What Actual Sex Workers Think About the New Movie ‘Hustlers’
Welcome to Brain-Throbs & Blow Jobs, a column highlighting the great minds and perspectives of Bay Area sex workers through interviews and photo portraits by Maxine Holloway.
In 2007 I was making a nightly pilgrimage from the San Francisco Mission District to North Beach. I would take BART to Market Street and walk through the Financial District as the downtown suits left to go home. This was before Uber or Lyft, so I was not alone in this journey. We were the North Beach servers, bartenders, and strippers marching up those fucking hills, past Vesuvio, past City Lights Bookstore, to the ‘seedier’ yet still historic offshoots of Columbus Street. Our Pleasers and aprons in our backpacks, commuting north to participate in the transfer of wealth.
I was a waitress. Liquor, wine, and tips flowed all over North Beach. I sometimes flirted or permitted some drunken lingering hands to get bigger tips. I worked the bar until 3 a.m. every night but made that return trip with heavier pockets and a fresh pack of Parliament Lights. In 2008 the market crashed. The bar was less busy, tips got smaller, and my patience got thinner. I was hardly able to support myself and I had to change my hustle.
I turned to Craigslist’s ‘Adult’ section and Red Book, an escorting website, to make ends meet. People often ask how sex workers get into “the biz,” and expect a tantalizing tale. I got into sex work because I liked to pay my rent, wanted to buy my cat nicer food, and smoke Parliament cigarettes. The economic realities of the sex trade are not glamorous and rarely get told, but the rise and fall of the economy and the gentrification of our neighborhoods deeply affect most services workers, whether we have a pole, condom, or tray in our hands.
In 2019 I made a pilgrimage from Oakland, where I now live, back into San Francisco. I got off Bart at Powell Street with my friends Gia Isabella and Rowan Ruin, we were meeting twenty fellow sex workers at the theater. The BART stop was plastered with Twitter ads, reminding us that their headquarters was just above the ground. We were meeting a group of fellow sex workers to see the new movie, Hustlers. The movie is a story of women that develop deep friendships while working in a strip club. After being severely affected by the 2008 recession, the women turn to a different type of hustle to survive.
Sex workers rarely see any of our experiences reflected on TV or movies. We are usually severely dehumanized, the character that gets “rescued,” the but of a tired joke, or getting murdered in the first five minutes. Hustlers has had very polarizing reactions from the sex worker community.
“I loved it and actually lived it. Stopped due to the 2008 crash. I thought the club scenes were spot on. I work solo now and what I miss about being in the clubs is the comrades in the dressing room.”
– Diane Rey, Bay Area sex worker
“I went to see it and was very disappointed.….as a former entertainer myself I’m like, no, just STOP.”
– Xotic Kelly, sex worker
“I don’t want Hustlers, I want a TV show about a strip club shot like The Office, where you only ever see the dressing room, managers office, and bathroom.”
– Selena Darling, FL sex worker
“I don’t trust Hollywood to be respectful of our stories. One of the women this story is based on did not give the rights to her story and was not compensated.”
– D, Bay Area sex worker
“I went to the NYC private screening of Hustler and J LO and Keke were there. I honestly enjoyed it. I think they did right by us. It was mostly a story about friendship and survival. Super relatable. Respectability politics are trash. We’ve seen this happen with black storytelling for ages. Black writers trying really hard to show black people as perfect to “improve our image” so white people don’t catch us slipping. Let’s not be afraid to have our authentic stories told on both ends of the spectrum! Happy or sad, survival, struggle, or triumph. We all deserve to see ourselves.”
– Cat Santana, NYC sex worker
The film quickly started painting pictures that felt dramatized, but surprisingly relatable at times. The first 40 minutes is a fast and sexy roller coaster of the ups and a few downs of sex work, set to a soundtrack of pre-recession, booty-shaking music. When it was raining cash, compliments, and cake, it was impossible not to squeal in sheer-delight and appreciation of their tight clothes and tight hustles. When the main character was failing to make money, down to her last few dollars, or taken advantage of by men in sex worker spaces, it was hard not to also sink into that familiar feeling as well.
“As a sex worker and former stripper, a movie like Hustlers encompasses so many loaded topics for me. I think there are important conversations to be had about how actual sex workers are treated and who profits off of our stories. Despite the movie not being absolutely accurate, I was surprised how many details felt authentic to my own experiences working in strip clubs around the same time. The way the DJ announces the lineup and some of the dressing room conversations really took me back in a visceral way.”
– Domina Crane, Bay Area sex worker
“I thought it was an interesting perspective on friendship in the context of hustling and survival. I liked that it addressed the game and who plays it and the power dynamics of who gets played and that getting flipped from the standard narrative. I thought there were some plot holes and the way they portrayed the club was far more glamorous than reality but I liked it and found it refreshing that there wasn’t a ton of content obviously denigrating to sex workers.”
– Dylan Ryan, Bay Area sex worker
“I was dancing in Western Mass, Philly & NYC in 2008. The music was very accurate for what strip clubs were playing at the time.”
