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Sex workers on the big screen: 7 iconic characters and their strengths

There have been millions of big-screen characters over the last century, but some leave more of a mark than others. This Sex Workers’ Rights Day, we’re looking at sex workers in the film who defy stereotypes and show remarkable strength that challenges common misconceptions about the job.

Join us as we celebrate these iconic characters and their nuanced portrayals of sex work.

Scroll down to see if your favourite movies make the list.

Why is on-screen representation of sex workers so important?

Sex workers face incredible amounts of stigma and discrimination based on myths and misconceptions about the job. These myths and misconceptions are a societal problem, but we can start dismantling them by discussing why they’re wrong.

On-screen representation of sex workers is critical; if done well, it shows their strength, work ethic, and humanity. However, when not written so well, harmful on-screen depictions of sex workers only further reinforce the negative associations of the job.

Calling for positive representations of escorts and sex workers is critical to changing society’s attitude toward them in real life. So, interact with sex-positive media as much as possible to show film studios and directors that’s what the public wants.

All about sex-positive media

The sex positivity movement focuses on having open conversations about sex and removing shame and guilt from the conversation.

Sex-positive media takes this conversation to the next level and weaves the theme through movies, books, podcasts, and other entertainment sources.

Common themes in sex-positive films:

Sex workers and escorts are critical to sex-positive media, as this movement celebrates them and challenges society’s stigmas about the profession. Movies with positive portrayals of sex workers are part of sex-positive media.

7 iconic on-screen sex workers all movie buffs should know

Without further ado, here are the top on-screen sex workers that show the strengths of modern-day sex workers:

1. Pretty Woman – Vivian Ward

We’re starting the list with one of the most famous sex workers ever to grace the big screen – Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman. Brought to life by Julia Roberts, Vivian Ward is a Hollywood-based sex worker who’s hired as an escort by Edward Lewis (Richard Gere).

Throughout the film, Roberts portrays Ward as witty and resilient, and she repeatedly shows adaptability, independence, and confidence in her abilities. It’s no surprise that this film is an enduring classic!

2. Poor Things – Bella Baxter

Poor Things by Yorgos Lanthimos has made a splash in the 2024 film scene. This Oscar-nominated film doesn’t hold back when it comes to sex scenes and is happy to address sex in a way we’ve never seen before.

Throughout the film, we see Bella Baxter (played by Emma Stone) travel through the world on a mission of self-discovery. Part of her journey includes a brief stint as a sex worker in Paris, where director Lanthimos doesn’t vilify the job. Instead, we receive a nuanced depiction of the job that contrasts typical depictions.

3. Moulin Rouge! – Satine

If you love awe-inspiring visuals and period costumes, Moulin Rouge is the film for you. This 2001 film follows an American writer as he falls for Satine (Nicole Kidman), the lead actress of the Moulin Rouge cabaret and a sex worker.

Satine is a beloved character who displays strength, kindness, and determination to give herself and those around her a better life. Plus, she can also put on a very good show.

4. Taxi Driver – Iris Steensma

Taxi Driver is a cult classic for a reason. Unlike the other leading ladies on this list, Taxi Driver shows another side of the sex industry. Iris Steensma is a 12-year-old prostitute whom the protagonist, Travis Bickle, tries to save.

Most sex workers don’t need saving from their professions as it’s a fulfilling career path. But in this film, we’re happy to see an underage girl rescued from trafficking.

5. L.A. Confidential – Lynn Bracken

Lynn Bracken, portrayed by Kim Basinger, is a complex character that shows the strengths and resilience of sex workers worldwide. Though she has a tumultuous past, Lynn Bracken continuously shows up for herself and builds an independent life.

Bracken also shows adaptability, a protective instinct, and emotional strength throughout the film. These characteristics make her one of the most memorable of all time.

6. The Hangover – Jade

If you want to watch a light-hearted movie with a positive sex worker portrayal, The Hangover (2009) is the flick for you. This film is about friends and their adventures in Las Vegas while at a bachelor party. Sex worker Jade (Heather Graham) isn’t what you’d usually think of when you think of Las Vegas escorts, but she’s kind, loveable, and understanding of the group’s problems.

Jade is integral when it comes to helping the group figure out what happened on their night out, and we see her non-judgemental attitude and loyalty to the others despite the chaos around them.

7. True Romance – Alabama Whitman

Last but not least is Alabama Whitman, the leading lady in True Romance. Played by Patricia Arquette, Alabama Whitman is an escort who falls in love with Clarence Worley (Christian Slater).

Alabama goes through more than other escorts on this list, but her drive and resourcefulness make her a strong character. Alongside a distinct survival instinct, Alabama shows empathy and optimism when times are tough, making her a memorable addition to the film.

Honourable mentions

Seen the films above? Don’t worry. These films and shows also feature sex workers and their strengths:

  • Risky Business (1983)
  • Sin City (2005)
  • Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
  • My Own Private Idaho (1991)
  • Secret Diary of a Call Girl (2007 – 2011)

The takeaway

Did you recognise any of the characters on this list? If not, this is your sign to plan a movie night. Invite your friends around and give these films a go. Did we miss any of your favourites? Which fictional escort is your favourite? Let us know!

Learn more about sex work via the Vivastreet blog now.

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