11 Sex Work Documentaries That Will Challenge You
“Sex work” is such a catch-all term that it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it means. It can be voluntary or involuntary. It can mean anything from pole dancing to stripping to prostitution to therapy. With a term so hard to pin down, forming an opinion about the definition becomes equally complex.
The 11 films on this list walk outside the boundaries of the industry and show us just how vast and diverse the world surrounding this occupation can be. The majority of sex workers aren’t fantastical bleached-blond porn starlets with larger-than-life boob jobs: They’re real working people who get frustrated with the constraints of their various jobs, lifestyles and microeconomies, just like everyone else. And despite sex-positive feminism’s tense efforts at wishing away the ugly parts, there are indeed many sex workers who are unwillingly trapped in prostitution as well.
What’s special about all of these documentaries is the way they manage to balance the pretty and the painful, the hopeful with the badass. Whichever way you currently lean when it comes to the often-divisive politics that surround sex work, watching these films will give you a long, entertaining look at the realness of the industry.
1. Live Nude Girls Unite!
Julia Query, activist, comedian, lesbian and stripper at a club called the Lusty Lady, put in long hours on stage and in the peep booth along with fellow exotic dancers Decadence, Lolita, and Octopussy.
When the largely queer, educated, lefty dancers at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady peep show got tired of racial quotas and unfair firings and decided to fight for a union, they grabbed a couple of cameras and filmed the whole year-long battle. One subthread the film explores is the filmmaker’s clash with her second-wave feminist mom, a dynamic that many of today’s “college girl” strippers can likely relate to.
Quote: “No contract, no pussy!” and “2-4-6-8, don’t come here to masturbate!”
Where to watch: Streaming on Netflix | Get it from Amazon.
The film won the “Audience Award” for Best Documentary Feature and the “Spire Award” at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Jill Morley’s lo-fi grunge doc looks at the thoughts and motivations of a crew of down-to-earth Jersey girls who dance at a cluster of working-class bars and clubs. Through casual interviews at home and work, Morley sets the scene for these women’s lives. Like in Live Nude Girls Unite!, here the filmmaker is also one of the subjects, and delves into her own relationship to dancing naked for dollars.
Quote: “You’re like a farmer. You go out there and harvest the money.”