'Hustlers': Why Sex Workers Aren't Happy About New Jennifer Lopez Film - Rolling Stone
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Why Some Sex Workers Aren’t Happy About ‘Hustlers’

Is it the representation of strip-club life to come out of Hollywood — or a movie that perpetuates stigma against sex workers?

Jennifer Lopez stars in HUSTLERS

In 'Hustlers,' Jennifer Lopez stars as a stripper who teams up with her fellow workers to survive the Great Recession.

Barbara Nitke/STXfilms

In many respects, Hustlers isn’t just a good film — it’s also a groundbreaking one. Based on a 2015 New York magazine piece by Jessica Pressler, Hustlers tells the story of Destiny (Constance Wu), a struggling dancer at the fictional strip club Moves trying to work her way up the totem pole. She befriends single mother Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a much more established dancer who takes her under her wing. When the recession hits, the two team up to scam their Wall Street banker patrons, enlisting the help of other club employees in the process.

Since its release last Friday, Hustlers has been applauded for featuring an incredibly diverse cast by Hollywood standards, featuring two women of color as the leads and former real-life stripper Cardi B, Transparent‘s Trace Lysette, and Lizzo in smaller roles. It also deviates from the standard Hollywood template by almost entirely focusing on the experiences of women, basically passing a reverse Bechdel test by completely excluding men’s voices from the narrative. But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the film is that it focuses on a community that is rarely, if ever, deemed worthy of the big-budget studio treatment: Women who do sex work. It’s worth noting that the question of what qualifies as sex work is a highly contentious one within the community, and while many exotic dancers self-identify as sex workers, some do not. For the purposes of clarity, this piece will use the term “sex workers” to apply to the wide-ranging spectrum of those who offer some type of sexual services for commercial purposes, including escorts, webcam performers, custom adult clip creators, phone-sex operators, and exotic dancers, all of whom were interviewed by Rolling Stone.

Much of the media coverage of Hustlers has indicated that its production team made a good-faith effort to avoid perpetuating stigma, and accurately portray sex workers’ experiences. Director Lorene Scafaria met with current and former strip club employees before production, and cast at least two former self-identified sex workers, Cardi B and Trace Lysette, in supporting roles; the film also shot at a real-life gentlemen’s club, Show Palace in Queens, New York, and cast some of its employees as background dancers. Jacqueline Frances, a longtime stripper and comedian who built a following on Instagram as Jacq the Stripper, was also hired to serve as a consultant on the film. Yet many real-life sex workers have sharply criticized Hustlers — and not just for its depiction of the industry, which many say perpetuates harmful tropes.

Some of the criticism has centered around the fact that Hustlers did not compensate the dancers on whom the film is based, such as Samantha Barbash, the inspiration for Lopez’s character, who has previously stated that she is considering filing suit against the film. (According to Vanity Fair, Barbash was asked to participate in the film, but balked when she was offered payment for her life rights: “At the end of the day, I have bags that are worth more than what they wanted to pay me,” she told the magazine.)

But many of the allegations have centered around the employees at Show Palace, the club where much of the film was shot. Some NYC-based dancers have alleged on Instagram and Twitter that the Hustlers crew shut down the set for almost a week to shoot, thus depriving employees of work and failing to compensate them for their lost hours. A woman claiming to be a dancer at Show Palace tweeted that she was “out of commission the whole week” as a result of the shoot and received “no compensation of any kind.” While Rolling Stone was unable to reach this woman to corroborate her account, she tweeted a photo of herself at the club to bolster her claim.

Show Palace did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But in a phone conversation with Rolling Stone, Gizelle Marie, a black stripper and sex-workers’ rights advocate in the Bronx who founded the #NYCStripperStrike campaign, says she has spoken with many of the club’s employees, and that they were informed two weeks before shooting that the club would be shut down for filming, and were given the opportunity to audition for the film. But she agrees that the employees who weren’t hired as extras for Hustlers should’ve been compensated for lost work. New York City-based dancers, she says, have relatively few options in terms of finding employment, and that is particularly true for women of color, as many upscale clubs have a cap on how many women of color are supposed to dance on a given night. “That’s these girls’ livelihoods on the line,” she says. But she doesn’t blame the Hustlers crew for this, so much as the current employment laws in place that do little to protect dancers. “As far as being protected financially or getting paid, people feel like we are disposable,” she says.

The financial implications of shutting down a workplace for nearly a week can’t really be overstated, says Mollie, the cochair of Sex Workers’ Outreach Project (SWOP) San Antonio and an exotic dancer in San Antonio, Texas. “I’m sure it put these women out of a lot of money, especially if they’re dancing every day full-time,” she tells Rolling Stone, estimating the losses to number in the low thousands of dollars: “That could be somebody’s rent.” 

