How a Show About Sex Work Became One of the Most Sex-Positive on TV
In directing material that is sexual in nature, Lodge Kerrigan’s goal is not to get you off. “I’ve directed a lot of sex scenes,” says the co-creator of The Girlfriend Experience, Starz’s lauded, Golden Globe-nominated anthology series about female escorts, which just kicked off its second season. “When I direct a scene, I direct the sub-text of the scene. If there’s no subtext, then it’s just titillation, and I have no interest in doing that.”
The drama, based on Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 indie film with Sasha Grey about the day-to-day life of an escort, continues to tackle individual struggles set against the backdrop of high-end prostitution. But for Kerrigan and series co-creator Amy Seimetz, exaggerating the business of sex—controversial as it still may be—feels pedestrian. “Inherently, within the world of escorting itself, there is nothing particularly dramatic about it,” says Kerrigan. “It’s an act. You pay some money. You get something. It’s like getting a haircut.”
Seimetz and Kerrigan don’t take stand for or against sex work. Instead, they’ve decided to treat it as a trade that simply exists. “We approached it in this non-judgmental space, of not either glorifying or saying that sex working is bad,” says Seimetz. “We knew that was going to be a topic of conversation. And as filmmakers coming from the world of independent film, that is always what you hope; that there is some dialogue and some sort of confrontation happening.”
Diverting from the first season, which starred Riley Keough as a law student entering the complex world of transactional relationships, season two consists of two storylines with no overlap save for the show’s broader themes related to the two lead characters’ profession, which is abbreviated simply to “the GFE.”
Sex work is a huge, broad spectrum. There are some dark, dark sides to it. That’s not what we’re doing.
The idea, as with the popular anthology series Black Mirror, is to play with the structure of TV to determine whether audiences can create links between two distinct narratives based on context alone. “If you had two separate story lines still dealing with some thematic mirroring, it would provide a really interesting opportunity for an audience to be able to watch either of the story lines or both of them, and make their own connections,” says Kerrigan. “There are certain themes that come up, particularly power dynamics, and issues of control.”
Kerrigan’s installment centers on a Republican super-PAC finance director (Anna Friel) who enlists the help of a young escort at the top of her game (Louisa Krause) to blackmail somebody who controls a donor list. The two women soon cross over from their professional relationship into a sexual one. “I was interested in when two people become involved, when they become intimate, how the power balance is constantly shifting, and we examine that through their sexuality,” says Kerrigan.
The director sees the dynamic between the two women as something more complicated than a romance. “I think [Krause’s character] becomes emotionally vulnerable,” he says. “When you first start to become emotionally vulnerable to somebody else, you’re giving up some degree of power. What I wanted to do was try to track the variations of the journey of that power dynamic in a relationship.”
Seimetz’s piece deals with a former GFE provider, played by Carmen Ejogo, who has to go into witness protection in New Mexico where she struggles with her sense of self. “That new identity isn’t appealing to her because it’s not glamorous enough, so she starts dabbling in the lifestyle of GFE while she is under witness protection,” says Seimetz, who wanted to explore the idea of a clean slate. ”If you want to draw parallels to being a GFE, it’s that you can be anyone you want to be, so when you have this opportunity to enter witness protection and actually recreate your life, you can recreate whoever you are,” says Seimetz. “Given that opportunity, she still wants to dabble in this lifestyle.”
Seimetz hopes the series continues to invite viewers to question their oftentimes strong opinions on the world’s oldest profession. “In The Sopranos we have a male character who’s murdering people and for some reason everyone’s fine with that, but when a woman decides to sell her body, we’re suddenly in territory where everyone is up in arms, saying, ‘Is this feminist or not?“ says Seimetz. “Can we approach the same subject matter with the objectivity that you do with something like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad?”
And while the two are not attempting to glorify the profession, the female characters in The Girlfriend Experience are not portrayed as victims of the workplace. “Sex work is a huge, broad spectrum. There are some dark, dark, dark sides to it. That’s not what we’re doing,” says Seimetz. “These women aren’t constantly walking into danger. It’s actually just two human beings wanting to spend time with each other. And yes, there are sexual implications to that. Because there’s a sexual implication to a lot of daily life.”