21
Feb
09

More Than Just A Whore: Sex Work, Firefly and Audience Engagement

Whores have long been a popular trope in various media: from literature to television and film, the whore is an iconic and instantly recognisable part of our culture and will often make an appearance in one form or another.
Unfortunately, these appearances are, more often than not, based on the worst sort of Othering. A process that objectifies, stigmatises, exoticses and dehumanises us.
But now and again, there comes an attempt to counteract that negativity, to show the whore for the complex, diverse and fascinating creatures we are.
The degrees to which such attempts can be successful rely on a variety of factors: Who’s doing the attempting, and what is their objective? Who is their intended audience? What background baggage do they bring with them? What cultural mores have they been inured in and how do these impact their misguided if well-intentioned efforts?
And so we come to Joss Whedon, self-proclaimed feminist sci-fi fantasy hero to geeks everywhere, and his short-lived show, Firefly.
Whedon has long been touted - and, indeed, promotes himself - as an advocate of feminist, female-positive representation within geek culture. The creator of the hit show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he is revered for his efforts to write strong female characters with dynamic personality and stories that revolve around them.

One could wonder why greater efforts by actual female writers have not garnered the same attention (or been afforded the same opportunity), but those ponderings could fill a book, as could the discourse criticising his treatment of female characters, which often aligns with tired old tropes of sexism and misogyny, though very well-concealed (even to the creator himself).

Right now we’re here to discuss Whedon’s efforts to positively represent sex work and sex workers.
For within the world of Firefly, one of the main characters of the show, Inara Serra, is what’s known as a “Companion” - a sex worker.

Before I go further I should state myself here as being a generally-admiring yet critical fan of Whedon and his body of work. There can be no doubt that he is putting genuine effort into presenting women as complex and multi-dimensional characters and that Inara herself succeeds as being sympathetic, likeable, engaging and generally well-portrayed.
However, this does not mean Whedon, as a heterosexual white man, is going to succeed fully in his efforts. People far more qualified than I have noted his failings when it comes to representation of People of Colour and certainly his representation of women and varying classes do fall into tiresome stereotypical tropes at times. I feel that, for all the good work he does, Whedon gets a free pass on his failings because of his loftier efforts and I don’t believe this is constructive or conducive to his improving as a creator.
It is my opinion that, if you champion yourself as an advocate of issues for one marginalised group, you have more responsibility to be aware of the issues that other marginalised groups face, and to take care in your representation of them. Otherwise it is hypocritical at best and outrightly privilege promoting at worst. The fact of the matter is, deconstructing a lifetime of embedded education is a subsequently lifelong task. Whedon’s ability to perceive, identify and critique discrimination and prejudice within the genre he writes does not mean he’s going to do it right or perfectly every single time. This is true of anyone with privilege.
I expect more from Whedon because he has named himself as someone desirous of dismantling a lot of negative tropes within the sci-fi/fantasy arena and who has tried to do so.
With that contextualising out of the way, let’s move onto the show and its vision on a particular aspect of sex work in a theoretical future.
The issues with Inara’s characterisation and the way she is contextualised within the world of Firefly are many and varied and have to do with equally complex race and gender issues in addition to those of sex workers. To explore them fully would require a great deal more space and time and this is not the appropriate forum.

But perhaps my greatest objections can all be summed up in the following three aspects of the vision of sex work Firefly presents. These aspects struck me most vividly as being problematic and are the ones that, more often than not, are used by non-sex working fans to argue for how progressive Whedon’s vision is.

There can be no doubt Whedon has made an effort to represent sex work in a positive fashion and to present a sex worker as a very human and sympathetic character. However, despite the best of intentions an unfortunate “positive stereotyping” has been enacted and one that feeds into many of the prejudices and discriminations held by the audiences of shows such as Firefly. Audiences that include large numbers of non-sex workers labouring under misperceptions of the industry.

Ultimately all of these issues represent society’s conflict around sex work, particularly amongst those who “would-be” advocates. There are many, many people who have no true objection to sex work except for the ways they perceive it to be practiced which directly contradict prominent ethical, moral and political convictions they have been brought up to have. Their belief is if only sex work aligned with these convictions, then it would be “okay”, failing to understand that the reality of sex work does indeed align with them, although it also doesn’t in more challenging ways (eg: sex work challenges heteronormative convictions).

This belief is what we see most prominently presented in Firefly. I feel that Whedon himself was trying to present his personal idealised vision of sex work that invariably drew from his own convictions and privilege (as a heterosexual white male self-identifying as a feminist interested in presenting empowered women, and so necessarily having a limited and even tunnel-vision perspective on what that entails) and so subsequently mirrored and reinforced those of his greater audience.

Perhaps this unconscious stigmatising is most apparent in the appellation proscribed to Inara’s profession: Companion.

It’s a name curiously devoid of intimacy, isn’t it? Of any sense of sexuality or even sensuality. It is likely this observation would be countered by the argument that Companions offer much more than simply sex. But what this reflects simply is writer/audience ignorance, because sex work in most forms already involves much more than “simply” sex.

It also implies that any service that does involve sex alone is somehow less, or poorer as a service, which betrays common-spread sex-phobia: the belief is that sex as a commercial activity is somehow tawdry and must be attached to greater intimacy in various ways to be elevated. The truth is that while sex work generally involves much more than just sex, all some clients want is just sex. And what on earth is wrong with that? I suspect the perception that there is, is tied to the pervasive belief that somehow a sex worker’s body is violated through their work, that sex for the sake of sex is viewed with conflicted feelings in society, particularly when women are involved.

If Whedon was truly sincere in promoting a different, more respectful, perspective of prostitution, he should’ve done his research on this point - and then taken it one step further by using a traditional term. Firefly may be set in the future, but its audience is a contemporary one.

By using a contemporary term reinforced with the positive images Inara is intended to send, Whedon would make a far stronger statement in his supposed message of whore-positivity. After all, in interviews Whedon has made note of the fact Inara should be seen as an almost religious figure, providing a sacred service and worthy of the most respect out of anyone on board the ship Serenity.

For in juxtaposition to these claims and to the general presentation of Companionship, whore is still a term used in a degrading way. It is a term used at times to differentiate Companions from those “other” sex workers and is used frequently as an insult.

While this does reflect contemporary reality in that they are an array of different terms with attached understandings to them, it is not useful from a perspective seeking to challenge audiences’ prejudices. Whore is today used as a derogatory, but the sex worker rights movement is actively reclaiming it.

While I appreciate there was a certain subtextual critique of the usage of the word occurring, I felt the overall point would’ve been far stronger if a less distanced term had been employed to describe Inara’s particular participation in sex work,. The problem was compounded in that distanced term being attached to a type of sex work seen as “elite”. It reinforced social associations to what, exactly, a “whore” is - and most do not perceive it as a positive.

As a result, it does not ultimately challenge the audience’s preconceived notions (this type of sex work is “good”, this type is “bad”), simply affirms them.

After all, it’s a well-known fact that “upper-class” Burlesque star, Gypsy Rose Lee, despised the word “ecdysiast” - in her eyes, she was a stripper and damned if she’d be known as anything else. The need to employ a word distanced from its meaning by lack of common use reflects an awareness of stigma - and of pandering to that stigma.

Furthermore, it is noted Inara is a Registered Companion. In order to be a member of the Guild of Companions, she must be registered with them.

If there’s one thing we all know it’s this: whores do not like registration.

