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Sex Work, Firefly and Audience Engagement

Saturday 21 February 2009, by Webmaster

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.


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.