What HBO´s “The Deuce“ can teach us about the intersection of sex work, power, class and capitalism

by Laura Schranz

First of all, I would like to give a content warning. In this piece I will mention different kinds of violence against women, especially women of colour and those whose bodies do not conform with societal beauty standards. I therefore find it necessary to give a trigger warning for racism, sexual violence (especially rape), fatphobia and sexism.
Furthermore, I want to emphasize that my aim is not to argue for a definitive answer, but rather to show how a fictional piece of entertainment media brings nuance into the heated debates around sex work as emancipatory. I find contemporary debates within liberal feminism surrounding this topic to lack a crucially necessary class consciousness and to therefore have an oversimplified debate culture. Being critical of sex work as an industry does not equal being critical of sex workers (= sex worker exclusionary radical feminism, in short SWERF), and a feminism that incorporates this is not per se exclusionary. While I do want to shed light on the possible issues following the statement “sex work is work”, this is not to devalue or dehumanize women doing sex work, erotic labour, working in prostitution, whatever you want to call it. I do not in any way solidarize myself with people who stigmatize sex workers, give moral judgement on the people doing it and who mean “sex workers are not real workers and therefore do not deserve rights or respect” when they criticize “sex work is work”.

All of the above has one aim: to amplify the voices of those forgotten and unheard, those who do not have the conditions necessary for sex work to be self-determined and therefore emancipatory. While these people still make up the vast global majority in the sex industry, the voices of those in better (not globally representative) conditions are louder and easier to hear. Barely any of my arguments are my own, but come from the brilliant article “A Socialist, Feminist, and Transgender Analysis of ´Sex Work´” (2020) by transnational proletarian feminist, union organizer and socialist Esperanza, who herself is an ex-prostitute (she explicitly prefers this term over sex worker). She calls to fight the industry, but to always support the worker. Furthermore, I have been heavily inspired by Khadija Mbowe´s brilliant video “Women, Sex and the Internet”, which is linked below.

New York, 1971. 

Due to new court rulings that loosened obscenity rules and left them rather ambiguous and open to interpretation, New York experienced a boom in sex work, leading to the so-called “Golden Age of Porn”. Place of action was mostly the so-called Deuce, a street in Manhattan between Times Square and 8th Avenue.

This is where HBOs series of the same name “The Deuce” takes place. Though fictional and therefore, by nature, limited, the show sheds light and provides nuance throughout three seasons on one of the most debated topics in modern feminist discourse: sex work, or, as some prefer to call it, prostitution, and how empowerment is reserved for the better situated, under certain circumstances.

The show follows multiple actors through their lives over the course of roughly a century, which are all, one way or another, related to the Deuce. 

Eileen aka Candy, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is one of many women working in the sex industry on the Deuce. What makes her special, however, is that she refuses to have a pimp, like all the other women around her do. Very much to the anger of the men around her. Eileen is constantly pressured by various pimps around her. These pimps wish to expand their “business”in the market that has opened up thanks to the new freedom of said court rulings. This means nothing else than to maximise their profit off the backs of the women working for them. Their coercing argument is offering protection for money, though the question really is: from who? In the show it quickly becomes clear that the pimps themselves are one of the main sources of violence. They psychologically and physically abuse “their women”, either to intimidate them or in response to women not managing to work enough, wishing to exit or being “picky” about a John (term for the man buying sex). This, as Esperanza exemplifies in her article, is a rather accurate representation of what sex work (especially for those from colonized countries in the Global South) on the global scale looks like for the majority of women. 

Esperanza further emphasizes how, though often well intended, the legalization of sex work leads to an expansion of the market, putting more women at risk. The topic of legalization is hugely complex, and just because there are dangers to point out does not mean that criminalization is the answer instead. Criminalzing sex work subjects the workers to one more layer of violence, that of the state and police. They are unable to report their abusers without risking persecution themselves, pushing this sector further into stigma and darkness.
While a legalization of sex work allows those who genuinely enjoy their work and feel emancipated by it to monetize this and legally make money, this position is reserved for a certain class of women. There are a few crucial, class dependent conditions that need to be given in order for sex work to be the sex-positive, emancipatory occupation it is often framed as. One of these is the ability to choose your clients, especially the ability to reject them. This presupposes a certain independence from your clients, which is equal to an independence of the income this one client would have generated you. Rejecting an offer, in the end, means rejecting the money, which many cannot afford. A position of privilege most of the time includes the ability to speak, be heard and taken seriously. A discourse centred around the voices of the privileged minority cannot centre the needs of the less privileged majority, especially if there is a class issue at hand.

The creation of a capitalist market for prostitution tries to unite the interests of buyer and sex worker, even though these are inherently diametrically opposed to each other. According to Esperanza, “prostitution is a struggle between the prostitute and the client, with the power struggle playing itself out over and in her body, and during sex, making the violation of her boundaries a constant risk”. This struggle is due to the mechanisms of the market, which makes the buyer want to get as much value for their money as possible, and the seller to give as little as possible for the most amount of money. Due to these opposed interests, sexual assault, being the violation of the woman´s bodily autonomy and her boundaries, is a constant risk. 

Esperanza further raises the issue of consent under capitalism. Like any liberal market, the sex industry is founded on the exploitation of its workers. All work under capitalism is forced, since we are dependent on the monetary compensation it gives us. There are many awful ways to work in precarious conditions under capitalism, and the only reason these can exist is because people are dependent on the money that earns them. In the case of women whose circumstances force them into sex work (as opposed to those who choose it freely), this raises the question how this kind of sex under capitalism can ever be truly consensual. 