– Devorah Reine, Bay Area sex worker
What really sung on the screen was the relationships between the women. Sex worker friendships can be beautiful, complicated, and messy, but they are very important to our survival. When Destiny (played by Constance Wu) curled up inside Ramona’s (played by Jennifer Lopez) fur coat on that cold NYC rooftop, she was literally taking her under her furry wing. I recognize and crave that type of connection and mentorship in the sex trade. Destiny and Ramona support each other’s dreams and success, love each other’s children like their own, and turn their community into a family (“a family with money!”). I thought of ways that Gia, Rowan, and so many others from my sex worker community have shown up for me in the past year. I squeezed Gia’s hand extra hard and rested my head on her shoulder. Gia reached over to Rowan and hooked arms with her.
“I really loved it. The sisterhood between these women was so strong, I relate to that.”
– Jasmine Corvina, Bay Area sex worker
“Hustlers did really did a good job of showing the comradery and love between workers.”
– Minxy, Bay Area sex worker
There were moments that made us cringe. Lopez’s gorgeous and shapely (50-year-old) body was a constant gift to the screen, but no one can figure out just how that same body moved so awkwardly and stiff during her pole and floor routines. There was a scene where Ramona was dancing on the lap of a man named Chuck and whispers into Destiny’s ear, “Chuck, has been paying for my Manhattan apartment, and I’ve never even sniffed his dick.” Well, Romana, some of us sniff dicks, and that’s okay too. Don’t be such a snob about it.
“There was some whore-shaming of escorts that I didn’t appreciate. The whore-archy sucks.”
– Minxy, Bay Area sex worker
“I was surprised and impressed to see a big Hollywood movie about sex workers that centered the characters’ humanity without moralizing about what they do. There’s one beat where the strippers look down on the Russian girls who escort out of the club, but even that felt like an authentic judgment that all too often pop up in the community, rather than the filmmakers judging those girls.”
– Jack Moore, TV writer & former escort
Every time one of the Hustlers took money from one of the wealthy wall-street types, I felt a tingle in my whole body as our entire theater-row threw our hands up and screamed with joy at this just redistribution of wealth.
“I liked the part when men were getting ripped off.”
– Angel Severin, Bay Area sex worker
“There’s usually a take away for every story and for this I think it would be, ‘always trust your instincts’. Destiny did not want to work with that one lady (the redhead), and she did, and it got her in trouble. Always trust your gut!”
– Ophelia Margaux, Bay Area sex worker
“This movie inspired me to take more risks. And hustle more people.”
– Quinn, Bay Area sex worker
The movie weaves important stories of working-class struggles, immigrants, the economics of single-motherhood, capitalism, criminalization, and the lengths people are willing to go to as options are stripped away. Sex worker issues have always been tied to every single one of these narratives. Ten years after the movie takes place, sex workers are living in the wake of FOSTA/SESTA legislation that has taken so much from so many workers. Online platforms that allow sex workers to work safer and more prosperous are disappearing and kicking us off. We are all starring in our own real-life story about how to survive when your hustle no longer works.
Hustlers scored the biggest debut ever for a movie starring women of color, earning $33 million opening weekend. In all of the accolades and promotion surrounding this film, there has been no acknowledgment of the actual struggles, criminalization, and oppression that sex workers are experiencing, while Hollywood is profiting off our stories. The sex worker community has noticed Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Cardi-B (who is a former stripper), Lizzo, Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer are receiving a ton of praise and whispers of an Oscar nomination for Lopez, but are yet to utilize their large platform to draw attention to the very issues that the movie parallels and profits from. We’ve been looking for some kind of mention of the harms of FOSTA/SESTA, the criminalization of sex work, the employee/independent contractor battle strippers currently involved in, intense racial discrimination dancers experience from management in clubs, or the 19 trans women that have been murdered (many of them connected to sex working communities) this year.
To promote the Hustlers movie, during a live broadcast event, @womenoftwitter asked folks on Twitter to contribute to share their hustle with #TweetMyHustle. Actual hustles are not social media safe, and calling your office job a “hustle” is inappropriate. This tone-deaf social media effort did not go over well with sex workers on Twitter.
“Fuck your exploitative, capitalist co-option of sex workers, who regularly face violence due to your censorship and criminalization #TweetMyHustle”
– Amy Dentata, sex worker supporter
“Fuck off Twitter, if I #TweetMyHustle I risk getting banned.”
– Anna Ketamine, sex worker
“I’d love to #TweetMyHustle. However, sex workers like me or the one portrayed by @JLo in #Hustlers routinely have their social media and/or bank accounts banned and restricted for doing so. This occurred before FOSTA-SESTA passed and it’s been worse since”
– Danny ‘Fuck Fosta’ Cruz, LA sex worker
When we exited the movie theater and the sun was setting over the beautiful San Francisco skyline. In the shadow of the Salesforce Tower, a dozen of us started walking the same route from Market Street up to North Beach, making the same pilgrimage so many workers had done before us. We held hands and loudly repeated lines from the movie as we walked up those fucking hills, past Vesuvio, past City Lights Bookstore to the ‘seedier’ yet still historic offshoots of Columbus Street. We can endlessly speculate on ways this film will comfort or hurt our communities, but for the time being, we had other aspirations. We entered the Hustlers Strip Club. We ordered whiskeys and took our dollars to the front of the stage. We showered our fellow workers with love in the form of cash and hope that it helps a little before the next tide turns and we have to once again change our hustle.