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'The Deuce' Gets Sex Work Right Because They Actually Talked to Sex Workers

The HBO show invited sex workers and advocates to the writing room and hired female directors.

Linda Yang

Linda Yang

Set against the backdrop of early 1970s Time Square, HBO's The Deuce depicts the legalization and rise of New York's pornography industry. The show, which stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a prostitute drawn to the porn business and James Franco in a dual-role as twin brothers, has been hailed a "feminist series" for its female directors and groundbreaking representation of sex workers.

Much of the show's success in this regard is due to its team's efforts to bring sex workers and advocates to the writing table, like organizers Crystal DeBoise and Melissa Broudo. The co-executive directors of Sharmus Outlaw Advocacy and Rights Institute have dedicated their careers to fighting for sex workers' rights and aided production of the show. Broadly spoke to them about their experience working with The Deuce, and why the show's representation of 70s sex workers is still pertinent today.

Natalie Paul (L) and Dominique Fishback (R) as Sandra and Darlene, respectively

BROADLY: How did you become involved with The Deuce ? What was the process of consulting like?
CRYSTAL: Early in the [process], the production team contacted me. They also contacted a lot of other sex workers and sex worker advocates. I was very happy to talk with them. We spoke a lot of what is happening today on the ground in terms of sex workers' lives and advocacy. We had a really good back and forth and I helped by sending articles and research that were really illuminating of the issues that I thought didn't get much say and weren't really well known at all to the public.

I had a fundraising party shortly after meeting [the producers], attended by sex workers and sex work advocates. At another fundraiser for my organization, I ended up talking to actors on the show. I was impressed by everyone's desire to understand the issues they're tackling. They were really trying to avoid the stereotypical tropes of sex work. As an advocate, it was really refreshing to see this coming from the entertainment world.

Is it the norm to have shows that depict sex work to have consultants and real sex workers advising the production process?
CRYSTAL: It's definitely unusual to see respectable representation.

How do you think bringing real sex workers into the fold impacted the show?
MELISSA: I think what is so great about The Deuce is that every character is nuanced. I think there is a parallel to The Wire, there is no sense of right or wrong. Every person is from a different world and everyone's life is complex. An example of that would be certainly Maggie Gyllenhaal's character. In the show, she becomes very interested in making pornography. I think coming out of the 1970s and the 80s, there was such a feminist backlash around the reality that is porn. Her character says: I like this, I want to do this, and this can be an avenue not only out of the street, to make more money, to capitalize on this. It's actually quite nuanced and reflective on the different facets out of the sex industry.

CRYSTAL: There are characters in the show who are parents, there is a character who is doing this job because she's interesting; she was a sex worker in another city and then wanted to be a sex worker in New York City. There are other characters who basically have no other options while Maggie Gyllenhaal's character is a businesswoman. It shows that while all these [people] are sex workers, they enjoy their work differently. Some feel stuck and some feel that there are avenues of ambition in it. That's unusual and I can't think of another show that has that level of detail and authenticity.

Emily Meade as Lori

How do accurate portrayals of sex workers further their rights and freedoms?
MELISSA: To show the reality is to show many realities. Within the context of feminism with sex work and advocacy, we are looking at a different feminist model. One where sex work advocates are attempting to bring a new level of nuance. There now seem to be only two models of sex work: either the victim or the whore, where there is only the marginalized victim being tortured or the empowered whore. While the reality is much more complex. The sex worker's rights movement in the last 20 years has really shown and been able to shift the narrative to show the complexities, [aided by nuanced portrayal] of sex workers.

The Deuce portrays sex work in the early 70s. Is that portrayal of sex workers still relevant in 2017?
MELISSA: The show highlights that [police] are not arresting sex workers for public safety issues. The arrests are politically motivated. One precinct might decide to arrest, while another located in an area that is being gentrified will not arrest a sex worker. That's really similar to what we are seeing today. There are reasons for these arrests. Today there is not really a case for public safety for these arrests. It's other issues at play.

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What should other films and shows be doing to advocate for the sex workers they depict?
MELISSA: One thing we would want to see more is the practical realities that sex workers face, that leads to their stigmatization and criminalization. We would like viewers to examine their views on sex work and how they are trapped in a system of complicity that denies rights to some sex workers.

One could easily say that [sex work] should be criminalized prostitution. But we think it's powerful to show why people find themselves there in the first place. We want media to show the detail in [sex workers'] lives and also show people are all human, by showing all the dimensions of their lives. Not just show the moment when they are working in sex work. They are parents, maybe some work in other fields. [Sex workers] are integral parts of our society.