I’ve recently managed to catch Steven Soderbergh’s latest foray into “experimental” cinema, Girlfriend Experience. The film is a matter-of-fact character study of a Manhattan escort played by self-proclaimed existential porn star, Sasha Grey. It is an interesting discussion generator, not only for those practicing the hobby but also for those with an interest in the “real life” exploits of a sex worker (i.e. everyone).
While Girlfriend Experience is hardy blockbuster material, Soderbergh’s celebrity guarantees that a significant number of people will check out the picture (I mean, he did direct the Ocean’s 11 movies). Because of this, it can be argued that this film will serve as an educational example, for the "common" person, of what the hobby is really like.
So what does Girlfriend Experience say about online erotic review communities? They are a despicable group of sleazebags.
Girlfriend Experience chooses to use the character of “The Erotic Connoisseur”, brilliantly played by film critic Glenn Kenny, to symbolize both the review writer and the erotic review business. The Connoisseur is a hideous creature who invites the main character to his pad and promises her a positive review, and future opportunities to enhance her income, in return for sexual favors. Spouting lines like “it sounds like white slavery, but it’s not…” when discussing a potential opportunity for the escort in Dubai, it’s obvious that this character is meant to exemplify a very negative aspect of the sex work industry.
The film’s writers, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, clearly did some research on the negative press escort review has received in the past few years – with the reputation of TER founder Dave Elms, who allegedly not only coerced women to have unprotected sex with him in return for good reviews, but who also has had numerous criminal charges leveled against him – it’s clear that the escort review space, like the sex industry in general, is far from a perfect business. (What industry is “perfect” anyway…?)
The film appears to examine the daily life of an escort without overtly passing judgment, having the character treat her vocation as the business it is: taking meetings with website designers who offer to improve her web presence and engaging in discussions about future investment opportunities with her accountant. While the film certainly explores the emotional downside that an escort may have to deal with, it does not offer a scathing opinion of the escort lifestyle. So why such a one-sided depiction of escort review?
It’s understandable that this dark representation of adult review exists to further the plot, but the reality of escort review communities is quite different from what Girlfriend Experience implies.
Escort review is the yelp of the hobbyist community. Sites like yelp empower the consumer to enhance or destroy the reputation of a product or service by offering a place for the consumer to publish their reviews of the product or service. As more reviews are written about a particular business (a restaurant, a physician, etc.), a mosaic of the overall quality of the business is formed from the numerous reviews. This way of rating businesses is regarded as very effective by a large number of online users, and yelp continues to thrive as a highly trusted information gathering station.
Yelp is sometimes accused of unfairly featuring certain business in return for advertising dollars, and yelp’s review writers are occasionally attacked for “faking” reviews about a business (many reviewers are accused of being the business owners themselves). This is an expected side effect of the peer review system and it is a downside that won’t go away anytime soon. But this negative aspect of the model far from negates the massive win for consumers using such platforms: the reality that peer review puts the power in the hands of the consumer and allows the customer to publicly discuss the quality of a product. In essence, the consumer becomes the most trusted advertiser and therefore forces businesses to cater to the needs of the empowered consumer.
This advantage carries over to escort peer review communities. Sex work is a business and the clients of escorts are consumers. The vast majority of review writers are not sleaze bags looking for a freebie, but concerned customers seeking to help their fellows choose a superior product. Peer review is a concept which is here to stay - and that holds true for the adult industry.
Hopefully, someday soon sex work will be regulated and legalized across the globe. It’s important that viewers of escort-themed media understand that the way much of the business is presented by media creators is not necessarily accurate. Having “The Erotic Connoisseur” represent the escort review writing community is the equivalent of having John Wayne Gacy represent the clown community.