11 Powerful Documentaries That Will Change the Way You Think About Sex Work


"Sex work" is such a catch-all term that it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what it means. It can be voluntary or involuntary. It can mean anything from pole dancing to stripping to prostitution to therapy. With a term so hard to pin down, forming an opinion about the definition becomes equally complex.  

The 11 films on this list walk outside the boundaries of the industry and show us just how vast and diverse the world surrounding this occupation can be. The majority of sex workers aren't fantastical bleached-blond porn starlets with larger-than-life boob jobs: They're real working people who get frustrated with the constraints of their various jobs, lifestyles and microeconomies, just like everyone else. And despite sex-positive feminism's tense efforts at wishing away the ugly parts, there are indeed many sex workers who are unwillingly trapped in prostitution as well.

What's special about all of these documentaries is the way they manage to balance the pretty and the painful, the hopeful with the badass. Whichever way you currently lean when it comes to the often-divisive politics that surround sex work, watching these films will give you a long, entertaining look at the realness of the industry.

1. 'Live Nude Girls Unite!'

When the largely queer, educated, lefty dancers at San Francisco's Lusty Lady peep show got tired of racial quotas and unfair firings and decided to fight for a union, they grabbed a couple of cameras and filmed the whole year-long battle. One subthread the film explores is the filmmaker's clash with her second-wave feminist mom, a dynamic that many of today's "college girl" strippers can likely relate to.

Quote: "No contract, no pussy!" and "2-4-6-8, don't come here to masturbate!"

Where to watch: Streaming on Netflix

2. 'Stripped'

Jill Morley's lo-fi grunge doc looks at the thoughts and motivations of a crew of down-to-earth Jersey girls who dance at a cluster of working-class bars and clubs. Through casual interviews at home and work, Morley sets the scene for these women's lives. Like in Live Nude Girls Unite!, here the filmmaker is also one of the subjects, and delves into her own relationship to dancing naked for dollars. 

Quote: "You're like a farmer. You go out there and harvest the money." 

Where to watch: Vimeo

3. 'Buying Sex'

Few documentaries about the sex industry manage to reflect every argument the way this Canadian film does. Buying Sex is rare in its interviews with abolitionists and johns as well as with sex workers and politicians. It's also a record of a fierce battle over decriminalization in Canada, as well as a look into some of the more uncomfortable realities of race and class in the sex industry.

Quote: "I don't rationalize it by saying oh, I'm helping her get through university or helping a solo mum support three kids or whatever. I don't need to rationalize it, I've gone way past that stage. To me, it's a business transaction."

Where to watch: Netflix

4. 'Mutantes: Punk Porn Feminism'

This artsy French documentary visits with now-old feminist porn pioneers like Annie Sprinkle and Carol Queen; as well as Bay Area queer community heroes known for genderfuck and nudity like Del LaGrace Volcano and Lynne Breedlove. The movie is essentially a traipse along the vanguard of public sexuality in the '90s.

Quote: "I'm gonna take my shirt off and they're gonna see tits and they're gonna think oh goody! Titties! Then I whip the dick out ... " 

Where to watch: Netflix 

5. 'Whores' Glory'

The most cinematically beautiful sex industry documentary to be released yet, this film intimately follows groups of sex workers in Thailand, Bangladesh and Mexico. At times heartbreaking, and spiritually bent, the film's use of music and color takes viewers on an emotional ride through the devastating lives of district prostitutes and child trafficking victims. It also shows us sex workers who blow all their earnings to hire cute young guys to sit and drink with them in bars.

Quote: "There's too much competition. The other day they brought in five new girls. That means less work for us. One john per shift won't even pay for my bus ticket."

Where to watch: Netflix

6. 'P.O.P Magic City Strippers'

Where does one begin to describe the awesome power of this documentary series that follows the dancers of Atlanta's famous Magic City black strip club? As 22-year-old Cali says, "Everybody can't get up asshole-naked and dance in front of people." It takes guts, a lot of self-education and some tips from experienced older twerk queens.

Quote: "The club hires you, they give you the rules, and they put you on the floor. There's no training … you learn by watching. You learn how to talk to these people by talking to these people. If you don't have someone to show you the ropes and give you some key insight into what to do, it can be a disaster."

Where to watch: YouTube

7. 'Meet the Fokkens'

Get ready to be charmed by the adorable 70-year-old Fokken twins, who were Amsterdam's oldest prostitutes until their recent retirement. The documentary itself takes an unusually lighthearted look at the lives of sex workers, which are indeed often filled with humor and absurdity. This fact is more than most film critics were prepared to handle, as the New York Times wrote a baffled description of the film claiming that the filmmakers didn't try hard enough to get "another sad story about whores." Yet the critic was able to read that into the film out of sheer need to do so. This film is an antidote to the mysterious urge to see only the darkness in sex work.

Quote: "My twin sister is still working, in her old age. She needs the money. She can't live off a state pension. I stopped two years ago. I couldn't carry on. It was getting too much."

Where to watch: Netflix 

8. 'Paris Is Burning'

This famous documentary about vogue balls and the black drag scene in New York City is best known for inspiring Madonna and the vogue craze, but for many it was also the first time seeing transgender sex workers onscreen. Petite Latina Venus Xtravaganza talks openly about her clients and how most drag queens at the time were prostituting. One of the most poignant moments features Venus recalling a client threatening her upon realizing she had male genitalia. During the filming, Venus was found murdered in a hotel room, highlighting the extreme dangers that were and still are faced by trans sex workers.

Quote: "I would like to be a spoiled, rich, white girl. They get what they want, whenever they want it, and they don't really have to struggle."

Where to watch: Netflix 

9. 'Happy Endings?'

This low-budget documentary goes inside a Korean spa in Rhode Island, the scene of a battle over whether to criminalize erotic massage parlors in the state. Featuring interviews with sex workers as well as police, politicians, customers and the various people linked economically to the sex industry by default (think newspaper classifieds), it's an in-depth look at the never-ending struggle for power between sex workers and those who aim to control and regulate their business.

Quote: "Aren't both individuals at fault? They're both legal adults. So why does only one side get blamed? … You can't clap with one hand after all."

Where to watch: Netflix DVD rental  

10. 'Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate'

Maureen Sullivan is a sex surrogate in the '80s whose clients are referred to her by therapists and doctors because of their sexual dysfunction. Professionally licensed sex surrogate therapy as seen in this documentary seems no different than the underground, illegal industry we're more familiar with, so why is one state-sanctioned while the other is criminalized? That's just one of the mysteries viewers will ponder after watching this film. The subjects themselves are so fascinating to watch that one Salon writer felt compelled to track them down years later to follow up on their lives after the film.

Quote: "The client was extremely fearful in the presence of a woman and wanted to overcome that fear." 

Where to watch: DVD

11. 'Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer'

Yes, it's a bit of a fluff piece that appears designed to bolster the politician's bruised image. But fast-forward through the boring parts and you'll find priceless insight into New York City's upscale escort service scene, mostly via interviews with former escort service employees who never quite appear to be telling the whole story. It's also kind of a bittersweet send-off to the gone but not forgotten Wolf of Wall Street days when the streets seemed to be made of gold — and the girls who walked those streets raked it in.

Quote: "When you're sending a girl on a trip to Chicago for $30,000 overnight, it doesn't necessarily feel like you're running prostitution. It feels different. And that's where I think we got a little bit lost as far as the whole legality of the situation."

Where to watch: Netflix