Earlier this week, a press release went out for the upcoming production of Sell/Buy/Date, a film adaptation of playwright Sarah Jones’ one-woman show about the sexual exploitation of women, produced by such luminaries as Meryl Streep, Rashida Jones, and Laverne Cox. Following outrage among sex workers on social media, however, who felt that Jones had co-opted their stories and that Jones and Streep had a history of espousing anti-sex worker causes, Cox abruptly dropped out of the production on Thursday, stating on Twitter, “I am no longer involved in any capacity in Sell/Buy/Date.“
Produced in 2016, Sell/Buy/Date is reportedly based on Jones spending three years interviewing sex workers and their clients to develop her characters, including a West Indian woman who begrudgingly does sex work to pay her children’s school tuition, and a parody of a white female college student majoring in sex-work studies who practices pole-dancing. The show is generally skeptical of the idea that sex work can serve as a vehicle for empowerment: “I’m not going to tell you I feel liberated, but I am going to tell you I feel paid,” says one character.
In a 2016 interview with Vogue, Jones said that Sell/Buy/Date was inspired by “the topic of what some people call ‘sex work’ and some people call ‘prostitution.'” “Where are those lines that we’re drawing and why? And how do we as women, and the men who love us, talk about all this empowerment and feminism? What does that look like when we’re talking about sex?,” she said.
When Sell/Buy/Date initially debuted, it was lauded by such outlets as the New York Times as a timely, Trump-era exploration of issues associated with female exploitation. Some commentators, however, like Los Angeles-based critic Cate Young, felt that it made “the critical mistake of conflating sex work with sex trafficking and the sexual exploitation of minors — incendiary topics that flatten the discussion by elevating the extreme to sensationalize the mundane,” arguing that Jones’s production “sells sex workers down the river.”
“Many of the characters are portrayed as one-dimensional and as caricatures,” says sex worker and activist Allie Awesome, who watched an excerpt of Sell/Buy/Date in a TED talk by Jones. “To see sex workers and our allies to be used as a punchline and laughed at by a TED audience is quite upsetting for me to watch.”
The announcement of the upcoming film adaptation resulted in further ire. “This is another moment where everyone gets to capitalize on the sex trade — you have a host of people who use sex workers as a scapegoat, catalyst, muse, target — except for people who trade sex. This is another moment of erasure by people who aren’t impacted by this conversation who get to exploit a hot topic in hopes of a Golden Globe nomination,” says Kate D’Adamo, a longtime sex workers’ rights activist.
Part of the reason why many sex workers’ rights advocates were furious about Sell/Buy/Date is because of the players involved: specifically, Meryl Streep and Rashida Jones, who are listed as producers of the film. Initially, actor and activist Laverne Cox, who has previously been an outspoken proponent of sex work decriminalization and sex worker rights, was listed as another producer of the film. In response to the uproar, however, she withdrew her involvement, saying on Twitter, “I am not in the emotional place right now to deal with the outrage by some over my participation in the project.”
— Laverne Cox (@Lavernecox) January 7, 2021
The anger was prompted in part by the fact that Streep has a history of publicly advocating for anti-sex work causes, such as SESTA/FOSTA, the controversial 2017 anti-online sex trafficking legislation that sex workers argue has put them at increased risk by removing such crucial safeguards as online platforms, which allowed them to vet their clientele.
Jones, who is perhaps best known for her role on the NBC series Parks and Recreation, has an even more fraught relationship with sex workers and sex worker allies. She is the producer behind Hot Girls Wanted, a 2015 documentary, which was spun into a Netflix docuseries in 2017. Both the series and the documentary were harshly criticized by sex workers’ rights advocates for their perceived anti-adult industry bias and for conflating consensual sex work with the trafficking industry. The series was also lambasted for reportedly persuading sex workers to appear in the film under false pretenses.
In the wake of the news about Sell/Buy/Date, sex workers who had been involved with Hot Girls Wanted, and who claimed the production team had exploited them or violated their consent, were outraged that Jones would produce yet another project about the sex industry. “I cannot believe Rashida is doing another documentary about sex work after all the criticism she’s received from her other two,” says Autumn Kay, a sex worker who has alleged that the Hot Girls Wanted team posted Periscope footage of her camming without her consent. “She puts on a front as if she cares for us but all we are to her is a way to get a ton of views.”
Gia Paige is a sex worker who has previously alleged that the filmmakers doxxed her by publishing her Facebook photos and part of her legal name, and did not respect her stated desire to avoid discussing her family and personal life in the film. Following the news about Sell/Buy/Date, she tweeted a warning to other sex workers not to participate in the film. “I spent years tweeting at her to try and warn new sex workers of what she had done but there will always be people who agree to do this thing hoping they will be different,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I don’t want another person to have to go through what I did following that awful experience.” (The filmmakers have denied that they breached any ethical boundaries with respect to Paige’s inclusion in the series.)
Representatives for Jones, Cox, and Streep did not immediately return requests for comment, but Jones has previously deflected criticism that Hot Girls Wanted presented a biased view of the sex industry, arguing that what is shown in the series is “not everyone’s experience.” “Many people within the industry felt like the movie marginalized and further stigmatized sex work, which was not our intention at all,” Jones previously told Rolling Stone.
D’Adamo, the sex workers’ rights activist, says that in this highly stigmatized climate, simply showing one side of the industry without highlighting the voices of those who are most involved in it is not good enough. “I think it’s exploitative to take stories from a community, and present them and capitalize on them and give nothing back, and not engage or platform people who are impacted by these kinds of things,” she says, adding that celebrities like FKA Twigs have provided positive examples of how to give back to marginalized communities by providing money to sex worker mutual aid funds.
“Now more than ever, people need to create platforms for where sex workers can participate,” D’Adamo adds. “I literally am struggling to organize around laws because I can’t use ‘sex worker’ without getting flagged. It’s infuriating that people can be so thoughtlessly taking up space in a conversation while doing nothing to support people who are struggling to simply exist.”