all I have to say on the matter.”
Since stepping away, Cox has been replying to critics on Twitter with a short clip of herself speaking at an event where she calls out the hypocrisy between society’s consumption of porn and vilification of sex work. But the apprehension around Sell/Buy/Date is far more complex and multi-layered than what Cox generically describes as “outrage,” or what she seems to think are accusations that she is anti-sex work.
In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Sarah Jones said that the seeds for her one-woman show were initially planted when she taught poetry to female inmates on Rikers Island, some of them young girls who were “trafficked.” Jones’ source of inspiration dovetails with a critique of her stage production made by writer Cate Young in a review for Ampersand titled “Sell/Buy/Date Sells Sex Workers Down The River.” Young wrote that Jones makes “the critical mistake of conflating sex work with sex trafficking and the sexual exploitation of minors” and suggests “that all sex work is oppression,” a common narrative pushed by politicians, religious lobbying groups, and anti-sex work feminists.
“There's nothing inherently exploitative about sex work because it is, by definition, a consensual exchange between adults,” Adrie Rose, a writer, photographer, and former sex worker, told The Daily Beast. “If someone wants to have a conversation about exploitation in trafficking, they should be very clear and explicit in stating that.”
Maya Moreno, an undocumented sex worker who made a Twitter thread calling out the stage production’s “xenophobic” tropes, says the notion that all sex workers are either trafficked or exploited is weaponized in anti-immigration policy.
“America considers people they define as trafficked persons or slaves as fundamentally ineligible to live in a free and democratic society,” she said. “The idea that migrants don’t have agency, that we aren’t empowered or we aren’t making choices anyone should respect, is used to strip us of rights.”
Like the stage production, Jones’ documentary wants to explore exploitation within the profession, according to its press release, reigniting a tired debate about the validity of sex work based on the amount of harm and danger that can occur within the field. This particular question has divided the feminist left since the sex wars of second-wave feminism. Is sex work liberating or degrading? Progressive or regressive? For Rose, this is a flawed framework.
“Anytime this dichotomy is applied to a conversation about sex work, it’s a moral dog-whistle,” Rose said. “The issue is not that trading sex or sexual fantasy is inherently exploitative, it’s that (usually) women have commodified a thing that many people feel entitled to for free.”
Another aspect of Sell/Buy/Date that sex workers feel poses a threat to their community is the film’s producers, Rashida Jones and Meryl Streep, who share a track record of publicly using anti-sex work rhetoric, advocating for the criminalization of sex work ,and taking advantage of sex workers.
In 2013, Jones came under fire for a tweet in which she told female celebrities to “#stopactinglikewhores.” Initially, she defended her tweet in a column for Glamour but eventually said the remark was “absolutely not appropriate” in a 2017 New York Times interview. Jones’ fascination with women’s sexuality and what she’s deemed “stripper culture” led her to co-produce the 2015 Netflix documentary Hot Girls Wanted, about young women in amateur porn. While the film was nominated for an Emmy and received mostly favorable reviews from critics, sex workers like Morticia Bottoms (as well as some of the film’s subjects) thought it “focused entirely on the negative side of the business.”
“By focusing entirely on younger girls just entering the industry by signing up with an exploitative talent agency rather than also including independent amateurs who manage their own businesses, they portray sex work as something young women are lured into rather than a career choice like any other,” said Bottoms, an escort and performer.
But it was the alleged mishandling of certain participants and alleged non-obliging sex workers in the documentary’s 2017 follow-up series Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On that cemented Jones as an official threat to the community, along with her fellow showrunners Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus.
After the series premiered, Gia Page alleged that the series included footage that she asked the producers to cut out and showed an image of her Facebook profile that includes her real first name, putting her in danger of stalking. Other performers Autumn Kayy and Effy Elizabeth claimed that they were not notified when a Periscope clip of them was used in the series, exposing them to a significantly wider audience of people without their consent. Bauer and Gradus responded that everyone in the series was “completely aware” of their involvement and that the performers “exposed themselves” when they complained on Twitter.
“They all basically shit on us, saying we did this to ourselves, and no one would have ever recognized us,” Kayy wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “To this day, almost four years later, I still have people coming to me asking me if I know I’m in a Netflix show.”
Critics of Sell/Buy/Date also point to Streep’s history of advocating for anti-sex work laws, which include signing an open letter to the human rights group Amnesty International in 2015, along with other Hollywood actresses, rejecting their proposal to decriminalize sex work despite studies that show criminalization puts sex workers, particularly marginalized groups of sex workers, at a greater risk for police abuse.
Hollywood has often found itself at odds with the sex industry, whether for negative, sensationalized portrayals, a lack of input and decision-making from actual sex workers, or more direct acts of harm like exposing Kayy to a giant streaming audience without her full permission. Even the makers of the 2019 film Hustlers, which was lauded for its nuanced, humanizing portrayal of stripping, were called out by dancers at New York’s Show Palace for leaving them without a week’s pay when the strip club shut down for shooting.
Sarah Jones responded to the backlash over Sell/Buy/Date on Twitter, stating, “As a Black feminist artist, I have always centered the stories of traditionally marginalized people, especially women and femmes struggling for liberation and self-determination. My sisters in the sex industry are no exception. I am committed to deep listening to folks with lived experience, not only in my interviews, but also in those we hire behind the scenes.”
While Jones claims to come from a place of sisterhood and empathy—like many an outsider who has made a film about sex work—it may not be enough to quell her critics. During a time when credit card companies are blocking payments to Pornhub, U.S. senators are pushing a bipartisan bill that would drastically reduce content on porn websites, and one of SESTA/FOSTA’s co-sponsors is preparing to move into the White House, sex workers can’t afford to give projects like Sell/Buy/Date the benefit of the doubt.