Some sex workers also suggested that the dancers hired as extras for Hustlers should have been compensated standard Hollywood actor rates for their work. But according to Tiny* (not her real name), a dancer at another Long Island City-based club who was hired to work as an extra for Hustlers, she earned about $1,600 for approximately 16 hours of work, from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. (For comparison, the minimum daily rate for background extras in the actors’ guild SAG/AFTRA is about $175 per day, according to a 2018 handbook.) “I probably could’ve made faster at my regular job, but it was a good experience,” she says. “Everyone was treated well.”

Through her publicist, Scafaria did not respond to requests for comment from Rolling Stone. But on Monday, she posted an apology in response to these critiques on Instagram, pledging to donate a percentage of royalties from Hustlers to groups like SWOP Behind Bars and including an advertisement for Show Palace. In her post, she apologized to the employees who were without work or compensation during the shoot, vowing to “visit Show Palace every time I’m in NY and $how my gratitude.” “You’re all so talented & lovely and I only hope to bring more customers to the club! If I can be of any service to the community, aid in any panels, discussions, or give this platform to the people who deserve it, I will,” she said in the post.

But Mollie says this was too little, too late. “She probably did it to save her from criticism after the fact that people called her out,” she says. “This should’ve been something she thought about and brought up way before the release of the movie.”

View this post on Instagram

Beyond grateful for all the Hustlers love and support. Hoping this translates to real love and support for strippers and sex workers and continues conversations about their work conditions, job security and safety, repealing FOSTA/SESTA, ending shadow banning, erasing the stigma, and decriminalizing their work. I pledge to give a percentage of any royalties I receive from Hustlers to the organizations that help these causes including @swopbehindbars. (Please feel free to add other organization names below.) We tried to employ strippers and sex workers in front of and behind the camera, and cast as many dancers from SHOW PALACE NY as we could, as background and in speaking roles, but for those dancers who weren’t cast, they were without work and compensation for 5 days and I’m personally so sorry. I vow to visit SHOW PALACE every time I’m in NY and $how you my gratitude. Thanks to those of you who spent time with me and my bf on Thursday. You’re all so talented & lovely and I only hope to bring more customers to the club! If I can be of any service to the community, aid in any panels, discussions, or give this platform to the people who deserve it, I will. I’m all ears on how to do better by you. So grateful to the strippers and sex workers who’ve spoken to me, inspired me, and educated me over the past 3 years, and for the continued education. I have so much respect and love for each and every one of you. Sex work is work. So instead of a night out at the movies, bring your money to SHOW PALACE, OR YOUR LOCAL STRIP CLUB, and support the girls.

A post shared by lorenescafaria (@lorenescafaria) on

A hashtag campaign intended to promote the film, #tweetyourhustle, was also met with intense criticism from sex workers, who have long alleged that platforms like Instagram and Twitter target sex workers in removing their content and are guilty of shadowbanning, or essentially deplatforming, sex workers. (Instagram and Twitter have long denied engaging in the practice.) Because many sex workers make their living off social media and are only able to connect with clients on these platforms, shadowbanning is extremely harmful to sex workers, significantly impacting their ability to connect with clients and make a living. And for many, seeing the Hustlers hashtag campaign indicated that fictional sex workers in a movie were being afforded rights that actual sex workers were denied.

To be clear, this is not the first time that a film or TV show featuring sex workers has used social media as a marketing platform, but Hustlers’ marketing as a groundbreaking and sensitive depiction of sex workers’ lives made the hashtag campaign feel particularly egregious. At the very least, advocates argue, it belied a lack of understanding on the part of the film’s marketing team to understand the issues facing the community. “It’s hypocritical for platforms to be promoting this when they don’t allow sex workers to promote their services in real life,” says Mollie.

In terms of the film itself, Hustlers has largely been hailed as a nuanced and sensitive portrayal of a demographic that typically remains in the shadows — and some sex workers Rolling Stone spoke with were thrilled by the fact that the industry was receiving positive representation in the first place. “It portrayed us as the complex humans that we are. Not just like blow up dolls,” says Laura LeMoon, a freelance writer and sex worker, who says she loved the film. “The sisterhood between Jennifer Lopez’s character and Constance Wu’s character made me cry. We are more than tits and ass. We love, we cry, we dream, we have each other’s backs.” 

Others, however, were not as impressed. Hustlers, critics say, perpetuated damaging tropes about the dynamics of the sex industry itself — specifically, the “whorearchy,” or the belief that there is a hierarchy of sex workers, with exotic dancers at the top and those who do “full-service” sex work — as in, have sex with clients — toward the bottom. “As far as a division between sex work and full-service sex work, that has always been there,” says LeMoon. “Dancers feel it most palpably because they have to walk that fine line everyday” — meaning that clients frequently pressure dancers to go further than they may feel comfortable doing so. 

