MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Sex, Morality and The Girlfriend Experience

No woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor.” — Betty Friedan

You might expect Steven Soderbergh‘s The Girlfriend Experience to be sexy — or, at least, sexual — given that it’s about a high-end call girl played by Sasha Grey, an adult film actress known for going to extremes. It’s not sexy at all, though it is beautifully shot; its tone is cold and deliberately distant.  It doesn’t particularly take a moral stance of its own, but nonetheless the moral question underlying both The Girlfriend Experience and its star is whether a woman using her body as a trade-able commodity is simply coolly engaging in business transactions with clients … or an immoral whore to be either vilified or pitied.

Women’s bodies can be and frequently are commodities which can be bartered in exchange for goods, cash, services or security. Prostitution is called the world’s oldest profession for good reason: men have always and will always want sex, and there will always be women willing to meet that need.  Is a woman’s enthusiasm and willingness to have sex with multiple partners or perform mind-blowing blowjobs a marketable skill? Most assuredly — and there’s probably more job security in the sex field than in, say, journalism right now.

All of us who work for a living are making a trade, an exchange of perceived value, and very often we find ourselves doing things to make a living that go against what we really want or value. A talented musician works a crappy day job to afford a shared, cramped apartment and support his art. A man who dreams of being an artist handcuffs himself to a good-paying day job to support his family. A gifted writer who could be writing thoughtful, intellectual essays or critique instead finds herself writing whatever crap is needed by various websites or publications in her field to pay the rent. We’re all of us whoring out ourselves in one capacity or another, exchanging our bodies, our minds, our talents, our time for the security of being able to pay the bills. If we’re lucky, we’re whoring ourselves out doing something we also happen to love, or at least enjoy.

The hooker/stripper/whore with the heart-of-gold stories in film tend to portray the woman as a victim as a means of justifying her fall from grace: she’s demeaning herself, whoring out her body to whatever array of sleazy men come her way …. but … we can forgive the poor dear, provided she’s only doing it to support her kid and not a shopping or drug habit. If she comes to see how wrong she was to treat sex as a commodity, to feel guilty about it, so much the better.

So what to make of Soderbergh’s subject in The Girlfriend Experience, a cool, calculating, beautiful young girl (smart and pretty enough, some might say, to be “doing something better”) who approaches her clients and her job with the polish and professionalism of a bright PR assistant and the successful business-person’s dedication to doing her work?

Christine/Chelsea doesn’t have a cute kid to feed and buy new sneakers for, she doesn’t seem remotely guilty about what she does for a living, and she’s not (so far as well can tell, anyhow) just doing this sex business temporarily to support herself until she gets a “real job.” This is her real job, she takes it very seriously, and she positions herself as the best at what she does. The sex has no moral weight for her at all; at least in a work context, it’s simply another task to do, like filing paperwork, or getting the boss’s latte, or politely schmoozing a client over cocktails to close a deal. It’s a business task on the flowchart of providing a “girlfriend experience,” and nothing more. The date notes she records on her laptop are read in voiceover with a flat, remote affect: We talked. He asked me to masturbate while he watched. He got off too. We had dinner, then talked, then fucked. Or didn’t. This is what I wore, this is what he thought about it.

Strip away the moral questions surrounding sex and, as some in the sex positive community might put it, the physical act of sex is nothing more than “slippery bits rubbing against each other.” Whether a given act of sex has more meaning than that depends on the context, the relationship between the parties, and your own moral views on what constitutes “acceptable” sex versus sex that’s exploitative, or even dirty or “wrong.”

Does The Girlfriend Experience objectify women? I suppose you could argue that the trade it focuses on is misogynistic, this notion of a “perfect,” bought-and-paid-for girlfriend, but that doesn’t make a film about that subject objectifying in and of itself. And frankly, I don’t see what Chelsea does for a living as so very different than an otherwise mediocre but wealthy man landing a hot trophy wife, or the joyless, requisite sex some women are willing to provide to sustain a marriage for the sake of the security that provides. Or even an brainy, edgy filmmaker making the occasional Hollywood dreck to get a paycheck that will pave the way for passion projects.

As for Grey herself, she’s certainly less objectified in this film that she’s ever been in any of her “adult” film work. Hey, at least she’s not crawling on all fours with a dog toy in her mouth, saying “arf” on command while performing various sex acts (though you could also argue that some of her more extreme adult work borders on being XXX-performance art).

The Girlfriend Experience, for all that it has the issues of working in the sex trade and the economic meltdown of 2008 in there,  is positing a simple question: what’s the nature of relationships? And is a relationship — any relationship — more than a transaction, on its most basic level? Every relationship in The Girlfriend Experience is a trade, in one way or another. Chelsea does business with her clients. Her boyfriend, Chris, works as a personal trainer providing specific services to his clients, and he, like Chelsea, is feeling the pinch of the economy and trying to build his business and his own financial security.

The conversation Chelsea has with a journalist is about him trying to get inside the mind of this closed-off, secretive woman … but the price of a nice dinner doesn’t seem to quite seal the deal for her. She meets with a man who styles himself The Erotic Connoisseur (played by film critic Glenn Kenny) who offers to trade her the benefits of his positive review in exchange for a free sample of her services. Even Chelsea’s relationship with Chris is a trade, in that he’s willing to overlook that she fucks other men for work for the sake of being with her (or, from a more jaded perspective, for the lifestyle her work affords them both).

Given her willingness to barter sex as a commodity, isn’t Chelsea better off having multiple, carefully chosen clients than a hooker on a street corner giving $20 blowjobs, or even being the mistress of a single wealthy man who might support her well, but could cast her aside at his whim? Would she be more moral if she worked a nice, respectable office job during the day, but went out on dates and had sex with various men for free — or the price of a nice steak dinner?

At least she’s smart enough to be selective, keep her personal life completely separate from work, and diversify her interests. Chelsea’s focus is money and security; sex — and the faux intimacy of the GFE — is the means by which she gets it, nothing more.  The Girlfriend Experience doesn’t objectify women, but it does show the objectification (or liberation, depending on your point of view) of this particular woman — by her own deliberate choice — and leaves it to us to judge how we feel about it.

– by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon