The Girls on the Go: You Don’t Have to Get a Gimmick (And Other Thoughts on Sex-Worker Roles)

Tamyra Gray as Mimi in RENT (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Tamyra Gray as Mimi in RENT (Photo: Joan Marcus)

What do Cabaret, Gypsy, Sweet Charity, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Jekyll and Hyde, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, The Life, RENT, Lippa’s The Wild Party, Avenue Q, and Lysistrata Jones all have in common?

All of these musicals feature sex workers.

Sex work includes prostitution, pornography, stripping, exotic dancing, and other commerce in the sex industry.

Before I go any further, I want to let you know that I absolutely do not believe in dehumanizing or shaming sex workers. If you are uncomfortable with that position, I sincerely hope that you do not write or perform any characters in sex trades.

Bottom line: Sex workers are human and deserve respect, regardless of what you think of their line of work.

Sex workers have existed in every civilization and time period, which is why prostitution is often referred to as ‘The World’s Oldest Profession.’ Naturally, if there is a recurring industry in society, it will be reflected in art. Sex workers are no exception.

As I’ve mentioned many times before in this column, positive representation of women – especially women who belong to marginalized groups – requires awareness and sensitivity. Here are some thoughts on how you can achieve this as a writer and/or performer:

  • There’s more to life than work. Your entire personality isn’t based on your day job, right? The same applies to characters in the sex industry. Your character has her own specific backstory. Your character has her own dreams and goals, in her personal life and in her industry. No matter what anyone does to make ends meet, we all have experiences and hopes that manifest themselves in our behaviors. If you play a sex worker as a gaudy, oversexed, and one-dimensional caricature, it is degrading to actual real-life people who are in the sex trades.
  • It’s okay to feel insecure. If I got cast in a sex-worker role tomorrow, I would be grateful for the job but incredibly worried about what I would look like in a more revealing costume. That’s not shallow – that’s normal. Women in all professions are socialized to be self-conscious about their bodies. Just because a woman happens to sell sex doesn’t mean she thinks her appearance is perfect. Don’t stress about your real-life shortcomings; remember, your character has them, too.
  • Sex appeal doesn’t look the same on everyone. You don’t have to force yourself walk, talk, or hold yourself in one specific way in the name of looking “Sexy.” If you feel awkward and uncomfortable, you probably don’t look that hot anyway. True confidence and conviction in your choices will always work in your favor. There is no one way to be enticing. Experiment with choices and see what works best for you. You don’t have to have a phone-sex-hotline whisper and contort your body into unnatural shapes to be ‘Hot.’ Trust me, you’ll make more of an impact if your sex appeal comes from what you already have.

As long as there are sex trades, there will always be sex workers in real life and onstage.

Lenora Nemetz, Alison Fraser and Marilyn Caskey in Gypsy (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Lenora Nemetz, Alison Fraser and Marilyn Caskey in Gypsy (Photo: Joan Marcus)

More often than not, female sex workers are character roles or bit parts in the context of a show, hence their inclusion in The Girls on the Go. Just because sex workers are usually played by character actresses not mean that they are less important than ingenues or characters in other industries. In fact, I believe it gives us character actresses a greater responsibility to play these roles.

No matter what your character does for a living, there is someone who has lived an experience similar to hers. In writing and playing sex workers, you can give a voice to people who have been mistreated by society, abusers, and the law.

Your art can educate, if you choose to treat misunderstood groups with the same humanity as anybody else.

The post The Girls on the Go: You Don’t Have to Get a Gimmick (And Other Thoughts on Sex-Worker Roles) appeared first on The Green Room.