HBO’s The Deuce has made its views on sex perfectly clear. Namely, that sexual exploitation pays, porn can be empowering, and that our screens need to have at least one - usually many more - naked body an hour. Yet the series always manages to somehow come to a new low even after almost two years on air. The latest is the idea that most "sex workers" don't want to get out of the life.
The September 23 episode “Seven-Fifty” gives us a bit more insight into a new activist group introduced in the series. This group of mostly women first appeared to be focused on the prostitution issue prevalent in New York City. While last week their goals were more vague, the members now seem to be more direct on what they do. Mostly, they provide medical aid, legal services for sex workers’ rights, and the path to decriminalization. In other words, everything but getting girls out of prostitution.
In fact, a later scene in the episode features Abby (Margarita Levieva), a new member of the group, asking directly whether they even help women leave prostitution. From two more experienced members, including Dorothy (Jamie Neumann), a former prostitute herself, the answer is the women "don't need saving."
Arlene: We had the health center, but then we realized—
Dorothy: That most of the women can't come to you.
Arlene: If we really wanted to reach them, we needed to meet them where they are.
Abby: Do you help them get out of the life?
Arlene: We would if they asked, but most of them don't. We're not out here trying to save souls. Their souls don't need saving.
Dorothy: And when they locked you up, did they at least let you order off a menu?
Arlene: No. All I got was a bologna sandwich.
This group is not unlike the real-life sex workers’ organization COYOTE which was also founded in the 1970s. Likewise, the group worked to promote the rights of sex workers without encouraging them to leave the profession. In their perspective, they wanted to destigmatize those who saw prostitution as a “choice.”
Considering the environment surrounding prostitution, I doubt many women willingly consider it much of a choice. After all, some studies have shown prostitution to be among the deadliest professions at 204 deaths per 100,000. Of those surveyed, 82 percent of prostitutes reported being assaulted while 68 percent have reported being raped. Most tellingly, women cite economic or social factors that led them to feeling like they had to turn to prostitution to survive rather than a desire to have rampant sex. For some, “choice” could be the apt word if you consider wolves chewing their legs off to escape traps a “choice.” And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the horrors of human trafficking.
More importantly, the show itself doesn’t paint prostitution as something from which you “don’t need saving.” For more than a season we’ve seen how miserable the lives of streetwalkers can be, with abuse, addictions, and even death. Does the series expect me to believe that all this would just go away if the police cracking down on prostitution weren’t a problem? In spite of everything The Deuce has done, it can’t erase the horrors that go on when women sell their bodies for sex.
For now, I continue to pray for this show. Sex workers need saving, and so do these writers.