Sex Work in Our Midst?

by Brian Bergen-Aurand


A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me if I would be okay with sex workers “plying their trade” in my back yard. Since I’ve been asked to run this thought experiment no less than three times in the past month, by three different friends, all with slightly different queer perspectives, I thought I would try to imagine the situation in more detail.

In imagining the proximity of sex work, here, I turn to the example of Inara Serra. Or, more precisely, I turn to the image of the proximity of sex work in the film Serenity (Joss Whedon, 2005). (Serenity, is based on the television series Firefly (Joss Whedon, Fox, 2002-2003). I have not seen the television show, only the film.) Serenity is a space western set in 2517. The crew of the Serenity are petty thieves who fought (and lost) in the war against the Alliance and now eek out an existence shuttling contraband cargo and persons from colony to colony around the “verse.” They become the center of Alliance attention when they seek to protect a psychic, River Tam, who may be able to rewrite history with what she knows.

Location. Location. Location.


Each time this conversation around sex work has begun, it has turned toward the image of the sex worker, specifically, toward the image of the sex worker as streetwalker–an image of illicit, tawdry, abused, manipulated, sleazy, explicitly sexual female bodies on public display. (Talk of male and trans* sex work usually arises only after some longer discussions.) Crime and chemical substances creep into even the best conversations I’ve had about sex work. As has something else that marks this image: distance. Of all the aspects haunting images of sex work, distance may be the dominant one. Sex work occurs over there. Away from me. I can see it. I can observe it. But it is never very close to me, even when I try to imagine it in my own back yard. Sex work, as we might say in cinematic terms, always occurs in long shot.



This imagined distance (produced in part by the distant images of sex work we’ve repeatedly seen) raises two questions in my mind.

First, what about the sex work already in our midst? What about the neighbor who provides “entertainment” for out of town clients? Or the housekeeper who cleans that flat? What about the neighbor editing pornography on a home computer? What about the neighbor who does at-home alterations on costumes and apparel or sells mail-order sex toys? What about the author of erotic tales or sexually explicit screenplays typing away on a laptop? The next door neighbor who retouches sexually explicit photos? The nude model who works for the photographer? What about the downstairs neighbor who hosts an online sex chat room? Or the one who provides phone sex from the upstairs flat? Or what about anyone who lives nearby and provides any element of a sexually related service in exchange for money, drugs, or other favors? (That’s one general definition of sex work.) As soon as I start to consider all the varied aspects of sex work, I can’t help but imagine how we’re all already touched by it in one way or another. It is just a matter of using our imaginations.

Second, returning to that more dominant image of the sex worker and comparing it with the image of Inara Serra in Serenity, I can’t help but ask what sex work might look like if it were allowed to show itself closer to home, if we didn’t have to image “what if.” How does my friend’s question of proximity change as soon as I begin to imagine sex work differently? In the light of the first question, I’d like to consider the image of Inara Serra on Serenity and how it changes (and does not change) our image of sex work.


Many fans, sex-positive feminists, and post-feminists have promoted Inara Serra as a positive female model because of her mixture of feminine sexuality and empowerment, or, in fact, because her empowerment seems to come from her independent feminine sexuality. In the world of Serenity, Inara is a “companion,” well trained in the arts, culture, languages, sexuality, and other social practices. She makes her living by servicing her clients, has the choice of accepting or declining propositions, is recognized with a certain social status and is endowed with certain social privileges, and, eventually, is promoted to instructing other companions at the training house where we meet her in the film. Like the doctor, the pilot, the mercenary, and other members of the crew, Inara’s work is her work—at least according to some critics. Furthermore, as a sex worker of color, Inara seems to provide an amazing model for feminist consideration of positive media images of empowered women, women of color, and sex workers combined in one image.

Of course, Inara Serra cannot provide such an image. There are problems with this image of Inara. As Dee Amy-Chinn writes in “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore: Postfeminist Prostitution in Joss Whedon’s Firefly?”

As a scholar-fan of the Whedonverse, and an academic driven to seek out sites of popular culture from which to challenge the heteronormative matrix, what disappoints me is not that he embarked on such an ambitious sex-positive feminist project and failed–it is that he did not even try. Inara is not a potential feminist icon, nor a possible postfeminist one–let alone a positive role model for whoredom. She is the traditional Western’s “tart with a heart”–a beautiful woman making her living from offering her artifice-adorned body as a site of (generally) male pleasure, a woman whose true gift is her ability to nurture, and function in lieu of any more formalized system of social service. Most importantly a woman torn between her desire for independence and her realisation that true happiness lies within the framework of heterosexual romance. Therein lies the pity.

I do not disagree with this analysis (from what I’ve seen). If we look close enough, Inara falls far short of that sex-positive, queer model we might want her to be. (There are also problems with the “legalization” model of sex work imagined by the film, where sex work is highly regulated, inspected, surveyed by the authority, and sex workers—but not their clients—remain under the watchful eye of medical and moral policing.)


Yet, what if is not about Inara or the formal institutions imaged in the film, but about the very proximity she demonstrates? What is interesting about the image of Inara Serra is how close she is to the camera, to other characters, to us as we watch the film. Because of the tight quarters of the ship and Inara’s narrative participation overall, she is rarely show in silent long shot, rarely shown out of the mix of the rest of the crew. There are almost no shots of Inara distanced and isolated from the other characters. She is in their midst.

And, I think this proximity alters the way we imagine her character. As much as the other characters in this science-fiction Western, Inara Serra is Inara Serra, crewmember and companion. She is an active character who sometimes performs her professional work (even if less and less as the storyline develops) and sometimes performs her clandestine work. I would argue, unlike other imaginings of sex work we have seen, the image of sex work in Serenity does give us something to think about: not necessarily a sex worker in our back yard but a woman who sometimes does and sometimes does not do sex work, who happens to live in proximity. Utopian? No. More accurate? Perhaps.


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