Why?

Because registration is, more often than not, used to control us by corrupt officials with access to the information. Because registration is patronising - ostensibly, for “our protection” it assumes whatever measures we take to protect ourselves or practice our profession is not sufficient - we need the paternalistic government overseeing us with its benevolent, authoritative eye.

Often, registration is forever - it’s extremely hard to get yourself removed from a database once you’re on it.

Within the Firefly context, it means you must abide by certain rules and standards set by the Guild but it is never truly made clear whether this is a co-operative effort by Companions, or laid out by a governing body.

One could easily argue that registration is an aspect inherent only to the Guild and does not preclude sex work in other contexts. This is certainly true, and certainly reflects reality to some degree. However, what works against this argument is the contemporary political reality that registration is often argued for as a benefit to sex workers, despite sex workers being largely uncomfortable with the concept. Placed further within the future that Firefly presents, the topic of Guild Registration seems to align with this outsider mentality: hey this wonderful ideal system includes registration, which protects you!

The issue of registration, specifically within Firefly, additionally sets up a classist infrastructure between “good whores” and “bad whores”. To be registered with the Guild of Companions is a privilege and indicates you as a particular “sort” of sex worker - in combination with many of the other criteria set for Companions, this “sort” translates to “upper class” which is problematic in many ways, not least of which is contemporary audience interpretation, which I will come to shortly. Essentially, it reinforces that “positive stereotyping” I referred to earlier which tends to be hegemonic and limiting.

The biggest issue of all arises in how Companions are, as an industry, characterised and how, once again, that intersects with audience’s preconceptions of “good” sex work and “bad”.

Firefly is set in a future where China is a super power and so many aspects of cultural appropriation and “chinoserie” are woven into the fabric of the storytelling. It is possible that Whedon therefore modelled Companionship after Geishas, however I sincerely hope he understood that Geishas are part of Japanese culture and Chinese and Japanese culture are not interchangeable and that a future where the Chinese are a major presence (though few, if any, ever appear on the show) does not automatically mean widespread examples of vague “Orientalism” in action.
Certainly, what we learn of Companionship culture and tradition has similarities with that of the Geisha, and also of Renaissance Courtesans. It is unsurprising, therefore, that in fandom resources, fans have automatically made the link between them and extrapolated that Companionship involves the same sort of training and criteria. In several different conversations I have had with fans of the show, and in several different online fan-created resources I have seen the following stated as essential components of Companionship based on inferences drawn from the show:
Companions must be highly intelligent and educated, conform to a certain standard of beauty and be trained in performing arts, social grace and psychology. She must also undergo a yearly physical exam in order to keep her licence, and work from within a house led by a house madam. Trainees must also come from “good” families.
These same factors are cited by fans as evidence that Whedon was doing an amazing and wonderful job at presenting an ideal of sex work.
It is unfortunate therefore, that ultimately Companionship in Whedon’s mythology reinforces deeply ingrained classist convictions, elitism and social hegemony.
Once again we are subjected to the paternalistic institution of enforced health checks, of which the failure to comply will lead to being forbidden from practicing our work. Much like registration, requisite health checks have long been a matter of contention and frustration for sex workers: inherent to the legislation is the perception we are incapable of enforcing safe work practices, or that we won’t submit voluntarily to health checks.

It is also a practice that submit’s the whore’s body to ownership by another: they are not our bodies to do with as we please, they belong to the governing body, who demands we comply to standards set often without our input and consultation. It is a system used to control and belittle us.

What we know is this: our bodies are our livelihood. More important even than physical beauty (which in itself is a highly subjective and often culturally-cultivated concept), is our bodies’ health.

Furthermore, whores are extremely intimate with our bodies, day in and day out.

We are more than capable of assessing when our health needs to be “checked”. We know what our work practices are and trained to take care of ourselves in a variety of ways overt - the employment of condoms - and covert - keeping one hand for the client, and the other for ourselves.

They are also practices which put the onus of responsibility back onto the whore. But sex is not a solitary activity. It takes two to tango, so the saying goes, and the client has as much responsibility for the exchange that takes place.

So if we are talking about a world of registration and obligatory health checks for Companions, in a supposed future where within that Guild sex work is taking place in an ideal way - why are clients of the Guild not submitted to the same? Particularly in a world in which seeing a whore is characterised as an almost “religious” experience (providing you’re seeing one of the educated, talented ones, of course).

This imbalance reflects the persistent associations society has about the whore and is intrinsically tied to our societal perception that the whore is public property because of our work. We do not deserve even the same dignity and privacy that our clients receive.

And it is worthwhile noting that a Companion will lose her licence if she fails to take this yearly health test.

So what happens then if she continues to practice her work?

Why, then she’s working outside the Guild - outside of the respectable and revered network of sex workers. She’s reduced to a more common status of “whore”, and once again negative associations with that term and the particular “type” of sex work it implies, are reinforced.

And so once again, we come full circle to where whores must comply with a paternalistic rule in order to be allowed to work. To go against the grain - to, in fact, take full ownership of our work practices and the choices we make in regards to them - results in a demoted position within the world of Firefly.

Another prized and oft-touted facet of Companionship is the prerogative to choose or refuse one’s clients.

This is another problematic aspect of Whedon’s writing because it again connects with a widespread societal perception: the average, contemporary sex worker does not already choose their clients.

Reality could not be further from the truth. There are very few situations in which sex workers are genuinely forced into seeing clients concertedly against their will. Most sex workers you encounter will tell you in no uncertain terms they do not see clients they do not choose to. It is one of the most irritating, patronising and stupid misperceptions we are constantly coming up against.

Reality is, sex workers provide a service, not our souls. Each of us sets our own specific boundaries and then applies rules to our services based on those boundaries. Clients are informed of those rules and then either choose to see us, or choose to see another sex worker with a different set of rules. The vast majority of clients know and understand they either abide by those rules, or go elsewhere.

The common belief that a sex worker cannot refuse a client (particularly if they work within a brothel or agency) is reflective of society’s general difficulty with understanding sex work as work. Society has so many negative associations surrounding the exchange of sex for cash that its understanding of the way it functions as a business are extremely poor and that these misunderstandings are constantly reinforced in unrealistic media representation only compounds the problem.

Nonetheless, having a wad of cash does not automatically give you access to a sex worker’s body and, indeed, handing over that cash? Does not entitle you to do whatever you damn well please. Once again, negotiation is an essential component of sex work and each sex worker will decide and define their own boundaries.

Touting the “capacity to choose/refuse” without appropriate qualifiers also strikes me as disengaged from the socioeconomic reality of every day life. The pressing need of bills, and rent and mortgage and car repayments and food for example. The notion of a whore being able to willy-nilly reject a client simply because they don’t wish to see them is one steeped in the privilege of the non-worker, a person whose livelihood does not rely on an irregular and at times unreliable source of income.

While it is made clear at several points that Inara must work as she does need the money, the emphasis on choice of clients again engages audience perception that this is not common practice, further deepening the common-held prejudices about contemporary sex work. It implies that choosing clients out of necessity rather than desire is somehow a degrading experience.

The fact is that choice is a spectrum, not a binary - it is not simply “yes I want to” or “no I don’t”. A host of variable factors are involved in the selection of and agreement to see clients.

Further, the idea of binary choice is used to minimise the experiences of many sex workers. It presents the idea that sex workers who choose their clients based on factors like purely monetary ones are somehow victims.

