“You see me first as a whore, and then as a person … but I’m a lot of other things too. I’m good, I’m bad – but I’m not black and white.”
Finally, a film about sex workers that actually treats “whores” as people, and puts up its middle finger to a culture of sexphobia and slut-shaming. Rather than recycling that familiar narrative of the desperate sex-worker, riddled with drugs and STIs, Black & White & Sex actually develops a powerful character, and challenges the belief that adult sexuality is somehow morally dangerous or wrong.
The narrative in Black & White & Sex unfolds over the course of an interview conducted by a “director” who questions and is questioned by a female sex worker named “Angie”, played by eight different actresses. Although the “director” displays very ill-informed ideas about sex and sex work over the course of the film, it’s actually very helpful, and I daresay engineered that way, as it’s in Angie’s fiery responses to his probing questions that we learn the most. In the film, he seems to represent the everyman’s view of sex work, which opens up the way for Angie to provide a useful critique. She calls him out on his problematic views, identifies the various types of discrimination she and other sex workers must endure, and implores him to recognise her humanity over the stigma of her profession.
The director’s decision to have eight actresses take on the role of Angie is wonderfully inventive, and as I see it, an act of resistance. The film’s refusal to put forward a single, uniform image of Angie curbs the viewer’s desire to stereotype, or homogenise sex workers – such a representation could have been alienating. Rather, we’re introduced to a diverse group of women who have explicitly chosen sex work.
The multiplicity of Angie also seem to be a nod to the description of Angie as a “chameleon”, with no fixed identity, at least in the context of her job – not even a fixed name. I think this says something important about the multiplicity of desire as well; if Angie must be a “chameleon” in order to accommodate the sexual preferences of her clients, then sexual preferences clearly cannot all be satisfied by one simple routine. Clearly, people like different types of sex: submissive, dominant, etc etc – and none of this is gender-specific. Such a notion may seem obvious, but I think it’s actually sort of radical. As a society, we tend to package desire into one sexy little marketable box, but people are freakier than that.
Black & White & Sex actually does a really good job of representing fringe or contentious sex practices, like fetish and BDSM, making them an important part of the narrative towards the end of the film. It’s nice to see a representation of kink that doesn’t sensationalise its freakiness, or tut-tut those practising it for their “risky” behaviour.
I also like how Black & White & Sex discredits the taboo that suggests sex worker’s can’t like their work. This taboo, undoubtedly stemming from society’s sex-shaming culture that sees women enjoying sex as somehow unladylike or crass (see: slut-shaming), is challenged by Angie’s declaration that “I liked sex before I was a sex worker – and most of the time, I liked sex AS a sex worker.” The line is pleasantly emphatic, leaving no room for the director to rationalise Angie out of her feelings.
The film asks us to see sex workers as more than victims, complicit to some malicious scheme, but rather as people with agency, and importantly, feelings. The film asks us not to other sex workers, or consider them moral vacuums. When the “director” asks Angie if she approves of sex trafficking, and she responds incredulously, “do YOU?” , it’s a jarring moment – we’ve actually ceased seeing sex workers as people. We consider them aliens. And that’s not reeeally ok.
There’s much more I could say about the film, but basically, I just want to high five the people who made the film for debunking all the shaming myths arounds sex workers, and just being generally progressive and great about topics like sex and kink. This isn’t to forget that the film was also very enjoyable and humorous, with a (generous) dash of eroticism, and spectacular performances all ’round.
I had the privilege of speaking to John Winter, the writer/director/producer of the film, after the screening. He told me that he didn’t want to tell a story about all sex workers, but rather, about one particular sex worker. It seems peculiar, given Angie has eight reincarnations in the film, but it’s also rather apt. Winter makes no claim of universality for his representation of sex workers, and in doing so, doesn’t disrespect the possibly divergent experiences other sex workers. I think it’s very sensitive, and very progressive.
If you’re planning on seeing the film (which you should), I understand it has a couple of sessions left in Sydney – tickets can be purchased here. You can also follow @blackwhitesex on twitter for updates on new screenings around Australia. In the meantime, check out out the trailer: