For the last year or so, I have been having a continuous debate with my mother about sex work and whether it can truly be ‘empowering’. Time and time again I have attempted to fight my corner in saying that sex work is work, and it’s ridiculous to try talk for each individual and deny that anyone has ever enjoyed it or felt empowered by it.
She has always fought back by saying that sex work is inherently exploitive, and she cannot even imagine or believe that anyone truly enjoys it or feels in a powerful position when doing it.
Over the festive season we watched the second season of The White Lotus together. I didn’t know there were any sex worker characters and neither did she until we watched it. At the end of the final (amazing) episode, she turned to me, and said ‘It’s funny how the two girls doing the sex work were the ones who came out on top’.
She went on to say in a sort of self-surprised tone how much she liked their characters and how they truly seemed empowered and happy. Basically, after all my attempts to get her to see the light, White Lotus changed her opinion of sex work in a few measly episodes. Here’s why I think it succeeded over me.
The Depiction of Lucia & Mia
For anyone unfamiliar with the show, White Lotus is a satirical comedy show about a luxury hotel chain ‘The White Lotus’ and the guests that stay there. We follow the interlinking storylines of the guests (and staff) and get caught in all of the drama and deception that goes on during their time at the hotel.
It’s largely a commentary on how the other half live and the how corruptive money can be.
The second season is set at the White Lotus in Sicily and two of the featured characters are local girls who sleep with the rich guests and get what they can from them in return.
Lucia is a more experienced escort, unashamed and unfazed by her work. Mia is the more coy and innocent friend who initially just tags along to the hotel with Lucia and seems the type who ‘wouldn’t dream’ of doing sex work, mainly because of the implications she believes it would have on her.
When Lucia gives her a makeover she is upset at first that she ‘looks like a whore’. But once she lets go of her own judgements she eventually joins Lucia in her mischief and becomes more sexually liberated.
By the end of the season, whilst many characters don’t have great outcomes, Lucia and Mia undeniably have the best. After tricking the young and gullible Albie, a guest at the hotel, into giving her €50,000 to save her from her (make believe) pimp, Lucia as well as Mia carry on their lives in Sicily happy and content, unlike most of the rich and troubled guests.
The sexually liberated Mia, offers to have sex with the hotel manager and closeted gay Valentina to give her her first queer experience, and in return she lands a job as the hotel’s new resident singer. And it is portrayed in such a way that it’s not a sleazy deal of Mia fucking her way to a job. If anything the relationship formed between Mia and Valentina is very wholesome.
My mum made a good point in that throughout the season, it is Lucia and Mia who have so much power and control in comparison to the other characters.
Compared to the sexually repressed hotel manager Valentina, the trapped-by-her-wokeness Harper, Cameron and Ethan trapped in different ways by their masculinity, the anxiety ridden Portia, the controlled-by-their-sex-drive Bert and Dominic Di Grasso and so on and so forth- Lucia and Mia are very open and very free.
They have nothing to lose, which puts them in a position of power. They are happy, which puts them in a position of power. And they show that by indulging in femininity, they can be powerful. Femininity is typically associated with openness and happiness and warmth. And there’s a lot of power in these traits.
The other character who exemplifies this power of being feminine is Daphne. She might come across as a clueless housewife, but that was a conscious decision on her part. She has decided to play the part of the wifey, and in that comes indulging in her femininity, her sex appeal, her happiness and her openness.
We see the power of the unashamed sex worker in Lucia and Mia, in that they have nothing to hide, but their clients do. The guests that pay the girls carry around shame for their actions. Their lack of control over their desire puts them in a position of weakness. It is them, rather than the girls, who look feeble.
They have to lie to their loved ones meaning the girls have something over them. The only thing that others can do to Lucia and Mia is hate on them. Valentina shames them at the beginning, the same guests who pay them disregard them as ‘whores’, they kick them out of their room at the crack of dawn once they’re done with them.
But the point is that we see that the girls don’t care. They don’t feel disrespected because they don’t respect the clients anyway.
However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t have a good time with them. We see the scenes of Lucia and Mia with Dominic, drinking champagne, playing in the pool, fucking around. Lucia is a great example of how sex work can be empowering because she enjoys the time she spends with the clients, but she also doesn’t care about them, as long as she gets her money.
I think this is the reality for many sex workers who have the privilege of choosing to be a sex worker today. Even if you are against the idea of sex work as a whole, it’s nonsensical to believe you know how it makes each individual sex worker feel.
Even the most anti-sex work person would watch White Lotus and feel the giddy excitement and sense of power that Lucia and Mia get through their work.
The Power of Storytelling
You can try to explain something to someone a million times but it will never have the same effect as putting your point across through the means of storytelling and art. It humanises the issue, it makes it come from a seemingly objective standpoint and it captivates your attention a lot more than someone shouting facts in your face.
My ramblings didn’t get through to my mum because she couldn’t feel how I have felt as a sex worker. But through watching White Lotus, she was able to feel Lucia and Mia’s sense of empowerment first hand.
I think White Lotus especially excels in its objectivity, its lack of remorse for its characters and its comedic tone. These elements make it feel more real and we as the viewer never feel encouraged to like any of the characters; we’re handed the freedom to make that decision ourselves.
If there’s anything traditionalists hate, it’s people trying to force their opinion down their throat. If some sex worker activist with pink hair, bleached eyebrows and hundreds of tattoos starts trying to convince a traditionalist into being pro-sex work, the traditionalist has already stopped listening before the sex worker has started talking.
Nobody wants to be forced into changing their mind about something. Here’s why White Lotus worked so well in making my mum see the light. It wasn’t overtly trying to make anyone pro-sex work. The element of sex work is part of the action but it’s nothing to do with what the show is really about.
Societal Views on Sex Work Today
I think as a member of the younger ‘woke’ generation, we sometimes assume that everyone knows what sex work today can look like. We’ve reached a point where many people do it out of choice, and it’s no biggie. A lot of my friends have dipped into it at some point or another, to be a ‘sex worker’ feels less solidified and finite as it used to feel.
Today, in a more sexually liberated society, people talk openly about doing it, and feels safe to express how their sex appeal makes them feel powerful. In addition, young people who don’t do sex work respect sex workers more than the older generation (as shown through the character of Albie).
I didn’t realise to what extent my mum didn’t know today’s societal outlook on sex work. What she, and probably many of her generation get wrong, is the idea that to every sex worker, their work always feels very serious and heavy, that it completely defines them and takes over their life. And that it’s something that is always demeaning.
I don’t blame them for thinking this. The older generation of women were brought up believing that sex itself was shameful, let alone sex work. Now, the shame around sex has reduced greatly and rapidly and when you are shameless, you are powerful.
We’ve created a society where sex work can feel powerful. I think that’s what The White Lotus so subtly and unobtrusively shows. Get the mums watching it (!)