This ultimately does not contribute to greater understanding of the business because it’s affirming subtle connections in audiences’ minds that sex work and sex are the same thing. There have been times where my gut instinct has told me not to see a particular client - not because of a sense of danger, but simply because I’m damned tired or I can tell we won’t gel. Sometimes I have obeyed this instinct. And sometimes, when my needs were more pressing, I pushed on and got the job done. Everyone’s done it before, no matter what industry they were in. That’s life when the world revolves around money.

However, once again it shouldn’t indicate any confusion between sex and work. While I appreciate it is difficult for an outsider to comprehend, the sex that sex workers have on the job is entirely different to that which takes place in a personal context.

Seeing a client because rent is due rather than because we’re really in the mood does not make it a soul-sucking experience.

It makes it a job. Like any other.
But further, Companions reinforce ideology about “good whores” and “bad whores”. That Companions evoke connections to Geishas and Courtesans and have been clearly modelled after these systems, present an array of troubling issues which assist in perpetuating the negative binary perception of sex work.
Good whores, you see, have Education. They are refined and classy and sophisticated. Also multi-talented. They are registered, and get checked once a year to ensure they’re not vectors of disease.
Bad whores are, presumably, everyone else.
This leads me to ask: what is the set criteria for becoming a Companion? How is one chosen to be a Companion? What if you can’t conform to that criteria although you have begun your training - are you simply cast out? And what options exist for you then? And who the heck is defining this criteria anyway?
Who defines the standard of beauty? Does that standard take into account ethnic diversity? Inara is a woman of colour, yet she clearly conforms to Westernised beauty ideals, with a little fetishised “Orientalism” thrown in for that “exotic” flavour.

This notion of “education” is in itself a highly divisive and categorising one. It reinforces a cultural ideal that formal education is more valuable and representative of an individual’s intellect than life experience and/or self-gained knowledge. It is a highly Westernised ideal employed to maintain class distinctions, attached to which are usually a whole array of gender and race privileges as well.

It is stated that Companions receive training in psychology, which again implies that this is not already an established tenet of sex work and one that sex workers become skilled in whilst working. Much like the issue of choice of clients, singling out training in things like psychology and counselling, comfort and healing suggests that these are not very common factors of sex work as it currently exists and would exist outside of the Guild. Once again, the opposite is true - they are critical skills and revolve around the capacity to manage the client and assess situations as well as provide a satisfying service.

The notion that formalised training is required to become adept at these skills also betrays a very elitist and white academic perception of ability as well as a general lack of knowledge about what actual sex work involves. A whore is more likely to heal and counsel their client by helping them live out a long-concealed fantasy, rather than holding their hand and asking them how they feel (although that can happen too). Based on my own experience, and the experiences of my peers, I would argue for the former being more powerful than the latter, and very few, if any of us, have had formal tertiary training in that area - but we’ve had years of it in observation of and empathy with our clients and our experience of sex work runs the gamult from street-based to Pro-Domme to escort to phone sex.

It is also a commonly held fandom perception that only a person from a “good family” may become a Companion, further underscoring the classism that is often attached to perceptions of “good” sex work and “bad”.

Classism does not simply hold that some people are more superior to others; it aggressively attempts to maintain that status quo by denying people of lower classes access to the same options and opportunities, regardless of ability.

Furthermore, the underlying association is that of whores with degraded behaviour, usually also associated with the “lower classes”. By suggesting a Companion may only be someone of “good birth” the implicit message is that Whedon and his fans believe an industry that has traditionally been open to people of all backgrounds should be confined to those who align to the criteria they prize, thus elevating it as a profession. The over-emphasis on the education and training of Companions, within the show which follows into fan discourse, sets up a clear separation between “them” and “us”.

Unfortunately, in doing so, he apes an unfortunate practice of division that occurs within the sex worker community today. And it occurs because sex workers are the subject of so much discrimination and stigma that we often seek to differentiate ourselves from those who practice behaviours we consider “worse” than ours in the effort to be viewed by the world with a little more respect, consideration and justice. The cruel double-edge of that sword is that, in trying to get that respect for ourselves, we reinforce these stigmatic heirarchies.

So unfortunately with this classist structure of Companions and whores, Firefly reinforces that stigma. It is a stigma I have felt when talking to non-sex working fans of the show who emphasise again and again that Companions are different because they are educated. It is a stigma that is intrinsic to the way our culture views sex workers. A university educated escort worker is often the subject of such mixed messages as “you’re too smart to be doing this” alongside “at least you’re not on drugs or working on the streets”. Never mind a university education does not preclude the capacity to do street work and private escorts are invariably confronted time and again with hard drugs being used by the clients whilst on the job.

Firefly, in the subtle ways it engages with audiences on these issues and through its chosen emphasis on a particular type of sex worker, one who conforms to “positive stereotyping”, is complicit in continuing the projection of this stigma, therefore only contributing to it.

I have no doubt that Joss Whedon’s intentions when he conceived the idea of Companionship and Inara were good ones. I’m sure he thought he was doing something revolutionary, something splendid and positive, from his white, heterosexual, male’s concept of feminism.

I’m sure he wanted to challenge audiences about perceptions of female sexuality, sex work and a woman’s ownership of both.

But due to the weighty stigma sex work already bears in the eyes of the world, his capacity to do this successfully is hindered by his own unconscious prejudices interacting with those of the audience. In an online overview of Inara’s character, the following comment is made, a comment that sums up all that is negative in Whedon’s idealised sex work depiction:

“Inara is sometimes mistaken for a prostitute”.

The distinction is again drawn between classes - prostitution is an activity of degradation, companionship of elevation. A simple yet grotesque misunderstanding of what is involved in sex work is perpetuated through unconscious engagement with pre-existing beliefs.

Prostitutes are those icky people who have sex for money.

Companions are those educated, sophisticated, charming people who have sex for money.

Whorephobic stigma is reinforced by the categorisations of the whore within this infrastructure under the guise of promoting whore positivity.

If Inara has sex for money she’s a prostitute.

There is really no issue with that. The real issue is people believing that it’s a problem and promoting that error of thought, thus reinforcing it. This prejudice is subtly communicated within Firefly. Inara may be a prostitute, but she’s a high class one, so it’s okay. She provides more than “just” sex.

But as established within this article, this is true of sex workers everywhere, of all classes and types.

And truly?

What is so bad about just providing sex, anyway?

So herein lies the truth: sex phobia. Sex phobia specifically centred around female sexuality. A woman cannot simply own her sexuality in its purest form and employ it with a mercenary objective: financial gain.

Time and again it is reinforced, in interviews, in commentary, in fan conversations: As a Companion, Inara enjoys high social standing.

But why?

Because it differentiates her from “other” types of sex workers. It elevates her above them.

For her to be elevated, a negative perception of sex work must first be in place.

That is the perception the audience holds, and the one it must justify by creating standards of sex work. The hooker with a heart of gold must necessarily be above her peers; she cannot simply be average, she must exceed or she is worthless.

The truth is that Inara is not actually different at all from almost any sex worker you would encounter today. Just like any other person, sex workers have a variety of backgrounds and skills. Inara is not “atypical” because she is intelligent, witty, charming and compassionate.

If anything, she is very, very typical.

It could be argued, consequently, that Firefly’s depiction of sex work is an authentic one. On some levels, it is. Certainly, in Inara he created a vivid and well-rounded character.