Esperanza emphasises how complex the topic of consent is in this case. Saying that “well, no work under capitalism is truly consensual” just doesn’t cut it and relativises the destructive power of sexualized violence.

“Sex on the market means that the competitive market determines consent far more than the individual will of the sex worker. A prostitute who doesn’t offer the services offered in the market will fall out of competition and be unable to survive.”

The topic of consent becomes clear in many parts of “The Deuce” as well, where the viewer quickly understands that being able to choose your client is a matter of great privilege, because it means that you do not depend on them and are protected from the harm a rejected client might cause. 

Our character Eileen, at one point in a precarious situation that makes her desperate for money, is forced to agree to services that she otherwise would not offer. After encountering horrific violence, she decides that she can no longer bear to work on the streets. Having met porn director Harvey by lucky circumstances, she decides to get into porn. As a white, skinny woman with a body in line with normative beauty standards, Eileen begins to work as an actress in pornographic films. It is very interesting how “The Deuce” manages to raise issues of fatphobia, racism and the male gaze with this shift in Eileen’s occupation. 

News quickly spreads that porn is the new way to make money in a relatively safe way, attracting more and more people, especially former prostitutes. However, it soon becomes clear that this newly booming field of the sex industry is only reserved for a specific group of women. A woman that Eileen knows from work on the Deuce, former prostitute Darlene, is only accepted for fetishized porn films and paid way less. The only reason for that is that Darlene, unlike Eileen, is Black. 

Eileen manages to “work her way up”, becoming Harvey’s assistant, and eventually a full porn director herself. As one of the only female directors, she begins to struggle with the way porn depicts sex through the male gaze, erasing women’s agency, personhood and pleasure, degrading the female orgasm to an unnecessary, “nice to have extra”. Eileen at one point, during her time as an assistant director, proposes an artistic portrayal of female pleasure through colours, vibrant visuals and ecstatic music, which she is completely ridiculed for. It shows that sex does sell, but only the parts of it that a misogynistic, male-focused society that sees women as mere means for men’s pleasure wants to see. By the way: Maggie Gyllenhaal herself made sure that the show features a “real, feminine orgasm” that is super internal, vulnerable and just focuses on her, to show the contrast to the performativity and misogyny otherwise displayed in porn. 

To conclude, and this is where the nuance and class consciousness I appreciate about the show comes in, in the third season of “The Deuce”, Eileen has an interesting interaction with a group of women, led by radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, a real historical figure. I recommend reading up on her, while keeping in mind that radical feminism is often transphobic and extremely exclusionary. Therefore, it should be taken with not a grain, but a pound of salt. 

Dworkin makes it clear to Eileen, who at that point lives a glamorous life and has made a career for herself, that her path is the exception to the rule. For every woman that works in the sex industry in a self-determined, emancipated manner, there are dozens who cannot. Eileen has what Sara Ahmed calls “a feminist snap” in Killjoy Manifesto, realising her position as an exception. She reflects upon her own films, specifically on the way they end, which is the man ejaculating all over the woman’s face, the so-called “money shot”. She asks her colleague “who actually fucks like that, and who we have taught and showed to fuck like that?”. Eileen then turns towards arthouse movies and decides that she no longer wants to be part of an industry that largely exploits women and plays into the mentioned narratives. 

Amplifying the voices of women in sex work as a marginalized group is crucial, but it is equally crucial to realise whose voice this is. The experience of women in sex work hugely varies depending on class related circumstances, leaving members of the queer community, women of colour and those from colonized countries especially at risk. Sex work as a choice, as a safe occupation with an exit strategy that allows self-determined choice over which clients to accept is a great privilege only few have access to. Even though these women make up a minority and are not representative of the global reality of women in sex work, this does not mean that this makes their voice invalid or their work and personhood in any way less deserving of respect. It just calls for a critical consciousness when general statements about the sex industry are made. Esperanza rightfully notes that it is odd to categorise all these fundamentally different experiences under the term sex work. She proposes that the self-determined sex a woman has for money is more comparable to “paid dating”, especially in light of the lived realities of women globally. Again, this is not to disqualify something as respectable labour, but rather shows the gigantic role of the privilege of choice.

Finally, I urge you to be extremely suspicious of any kind of agenda that is pushed and favoured by mainstream capitalism. A system founded on exploiting its workers can by its nature never have the interests of these very people at heart. Feminism is (fortunately!!) becoming more mainstream, but we must be careful to not be sedated by capitalism´s seemingly supportive response. Remember those shirts with “feminist” printed onto them, sold by fast fashion companies? …made by, you know, underpaid women in Bangladesh? Yeah. They never actually cared about women, it’s all about money.

I hope to have provoked thought and emotion with this short piece, whether that be surprise, anger, sadness, disapproval, or interest. I myself have felt a great deal of them during my research leading up to writing this article. There is so much more that I could have written, because as much as I tried, the limits of this article keep me mostly to a mere surface scratch. I would appreciate any kind of feedback and discussion over a cup of coffee or via email.

References:

Esperanza. 2020. “The problem with the phase sex work is work.” Medium, September 8th, 2020. The problem with the phrase “sex work is work” | by Proletarian Feminist

Esperanza.2020. “A Socialist, Feminist, and Transgender analysis of sex work.” Medium, July 27th, 2020. A Socialist, Feminist, and Transgender Analysis of “Sex Work” 

Wikipedia. 2022. “Golden Age of Porn”. Last modified October 27th, 2022. Golden Age of Porn – Wikipedia 

Check out Khadija´s video! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u86FlKnEBH8 

 Make sure to give Esperanza a follow on her Instagram @proletarianfeminist

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