Last month marked 25 years since the film Pretty Woman first inspired young girls to appreciate opera and listen to Prince in the bathtub. The 1990 romantic comedy, starring Julia Roberts as a Hollywood Boulevard hooker and Richard Gere as the client she falls in love with, has been beloved and bemoaned by sex workers and non-sex workers alike for at least two generations.
However, one blogger, Laila Mickelwait of the anti-trafficking organization Exodus Cry, insists that Roberts' toothy grin and Gere's begrudging tenderness are, in fact, to blame for luring countless young women into the sex industry with promises of fabulous hats and romantic declarations from the sunroof of a limousine.
In her post, “The Reality of Pretty Woman,” Mickelwait rhetorically asks, “How many young, naive, and unsuspecting women over the last 25 years were deceived by the fairy tale of Pretty Woman and led into a life of abuse, trauma, and slavery?” She insists the film has “lured young women into the sex industry by leading them to believe that prostitution was glamorous and romantic,” and that, “The reality of prostitution is not a romantic fantasy but a tragic horror story.”
I've always liked the film, but was it the catalyst for my entrée into the sex industry? Not at all, and frankly, it's insulting to imply that a 1990s romantic comedy could have that much sway over my career choice.
Australian sex worker Tilly Lawless also took issue with Mickelwait's post. She replied to it via her Instagram account, posting a photo of herself in a white crop top and a toothy grin that would make Roberts proud, along with a comment that ended with, “There's no singular story or person to represent the varied & complex experiences of all sex workers, but here is one face of prostitution.”
Overnight, the hashtag #FacesOfProstitution spread like wildfire, inspiring people all over the world to post photos of themselves depicting positive portrayals of workers who are more toothy grin than tragic horror story.
A curvy redhead from Utah tweeted a photo taken in a mirror with the caption, “I choose this work for empowerment, money, and flexibility. I am no victim. #FacesOfProstitution #RightsNotRescue.”
An older dominatrix from London posted a smiling photo of herself with the caption “Never been happier since I started #sexwork. Pays for my PhD and I go to the theatre lots. #FacesOfProstitution.”
And @EbonyBodyWorks of St. Louis posted a family photo pasted into a scrapbook. The caption reads, “I'm a prostitute who loves my parents, and they LOVE me! #FacesOfProstitution.”
More and more sex workers emulated Lawless' social media bravado, posting selfies and weighing in on the master narrative of sex work as an inherently dangerous and abusive profession.
Unfortunately, people who shared Mickelwait's views on sex work used the hashtag as an opportunity to harass some of the sex workers who were brave enough to out themselves on social media. One troll even began posting photos of murdered sex workers under the hashtag, and Lawless herself has received plenty of criticism. But she remains remarkably steadfast.
“Sex workers will only be humanized and seen as individuals if people are aware of us as individuals,” she told Vice earlier this month.
But while the hashtag activism is sparking some incredible conversations about the “rescue” industry and the worldwide decriminalization of prostitution, it's important to remember that outing oneself as a prostitute on the internet, forever, is a privilege afforded to few — even I balked at the proposition. While the work is criminalized in so many places, including right here in San Francisco, it remains fundamentally unsafe to out ourselves without fear of criminal charges and crippling social stigma.
And while #FacesOfProstitution shows there are plenty of sex workers who are happy and healthy, that does not negate the violence and coercion that do indeed exist within the industry. Decriminalizing the trade would allow sex workers to work with, rather than in fear of, law enforcement to eradicate exploitation within the sex trade.
However, what sex work abolitionists like Mickelwait fail to realize is that advocating for the rights of all sex workers, regardless of how they entered the industry (by choice, coercion, or '90s romantic comedy), can and will result in greater safety for every worker.