Unfortunately, the societal perception is that what we see of sex work in Firefly is not realistic and not evocative of the experience of sex workers - that it is a hypothetical ideal. Ultimately, Firefly is not aware or critical enough of the common social consciousness around sex work to fully deconstruct it; instead it engages with established misperceptions and subtly promotes them.

It is not the worst depiction of sex work in media today; but it is far from ideal.


37 Responses to “More Than Just A Whore: Sex Work, Firefly and Audience Engagement”


  1. 1 BostonGal
    February 21, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    Really interesting article! I particularly like the recognition that Firefly’s Inara’s portrayal, although set in a future, is created for a contemporary audience. I think that art is a reflection of the society and time in which it’s created. Sometimes it highlights an idea who’s time is past whilst other times ideas that are challenging the status quo.

    But I wanted to address another aspect of the “Othering”, as you put it, of sex workers. One of the points that you haven’t addressed is the question of legality vs. illegality as well as of class. It’s obvious that the future portrayed in Firefly has come to some sort of conlusion that sex work is no longer a criminal “offense”. This is certainly a far more progressive situation than what exists today. Sex work today is a multi-billion dollar industry today and is more lucrative as “illegal” than not. Firefly’s future is a society where corporations the government, so while ideas about sex work may have changed amongst ordinary people, it seems that Companions are upper-class, sanctioned workers, while “prostitutes” are poorer, more susceptible to be preyed on, but still trying to squeeze out a lucrative industry in the future. It’s not a very neat and clean outline of laws and workers in Firefly’s future, but Whedon certainly challenges some contemporary ideas.

    • February 21, 2009 at 10:58 pm

      Hi Boston Gal and thank you for your comments - in regards the question of “legality vs illegality” I feel your comment was made with a particular American bias. You see here, in my country, sex work is largely decriminalised (a preferred option to ‘legality’ for most sex workers) and is still a multi-billion dollar industry.
      Your comparisons between Companions and prostitutes could also be generalised about Escort workers and street workers of contemporary society - street work in my state here is also decriminalised, but because street workers tend to be more visible and due to the stigma attached to sex work, they are more ’susceptible’ to being preyed on. The issue is not actually the TYPE of sex work they’re engaging in, but societal attitudes and stigma surrounding sex work which enables, even ENDORSES, a more dangerous environment for street workers to work in.
      When I watch a show like Firefly, my awareness of this contemporary reality makes it more likely I will see the parallels or the underlying themes. Again, it is a societal perception that street work is somehow “worse” than any other type of sex work when the reality is that societal discrimination has made it more difficult for the workers. I can easily see this being the case in the world of Firefly, especially when you consider the sense of stigma surrounding workers outside the Guild…

      Thanks for your comments. :)

  2. February 21, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    Fascinating. You made many good points and I learned a lot. I think, though, that your argument about classism and a paternalistic registry system don’t take into account the way these issues are addressed in the larger structure of Firefly. Since a core theme of Firefly is the over-controlling government (the Alliance) versus self-determination (the Independents). The dynamic is played out in part in the relationship between Mal, an Independent soldier during the war, and Inara, a government employee who supported the Alliance during the war.

    I do agree that Whedon is not entirely successful in making Inara a sex-positive character. The best sex-positive character to me is Kaylee, who is innocent and sweet, and also gleeful in her sexuality and frank about her masturbation.

    I wish you’d covered the actual portrayal of “whores” in Firefly, in the episode Heart of Gold.

    • February 21, 2009 at 11:00 pm

      Hi Deborah and thanks for your comments; it is certainly pertinent to consider classism within the larger framework of Firefly’s conflicted society and is probably a topic for a future article, as is the portrayal of whores. I really wanted to focus on Inara and Companionship in this one as so often I come across the attitude of it being wholly positive and for me, it simply isn’t.

  3. 5 Greenbandit
    February 21, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    I’m a little confused about your understanding of Companions in the Firefly universe, because it seems like you’re deliberately analyzing Inara’s role and Companions in general as if they existed in our universe rather than that of the show. Of course “Companion” is a sterile term, devoid of intimacy, that differentiates between “good” and “bad” sex workers, of course their representation is classist and hegemonistic, and of course Companions make a big deal about providing more than “just sex”: Companions are sanctioned by the Alliance, a hegemonistic, classist, sterile organization. In the episode “Out of Gas” Inara herself mentions that she supported Unification. It’s the show’s creators’ way of showing that the Alliance is, in many ways, one step forward and two steps back. There’s this grand, progressive idea of sex work as legitimate work, but then it has to be controlled, registered, sterilized, inaccessible to the poor, etc, etc, etc.

    So far as “good” versus “bad” sex workers go on the show, I would say that the best and only episode in which they are directly compared is “Heart of Gold,” in which Inara, who normally bristles at the term “whore,” uses that very word to describe a house of sex workers who aren’t registered with the Companion’s Guild. And when they finally do meet these whores, they are portrayed as very different from Inara. But they’re still mostly good people. They are strong people who take up arms to defend themselves and each other. Some of them have strong religious views. One of them is a traitor. They dress and talk like some of the stereotypes we tend to see in Westerns, but after all this show (and that episode in particular) is a Western. But they have an intelligence and character and imperfections, and are generally portrayed as “the good guys,” despite being quite different from “Companions” on several levels.

    In a scene that I think directly addresses your concern about Companions providing more than “simply” sex, Mal, who uses “whore” as an insult more than anyone else on the show, goes to bed with the leader of these prostitutes, and it’s done in a very earthy way that we don’t tend to see in Inara’s interaction with clients.

    And in the end, this causes problems for Inara, because as a Companion — registered by the Alliance — she thinks she’s supposed to be above emotion. And she feels strong emotions for Mal. So she has to run.

    As for whether the show is “aware or critical enough of the common social consciousness around sex work to fully deconstruct it,” isn’t that hard to say after just 14 episodes and a movie? The show was cut down in its prime. There are many feminist issues that Buffy the Vampire Slayer dealt with in latter seasons that weren’t obviously being addressed in the first 14 episodes. Maybe it’s some of those issues surrounding sex work that Whedon never got to in Firefly that he hopes to eventually address with Dollhouse?

    • February 21, 2009 at 11:19 pm

      Hi there and thanks for sharing your points - you do, indeed, make good ones and I’m hoping another sex worker friend of mine who largely disagrees with me will submit an article to the site calling on some of the points you make here.
      For me, separating the world of Firefly entirely from ours is disingenuous. The idea that the world that surrounds him, his contemporary reality, his upbringing, convictions and beliefs, aren’t going to influence his writing is difficult to believe. And I guess that’s what I was focusing on here. Even if he was able to separate all of that from his writing (which would make him an individual with a level of self-awareness that, by all rights, should’ve lead him to perfect peace), the world of sex work he presents intersects with his audiences’ contemporary beliefs - which I do state repeatedly throughout the article.

      Dollhouse is going to fall under the microscope on this blog… stay tuned. :)

  4. 7 funsized
    February 21, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    Wow, really great article. I can’t say that I myself am a sex worker, although I have close friends who are, and I’ve always been a fan of Joss and especially of Firefly–and as a fan who has said many of those exact things you call us on, I just want to say that this is a wonderful article and really got me thinking. For example, your statement about mandatory tests–I’ve always thought that testing would be a great idea and never thought of it from the other perspective!