Dancers engaging in paid sex acts with clients is not exactly widespread, but it happens. “There’s different types of strippers,” says Gizelle. “There’s women who strictly work the poles. There’s women who are good conversationalists. There’s girls that are good at VIPs. And there are girls that are doing full-service sex work.” While Hustlers is fairly honest about that reality, it also pretty clearly comes down against dancers exchanging sex for money, with Lopez’s Ramona and Cardi B’s Diamond speaking derogatorily about club employees sleeping with patrons and bouncers. In one scene that many of the sex workers Rolling Stone spoke with pointed out, Constance Wu’s Destiny gives oral sex to a patron for what she thinks is $300, only to later learn that he actually paid her $60. The scene is clearly positioned as one of Destiny’s lowest moments, and some of them viewed it as casting judgment on strippers exchanging sex for money. “It perpetuates the stigma of what [dancers] are doing is dirty, but what [escorts are] doing is dirtier,” says Mollie. “Enforcing that stigma is dangerous to everyone….sex work is sex work, period. We’re all here for the same reason, which is to make money.”

That said, not everyone interpreted the scene in the same way, with LeMoon saying that she thought it shined a light on the extremely prevalent issue of clients sexually abusing sex workers. Because Destiny agrees to perform oral sex on the client for $300 and instead receives only $60, the scene crystallizes the type of egregious consent violation that happens to sex workers on the job all the time, and is rarely called out. “[I] suppose that scene could be construed by some as making full-service sex work out to be dirty and dehumanizing, but I know better. Blow jobs are jobs,” she says. “What isn’t okay is rape on the job and I think that’s the piece [in the scene] that most people don’t catch.”

Others took issue with the fact that the film hired a choreographer skilled in pole dancing, rather than an exotic dancer, to teach Lopez to perform her pole-dance scene at the beginning of the film. “No shade to pole instructors, but they have never had to dance naked on stage in front of a large audience. There are many things not taught in pole classes that only stripping or strippers could teach you,” says Victoria, a stripper based in Canada whose tweets criticizing the film were widely shared. “They made an entire movie about strippers, but couldn’t hire an actual stripper to teach them how to strip. They could have supported the group of people they’re representing, but chose not to.” And actual dancers watching the film could tell the difference, she adds. “She didn’t arch her back. Her walk wasn’t too great either,” she says. (Lopez also attracted criticism for going to a strip club with her fiancé Alex Rodriguez before shooting Hustlers and allegedly paying dancers only $300 to split between them; Rodriguez, however, disputed this number, saying in a May interview with the Breakfast Club that they paid between $400 and $600 per dancer for their time.)

Since its release, Hustlers has become a modest critical and commercial success: it came in second in the box office opening weekend and grossed more than $33 million, and Lopez in particular has been singled out for a potential Oscar nomination. With all of this attention, many in the sex worker community are hoping that despite the film’s shortcomings, it may prompt a shift in people’s views toward the industry, particularly at such a pivotal time in the sex workers’ rights movement as a whole. Since the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, a controversial piece of legislation aimed at curbing internet sex trafficking, violence against sex workers has been on the rise. This has in part fueled the momentum of the sex workers’ rights movement in general, with major Democratic presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders hinting (though, frustratingly, not explicitly saying) that they are open to the idea of decriminalization.

Despite this hope for forward momentum, Hustlers’ primary stars have been relatively silent on the issue of decriminalization, even those who have professed support for the community in the past, as freelance writer and sex worker Adrie Rose wrote in a blog post that went viral on sex work Twitter. “We’re asking you to use your platform and increased visibility to advocate for us as you continue to capitalize on us,” Rose wrote, urging Cardi to use the film as a springboard for discussing issues that affect sex workers.

Others are concerned that audiences will look past the nuanced depictions of the lives of sex workers and focus entirely on the central plot of the film — i.e., a bunch of strippers scamming clients. “I feel like people from outside are gonna think that’s what we do when they come here and go to our strip clubs. They’re gonna be on high alert,” says Tiny, the dancer who worked as an extra for Hustlers. “Especially white clubs and clubs that do private [dance]s.  And that’s a problem.”

But while the film may be an imperfect reflection of the reality sex workers face on a daily basis — and while the realities of capitalism mean that big stars like Lopez will profit far more off the film’s success than the dancers on whom it was based — many sex workers are just thrilled to finally see their stories and experiences represented honestly onscreen, even if they are not entirely positive. “Yes, Hollywood does use our stories and exploit us and glamorize us, but in this case, with this movie, this is the best representation that we have had so far,” says Gizelle. “We deal with wage theft at the clubs all the time. We deal with toxic clients a lot of the time, and we have to learn to maneuver around that. The movie shows all that. The movie shows us what the realities are, and it should help [audiences] unlearn the [misconceptions] that hurts us.”

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