“When you have an adult woman who is making a decision for herself to do something she’s enjoying, it’s not right to judge her.”
Sex workers are rarely shown as powerful or autonomous on screen. In most depictions, they’re struggling to escape addiction, poverty, or the local pimp. But the sleek new series The Girlfriend Experience, premiering April 10 on Starz, shows a different version of the job. Based on Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name, the series follows Christine (Riley Keough), a whip-smart law student who discovers she likes having sex for money. As a high-end escort, or GFE, Christine’s clients pay for her to essentially act as their girlfriend, getting from her emotional support, comfort, and, yes, sex. Christine, meanwhile, has the agency to trade on her own sexuality, for her own astronomical profit. Cosmopolitan.com spoke with Riley and Amy Seimetz, who co-wrote and directed the series with Lodge Kerrigan, about sex work, why you shouldn’t judge GFEs, and the challenge of faking it on top.
What sort of research did you do for the show?
Riley: I looked at every kind of documentary or film I could watch on the subject. I talked to GFEs, and I got to Skype with one of the girls.
Amy: We interviewed a ton of women. One of our executive producers would blind email the women, and most of them thought it was a hoax, which was the most interesting thing. They thought we were scarier than men who were emailing them to be clients. Are you a cop? But we interviewed a lot of women and even their johns as well.
What interested you about the role?
Riley: It was a role that you don’t see for a lead female character, particularly on a TV show. She’s not extremely likable, she’s kind of selfish and a borderline sociopath, she really likes sex, and she doesn’t really care to discuss her emotions. She isn’t your normal sort of female. It is more of a role you’d see written for a man.
What fascinated you most about this world of GFEs?
Riley: What fascinated me was telling the story that hasn’t been told, which is the girl who was wanting to do this and wasn’t coming from an abused background. She has a lot going for her, and decides to do this.
How do you understand the difference between a GFE versus a more traditional sex worker?
Riley: Well, the girlfriend experience means you are playing the role of their girlfriend. One of the things I talked to the GFE about is that they are playing a part, and they are adapting to every man and listening to his problems. They really unload on these women, so you are handling a lot of their emotional baggage as well.
In bed, she’s always on top.
Riley: It’s really tiring to fake sex — you are breathing in and out so much that you feel like you are going to faint. And I’m like, “Oh, I just want to be on the bottom.” It’s a super profound metaphor.
So you interviewed GFEs and their johns for the film — what did you take away from talking to them?
Amy: One thing is that the women are totally normal. The most striking thing is that you would never know. Especially the women that we interviewed. We have this idea of what a prostitute looks like, or what women who want to be doing this look like. [In fact] they just look like a college student or some girl at the gym. Totally normal people.
What was their motivation?
Amy: In their head they didn’t have a stigma against exchanging money for their ability to spend time with men and have sex. I don’t think every woman can do that, but they were totally fine with it. Somebody that’s going to question it is not going to do it. It’s not somebody who’s like, “I don’t know … maybe I want to get into sex work?”
How does that play into Christine’s character?
Riley: I think that she really likes power and control and sex, and we establish that very quickly. She’d always had that [hunger], she was just channeling it into law school, and she found something else that interested her more, and gave her more power and more control. And I think she really gets off on that.
Is she a sociopath?
Riley: My favorite thing about this show is we are not telling people how to feel about things, which is kind of why I wanted to do it.
Why was it important not to take a stance?
Riley: Because everyone’s morals are different, and I don’t think anyone has the right to say what’s right or wrong for different people if they are making their own decisions and they are an adult. If you are oppressed, and forced to do underground sex trafficking and are being abused, that’s very different. If you took a vote with every person in the world, majority would vote that’s wrong. In this scenario, when you have an adult woman who is making a decision for herself to do something she’s enjoying, it’s not right to judge her.
I don’t think anyone has the right to say what’s right or wrong for different people if they are making their own decisions and they are an adult.
Amy: If you consider sex work an industry, there’s good conditions, there’s bad conditions, there’s slave conditions. This is a completely different part of that industry, which is entrepreneurs or independent contractors that are doing this on their own accord, and that’s completely different than many facets of the sex industry, and that’s what we are exploring — not the whole industry but this particular kind of sex worker. It’s sort of fascinating that you find someone who is like, “I want to willingly go and have clients and have sex with them.” There isn’t anyone putting her up to it. No one is telling her to do it, and she is fascinated by it herself.
How common do you think these arrangements are?
Riley: The scenario with Christine is really common, with a girl that is putting herself through law school, who is really smart, and is doing it on the side. It is a huge thing that people don’t realize is happening at the moment.