    Really, a truly wonderful and eye-opening piece. Thank you! (Found this via Whedonesque, by the by.)

  5. 9 Marcos Damata
    February 21, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    Hi!
    Wow, great piece you got there. First of all, I’m a huge (REALLY huge) Whedon fan. Second of all, and that’s the funny twist: I agree with everything you said.
    Surely Whedon had good intentions on portraiting sex working, but rather than showing real-life sex-working in a positive light, he showed his ideal kind of sex-working, making it really clear that Inara is not a prostitute. As a looong time obsessive fan, I can tell he has a very clear, specific idea of the word “prostitution”, and therefore a negative one: prostitute is anyone who accept being used, turned into an object (which, by the way, is the main ideology beyond Dollhouse - the darkness of objetification). Whore is anyone who does something not ’cause it’s their will, but because it’s a mean for something else (money, generally). He often says that working on a screenplay just for the money, for an example, is whoring. So one can presume that, in his vision, having sex, or cooking, or retailing, for money, is whoring.
    I honestly agree with him, and I really work hard not to become a whore in my work, as I know people do because they have to. But I understand that better be a whore than to starve, for sure. I’m sure you have your reasons to be a sex-worker as I’m sure you’re not less human or less worthy for doing this. I look at sex-workers the exact same way I look at someone who is not personally envolved with their work. And it’s for me, and for Whedon as well (I think), really sad. I had experiences of whoring, of work I did because I had to, and it was REALLY bad for me, personally.
    Well, it’s all about ideology. Your arguments were perfect, if you look at Inara as a failed attempt to help prostitutes’ public image. It really wasn’t. It was an attempt to show how sex-working can be done WITHOUT PROSTITUTION. She doesn’t do it just for the money. She really see it as a serious mission, something kinda sacred. She says very often that a Companion seeks a spiritual human conection (through sex). Not unlike a shrink or a priest (except in the sex part). I think that the show makes this point really clear. Inara hates being called whore, and not only because of the registry or the fancy clothes. She hates being called someone who does it ’cause she has to, rather than someone who really puts mind and soul into the work. That alone proves that being a whore is not the best way of sex-working, in Firefly. I agree that it really denegrates your line of work in some ways. The show supports the idea of women’s free sexuality, but it also reinforces that sex-working shouldn’t be objectified, shouldn’t and doesn’t have to turn women into whores.
    Once it’s pretty clear that Companions aren’t whores, one can’t argue that Whedon’s agenda on all this was a false, mistaken one. It was true to his beliefs, as it is true to mine, and certainly not yours. I’m sorry if your kind of work still doens’t have any positive cultural portrait, but I would really like to see one, cause every ideology should be able to be discussed and spread culturally, as Firefly was.

    • February 21, 2009 at 11:13 pm

      Thank you for your comments.

      The issues around using the word “whore” to describe doing something one doesn’t want to, are pretty laden. Whores - we don’t like that. :) Because, again, it reinforces the idea that is what sex work IS. Doing something you don’t want to. Since we are actively trying to reclaim the word now, we really, strongly discourage using the terms whore or whoring to discuss being involved in an activity you don’t enjoy for the sake of money. That’s NOT what sex work is and we’d rather those associations not be perpetuated. :)

      There is nothing wrong with sacred sexuality, or being a sacred whore. It’s actually an avenue I would like to get more into in my own sex work, but I think I already practice it in an unofficial, less formalised capacity - especially when a client tells me they’ve finally fulfilled a fantasy they’ve had for twenty years and feel free. That’s a wonderful thing to hear, but it isn’t bogged down by religious ritual!
      The problem comes when that kind of sex work is the only kind that’s seen as legitimate. Again, I think this intersects even deeper with a general sexphobia society holds.

      • March 3, 2009 at 12:04 am

        Many thanks for this article, which I found nice (in the old sense of ’scrupulously exact’) on the flaws in Whedon’s version of sex-work in the show.
        It inspired me regarding a blog post of my own, on the subject of attitudes to money in the New Age and other occult scenes - may I quote a couple of lines if I give attribution to you?

        I especially likes the point you made above about wanting to get into sacred sexuality as an aspect of your practice, and that you’d gained a lot of informal experience already. I agree completely that your experiences already make more than sufficient grounding in that Art, which no amount of formal training can replace (though the formalities can sometimes enhance the instincts a little!)

        In my own experience with sacred sexuality (specifically, variations on sex-magick and the coyly named ‘moist way’ of alchemy), mostly with a partner who considers herself a sacred whore/priestess, it’s the qualities of each partner combining that are the key experiences. I wish you great luck if you pursue this (and I’d be happy to discss the sacred ways and maybe recommend a little reading on the subject, if that’s not presumptuous of me!).

        The parts of Companion-ship in the show I always found most intriguing were the very understated elements of the spiritual praxis which seemed to partake of the attitudes of Taoist sex-yoga, which would make sense in a Chinese-influenced society. I would have loved an episode where a (for want of a better term) dojo of non-companion sex-yoga mystics are involved, to offer another contrast on the rather formal pseudo-geisha-hetaera vibe of Inara and her temple. A dojo of lower-class, rough-and-ready informal folk from all sizes and shapes, but all clearly sexually adept and touched with something no amount of money or status can buy…

        Final thought… I’d be interested to see if any of your writers here do anything about Spider Robinson’s “Lady Sally” stories - part of the “Callahan’s Bar” mythos, based in a very interesting (and rather idealistic, I think) brothel in New York.

        Thanks again for the article - I look forward to reading more such clear thought and passionate opinion here

  6. 13 Tia
    February 21, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Hi, here from whedonesque.com…

    “So if we are talking about a world of registration and obligatory health checks for Companions, in a supposed future where within that Guild sex work is taking place in an ideal way - why are clients of the Guild not submitted to the same?”

    I have always found this point particularly galling about all depictions of sex workers, no matter what the setting. It’s always whores who have to be controlled, like they’re less than human, and the clients who have to be protected (poor delicate creatures). I like to think, if Firefly had gone on for more than half a season, that it would have explored how the Companion Guild is just another freakish control aspect of the Alliance.

    Great article!

    • February 21, 2009 at 11:09 pm

      It is, indeed, a particularly galling point and really reinforces internalised stigma as well - I remember when I first became a sex worker I thought the idea of obligatory health checks was fantastic and sensible, before experience on the job made me realise how actively safe sex is practiced and how condescended to I felt when I went in for my health checks. That’s a whole other complicated issue though.

      I thought it would’ve been quite subversive if, to be a client of the Guild you had to submit to same?
      So what if, in their travels, Inara comes to a place where she can’t find a registered, health-checked client - (perhaps because the process is an expensive one, for example) - and so can’t work.

      Or maybe she has to make the choice to see a non registered client.

      It would’ve been a nice way to explore further those issues of classism as well, particularly if the process of being a registered client is an expensive one.

      A shame, indeed, we didn’t find out.

      Thank you for your thoughts!

  7. 15 the boy
    February 21, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    Hi, first thanks for a very interesting article. I don’t have any arguments directly against your what you have written. More just curious as to why you did not address the following directly.

    The show does have an episode with an ex-companion running a brothel full of people who are just whores. While this hegemony you argue is implicate to the show is still in the episode, as the ex-companions makes it clear they are whores and nothing more. I believe it was an attempt to offer an alternative paradigm.

    The second is that with the structure of the elitist alliance of the series the companion would have to fall some what into this hegemony. Perhaps if Whedon had been given more time to explore the concept of companions through Inara we would have seen a rebellion against this hegemony. Of course we can never actually know that now.

    Last is that I am sure fox had enough misgiving against the show as was that they would not have given Whedon the fully create a character who completely went against social accepted ideas of Sew Work. Ok so sure this is more in defense of a director who has given me countless hours of entertainment and is not valid the depiction of companions.

    Again thank you for a truelly interesting perspective to pursue. I have always been interested in trying to understand the more “fringe” and ignores perspectives of people within our culture.

  8. February 22, 2009 at 12:16 am

    I thought it would’ve been quite subversive if, to be a client of the Guild you had to submit to same?
    So what if, in their travels, Inara comes to a place where she can’t find a registered, health-checked client - (perhaps because the process is an expensive one, for example) - and so can’t work.

    There’s a suggestion that something like this might exist. In the episode “Shindig,” a client is banned from the registry, meaning that clients are as controlled as Companions. Interesting.

    I really disagree with the dichotomy between “whore for money” and “work for love.” I’m involved with a group of people who do sacred tattooing. We receive our tattoos in a ritual space, and the experience is sacred. And we pay the tattooist. Honorable people can exchange money for goods or services in an honorable manner. Absolutely, Inara tries to do this with sex work, but I think, yeah, she’s a prostitute, and we’re risking being really condescending to everyone who needs to work when we draw this line in this black-and-white way.

    I found this article through Whedonesque but I’m totally subscribing to your RSS, you’re a fascinating writer.

    • February 22, 2009 at 1:08 am

      Hi Deborah - I closed your tag for you! ;) Indeed, sacred tattooing is a great thing, but it’s not better than regular tattooing, is it? Most of the people I know, though they may not consciously or deliberately seek out a sacred tattooist in a ritualised space, consider their tattoos sacred. A lot of time, energy and effort goes into the process of selection and design and choosing the right tattooist. And while the ritual is perhaps not as conscious or specific, a definite ritual takes place.
      Further, for those people who just get ink because it’s cute or fun or cool - is that really such a bad thing in comparison?
      The same could be said of sex work in many forms. When a client emails me, details his fantasy, we arrange the details and then act out the fantasy - that’s pretty ritualistic! And afterwards, when he feels affirmed and positive and glowing, that’s a fairly sacred reaction, even if the conscious defining of it as such is not taking place.
      But I don’t consider him a better client or it a better experience than the horny guy who just wants to get his rocks off! I can have a good time with him too! ;)

      And you and your thoughts and responses are very welcome here!

  9. February 22, 2009 at 1:13 am

    Your comparison of sacred and “not sacred” tattooing and sex work is pretty much what I’ve had in mind. I’ve had both kinds of tattoo experience, and yes, it’s better, if what you have in mind is sacredness, to be in a space with others who are consciously facilitating that sacredness rather than detracting from it. But the experience is still ritualistic and sacred. And if you don’t want the sacred thing, if you just want the cool fun, there’s nothing wrong with that.

    • February 22, 2009 at 1:18 am

      Oh yes I should’ve made it clear I’m aware you weren’t making any negative comparisons. There is definitely a lot to be gained from conscious ritual, in a spiritual and social sense and since body modification is a long-embedded aspect of human identity, it’s a great way to connect with ancient roots as well.

      The same could be said of sex work. Certainly, the touch of another person can be a sacred thing, the exploration and discovery of sexuality very special.
      Also: it feels good! Everybody wins!

  10. February 22, 2009 at 1:28 am

    Really, really great article! I couldn’t have said it better myself. You know, I’ve always wondered what would have happened to Inara and Mal, if the series had progressed. It seems to me that Whedon has a hard time with he idea that sex-work and a relationship could ever *gasp* go together. I’ve always thought that Whedon would have written Mal’s character as demanding that Inara give up her job, flying into fits of jealousy when she’s with clients, and Inara responding that it’s all “just sex.”

    Wonderful article!

  11. 22 Satai
    February 22, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Great artikel with many good points : )

    There is no question there is an exessive need for controle of sexworkers in our society today, much thanks to the occupations social stigma and percived “uncleenness” of anything concerning sex. From a personal standpoint i can agree with all of your objections against registration and healthchecks and the like, just as you objections to the portrayal of Compaions and their Guild structure in Firefly.

    At second thought though how does this differ from any other kind of buissness? I can think of very few buissnesses that dosent involve governmental or organiational controle. And there are also very few buyer-seller relations in which the buyer is recuiered to do anything else then pay. And what occupation doent have a union, guild or other organisation that impose strict rules upon its members, as well as having strikt demands on education and/or have membership tests?

    Could, as you say, “the whores inhereted awersion to registration” come from the fact that the occupation has a social stigma and the fact that it will impose a outside controle on your body? But is this different from a pilot having his eyesight regularly checked or a firemans regular fittness checks? Or for that sake, the regular safty checks of newly produced baby car-seats? All is done to ensure the safty of the client or buyer.

    Working in a university environment I have my thoughts rewived on an annual basis which is highly insulting as what is considered good/bad is regulated by the current political and theoritical fad. My publish rate, ability to generate money to the faculty, how well the students like me, my knowledge of current affairs and my activitys outside work is also checked on a anual basis. This is the normal state of things in the majority of occupations. Should a sexworker be excluded from this because of the occupations social position and marginalization in the patriarchical system?

    Just some rambling thoughts, hopefully with some kind of coherrence.
    Best wishes!

  12. 23 GMO
    February 22, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Very interesting perspective. But I’m pretty sure it was implied (if not stated outright) that clients of companions in Firefly do in fact have to register and get health checks, et.c. (at least that’s the impression I got). That, of course, doesn’t make your overall point any less valid. But one should keep in mind that the show was prematurely cancelled, and that the Alliance (which controls the Guild) is technically the sort-of Big Bad of the series, so Inara’s story could have gone in any direction, (and, knowing Whedon’s style, it likely would have been full of unexpected turns and perspectives) had it been allowed to keep going.

    Anyway, great read, very insightful and informative. I walk away a wiser human being.
    Let’s see where the whole Dollhouse thing goes.

  13. 24 Joss Apologist
    February 22, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Thanks for the fascinating article! I enjoyed your thoughtful discussion, and my eyes were definitely opened to a perspective I hadn’t considered before.

    I would, however, like to try a response to your article that I think Joss might give. Most of Joss’s projects seem to be more concerned with raising moral issues rather than taking a side on them one way or another (I am referring, of course, to the more general arcs in Joss’s work, such as Buffy and Angel’s sexuality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and not specific episodes, such as the Buffy episode “Beer Bad”, which take an obvious stance on some issue. I am pretty sure to companion issue should be seen as falling into the former category.). I like to think of Joss’s work as somewhat of a moral exercise, and, with that in mind, I’d like to suggest what kind of exercise Inara may be intended to present.

    Let’s consider Fred, a Firefly fan who has the firm belief that prostitution is bad. Fred, over the course of watching Firefly, comes to believe that companion work isn’t bad because of Inara. Your point, as I read it (and I’m sorry if I’m misrepresenting you), is that seeing Inara in a positive light simply reinforces someone like Fred’s misconceptions about sex work. However, I think Joss might suggest something like the following (though of course, at this point, I’m putting far too many words in Joss’s mouth): Fred considers prostitution, which he sees as bad, and companion work, which he sees as not so bad (as Joss would have it, maybe even religious). What I claim this discrepancy should lead Fred to do is to consider what qualities in prostitution lead him to morally assess it differently than he assesses companionship. This can lead to two outcomes: either Fred pinpoints some moral quality that makes companionship morally superior to prostitution, or he revises his previous moral assessment of either companionship or prostitution.

    What I want to suggest is that it’s this kind of analysis Joss is shooting for with his characterization of companions. I think it’s a worthy kind of analysis that people ought to be challenged by on a regular basis, though I think it’s pretty clear that most people watching Firefly aren’t going to be moved to this kind of soul-searching exercise. What I think is interesting, however, is that this kind of analysis can lead at least the reflective Freds out there to revise their moral beliefs about prostitution in a way that portraying Inara as a prostitute wouldn’t have. People frequently have strong gut reactions when they see something they think is morally wrong portrayed in a positive light (e.g. I know several conservatives who refuse to watch shows that positively portray homosexual characters). By creating “companions”, Joss does distance himself from actual sex work, as you point out, but it may be in an attempt to allow fresh, less biased moral assessments of these characters that then draw comparisons between companions and sex workers. Such an exercise would facilitate moral analysis.

    I know that this is a rather convoluted and long (sorry!) attempt to defend Joss, but I am curious as to whether 1) the kind of analysis I suggested Joss is shooting for here seems plausible in the case of Inara, and 2) if such a goal is plausible, whether it makes Joss’s portrayal of Inara and the companions more acceptable/permissable to the sex worker community. Finally, let me just say that I apologize in advance if I’ve exposed any unfair, misguided biases on my part. I’m part of the heterosexual white male community, and as such I’m prone to the same kind of mistakes as Joss (probably many more), so please correct me and I’ll work to not make similar mistakes in the future.

  14. 25 Digby
    February 22, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Whilst I generally agree with you, I think that when you say that Joss Whedon isn’t going to get it right every time and that this “is true of anyone with privilige”, those last two words are actually unnecessary. Those on the other side of the privilige divide (I can’t think of a better way to say it without using loaded terms such as dominance, oppression, discrimination etc.) seem to be equally able to make rather huge errors (at least in the eyes of others). The rather fractured nature of feminism is evidence to this. Also, I should make clear that I don’t mean just those lacking a certain privilige failing to recognise their own privilige over another (Julie Bindel’s crazy transphobia for example), but those who in seeking to end privilige in their own particular area thoroughly misrepresent their fellow women/homosexuals/asians/etc. due to their own experiences and prejudices (one of my favourite examples of this is Shulamith Firestone’s attitudes towards pregnancy and childbirth).
    I’m certainly not trying to excuse Joss, but to imply that his failings are due solely to his privilige is unfair, even if the majority are.
    You rightly say in your reply to Greenbandit that it seems ridiculous to imagine that his current situation, upbringing etc. don’t affect his writing, and this reminded me that his mother has been described as a radical feminist, and whilst I know little about her, radical feminism as a whole has very often taken a dim view of sex work, and this might have much more to do with his own prejudices and (perhaps unconcious) desire to provide his own ideal of sex work than his priviliged status.

  15. 26 ozamosi
    February 22, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    Not a whore, but merely a lowly sci-fi nerd, I’ve also been annoyed by this.

    I have this trick I like to do, where I call Inara a whore. Usually, someone will try to defend her honor (”She’s not a whore! She’s a companion!”). I then ask them to elaborate (”Really? She sells sex for money - sounds like a whore to me!”). In some cases, the person looks surprised and says something like “Hmm, wait, you’re right”. In others, the person starts to bring up courtesans, but after asking what the difference is there, it sooner or later comes down to “selling sex is only icky when an icky whore does it”, which everyone should realize is… somthingist (sexist? classist?).

    In the end, I’m hoping to have forced people to think about the term “whore”, and that their ideas about what a whore is may be wrong.

    But then again, it feels really weird to write whore this many times in this short amount of time, without it being a quote from some punk-rock song or something, that I guess I’ve got some thinking to do myself as well.

    As you say, I wish Firefly would have dealt with this. And as other commenters say, I think it would have eventually.

    • February 22, 2009 at 9:06 pm

      I cheerfully use the word whore to describe myself and I STILL have those double-take moments, instances of discomfort. The negative programming around the word is deep indeed!

      Love your work! :D

  16. 28 auroque
    February 22, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    I’m really tired of exhaustively negative perspectives. The dry, analytic, critical, and negative tone of professional research (which seeps into any gender studies piece that wants to be taken seriously) is itself overtly masculine. There have been some good advances in Feminist discourse that don’t rely exclusively on tearing down the work (artistic or socio-structural) of men, and I wish they could enter the discussion more often.

    I don’t think there is any way to offer a portayl of sex work which does not in some way acknowledge our preconceptions. In acknowledging our preconceptions, it can inadvertentely legitimize them. Not enough credit is given to the difficulty of creating characters that resonate with the audience, but at the same time transform their preconceptions. I think part of the reason we have so few truly feminist authors is because the standards of feminism are damn near impossible to meet, at least while still making a funny, entertaining product.

    That said, I think you have a valid point that Whedon merely resurrects the old double-standard of low-class whores and high-class courtesans, i.e. if you’re doing it to a rich man, you must be morally superior. I think it’s probably better for us to have some context in which sex work can be acceptable, rather than none, but I agree that fans championing Joss for legitimizing it are overstating the achievement.

    Extremely smart and well-written piece, by the way, I’ll have to visit this site more often.

    • February 22, 2009 at 9:10 pm

      The dry, analytic, critical, and negative tone of professional research… is itself overtly masculine.

      Nice point!

      I do agree with what you say about it being impossible to create a “perfect” representation of anything really, but I also feel there’s benefit in deconstructing and creating discourse around representation.
      My sex worker Firefly mega fan friend who largely disagrees with me pointed out I approached this from a very political perspective rather than a human one - disregarding whether or not the character resonated in a genuine way. I’d agree with that but I guess that’s also what I wanted my focus to be.

  17. 30 Alexandra Erin
    February 23, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    Hi, I’d like to thank you for writing this. Many aspects of the Guild had always struck me as sort of tacked on to reassure Middle America fandom that what Inara did was good and wholesome. “Look, it’s the future. It’s legal and safe and clean.” But even without getting into the politics and the implications as art for a contemporary audience, there are gaps in the logic that don’t show a lot of thinking-through of the concept. As an analytical nerd, I could see that, but I lacked the perspective necessary to put the illogical leaps into context.

  18. 31 Robin
    February 23, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    This is a really interesting article.

    In the spirit of full disclosure, I also found you via Whedonesque.

    While I do agree that your points have merit, I also have to join the chorus of Whedonites bemoaning the fact that the series didn’t last long enough to truly address some of your concerns. The focus of the half-season (and, by necessity, the movie) was the River-Alliance storyline. Given another season — or maybe even just the rest of the one they’d started — I’m fairly certain that Joss would’ve delved more deeply into Inara’s life and the Guild by extension.

    Speaking of which, I can’t recall any indication that the Companions’ Guild is a part of the Alliance government. It does seem to have a stronger presence on the central (and therefore Alliance controlled) planets, but I’ve always assumed that it had its own autonomous organizational structure. In my mind, they were based on the central worlds because that’s where the ‘Verse’s civilization started. The population center would provide the greatest number of opportunities for the greatest number of Companions. And, given the brief glimpses we see of the training house in Serenity, it seems to be something of a cross between a labor union and the geisha culture.

    The whore/companion dichotomy is a tricky subject. I guess it never really bothered me because humanity always seems to find derogatory terms for each other, and I don’t expect that we’ll ever become completely politically correct, even five hundred years in the future. I understand why this particular connotation for a word that describes a job you enjoy is upsetting. I have to wonder, would it bother you so much if he’d made up a new “sci-fi” word to mean the same thing? Not trying to start a fight here; I’m truly curious.

    • February 24, 2009 at 8:24 am

      To be truly honest I am getting a little tired of the “only one season” argument. Yeah, sure. So? I can only work with what I have and that’s one season! Anything else is a possibly-maybe!

      If the new sci-fi word was used simply as a descriptor rather than a perjorative, I wouldn’t have had an issue with it. If it was used a perjorative, yes I would’ve had an issue with it.

      TBH, your remark about always having derogatory terms makes me think you’re someone of sufficient privilege you don’t find yourself the object of them very often. As for how I feel about the term ‘politically correct’, just see here:
      http://community.livejournal.com/debunkingwhite/781388.html

      I understand you came here with a genuine spirit and out of good will, btw. :) I appreciate that and appreciate you reading and commenting.

  19. February 25, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    excellent piece - i’ll be adding you to my reading list =) i think it is fascinating how much the positivity/negativity of whedon’s portrayal of sex work depends on the perspective you had beforehand. that is, it’s not going to change anyone’s mind.

    i wonder about this idea that one has to come from a “good family” to be a companion. unless i missed something, it’s a question that was never answered. i had always thought of it as organized something like the priesthood of old - a place that lower-class parents would send a young child to ensure the child’s successful raising and give them a certain future in a higher class than the parents could otherwise guarantee. i realize that’s a completely baseless guess, it’s just what had popped into my head given the semi-religious treatment of companions in the series. not that this scenario isn’t sketchy in a different way.

    anyhow, loved what you wrote! i’d love to see you’re thoughts on “heart of gold.” it’s one of my favorites, and i think in many ways it’s more complimentary of sex work than the companion model (despite some obvious problems).

  20. 34 anon
    March 1, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    Very interesting article, I enjoyed reading through it, especially as I’m a big fan of Firefly and yet was a bit disturbed by the overall presentation of “Companions”. You hit it on the head with that forced yearly health examination; plus there were several episodes that pretty much made it clear that even in Firefly’s own culture the notion of Companions being sacred, etc isn’t well established. Only in the wealthier classes they encountered, was she more recognized (and even then there’s that one who wants to force her to marry him or something). So clearly contemporary notions seep through anyway ;-) . I admire all the work he does, and I’m very happy about the statements he makes about feminism, but like you, I don’t think that gives him a free pass — like anyone, he should remain open to being challenged on his assumptions and so on. Maybe he’ll eventually read acopy of this? I hope so.

    However I think there’s a couple of points to be made here…your depiction of sex workers as educated, healthy, able to refuse customers, and so on, may reflect decriminalisation in your culture and country (Britain?) but to me reflected issues of class. Of course there are sex workers even in my country who can and do set their own boundaries — “call girls” as opposed to “streetwalkers.” The former are protected by class and money and can generally protect themselves by working within some type of business model that will screen customers.

    The latter do not have the wherewithal to practice their work in the sort of framework you describe for yourself. Add in to that mix drugs and violence, and the situation is very problematic there. If such a sex worker refuses a customer and he beats her up and rapes her, in many districts she has no recourse whatsoever — and indeed may be raped a second time by the police if she tries to involve them. At the very best outcome, she *might* be able to get her day in court…to see the guy sentenced to a few months, tops. Most such encounters are simply not reported. This removes a good deal of autonomy for the person.

    Don’t forget, too, that health care in the U.S. is only available to the wealthy and (sort of) to those working in companies that offer various forms of health insurance. Any discussion of contemporary sex work needs to keep that in mind — and the U.S. is hardly the only country to criminalize sex workers or to lack available health care. I certainly hope the model in your country points the way forward; although it seems to me Britain also has its class of vulnerable sex workers like we do? Certainly I see many of the same shaming attitudes and general misogyny toward women in British newspapers and publications.

    • March 4, 2009 at 9:08 am

      You haven’t made this easy for me to answer. :)

      First up - I’d like to say I realise you come here and ask these questions in good faith. I also realise the attitudes you’re expressing are extremely American ones - it’s a peculiarity of America, the so very black and white perspective of street work, I’ve noticed.

      I don’t want to make any presumptions as to your experience but I did want to headdesk at several points reading your comments.

      Incidentally, I am from Australia.

      The kind of black and white dichotomy you’re presenting here is a false one. I know many sex workes in America, from call girls to street workers, brothel girls, porn stars, PSO, peep show girls, strippers, etc etc etc and the variety of choice, education, class, money, health, drug addiction/none is very diverse across all of them. The perception that call girls are always upmarket and educated and healthy and protected and street workers always aren’t is, honestly? An INFURIATING one, not to mention a false one.

      This perception actually does exist in my country too, even though we have decriminalisation. It’s not unique to America, it is just as deeply ingrained - but it’s still false. The street workers I know here are some of the fiercest, most passionate, smart, dynamic and compelling people I’ve ever known. Becuase street workers are made more vulnerable by the visibility of their work PLUS the social stigma, they often have a fiercer interest in securing their rights. There are a lot of benefits to street work - no overheads for a start off, plus you only stay with the client as long as it takes him to get off unless you negotiate otherwise, so you have the potential to make much more money… work when you want to… some people actively choose street work over any other for all these reasons.
      Drugs and violence are not inherent to any kind of sex work. It is NOT the WORK that is the issue here. It is the stigma and the discrimination. Street workers are more exposed to drugs and violence because they are more visible and a lot of people have developed a culture in which they are seen as easy victims. Not getting proper justice in court is one such contributing factor AND that happens here too (whether street worker or not). Again, it’s NOT THE WORK that makes it so. Any belief that it is a fallacy. Societal discrimination and stigma makes sex work dangerous, if it is, because people - who espouse beliefs like yours, to be honest - contribute to a mentality where violence against sex workers is seen as acceptable.

      Your perception that sex work automatically leads to being beaten up and raped says more about your attitude to sex work than it does of sex work itself, to be honest. Again, if street workers are more exposed to violence, it is not the fault of them, or the type of work they do. It’s the fault of perpetuating stigma and negative characterisations of street workers as easy victims, and a lack of justice in court, also due to stigma and discrimination.

      Street workers can be and are highly formally educated and can, will and do make excellent money and can, will and do refuse clients (in some cases they can have more freedom to do so than a brothel worker may, for example) and drugs? Are pretty common throughout humanity, not just sex workers, and the problem there, again, is not the work. If there’s drug abuse, you need to look deeper than just go sex worker = drug addict. What an insulting reductionism.

      I spoke about the false dichotomy of choice in the article. Do bad things happen in the industry? Yes. But I find it to be a deliberate conversation stopper. Give an inch and you’ll take a mile - if I acknowledge some lousy aspects of the industry, people use that to ignore the equally valid voices giving an opposite experience (which includes street workers). Choice is rarely that black and white though.

      Man, some of the street workers I know would have your liver for what you’ve said here. :)


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