The Girlfriend Experience: Selling Prostitution on TV
Don’t have enough money to pay for college? Sell yourself for sex! Sounds crazy, right? Apparently not to the creators of The Girlfriend Experience.
In Starz’s new TV show The Girlfriend Experience, law student Christine Reade jumps into the world of prostitution and sells herself to pay for school. Christine begins her journey working for her friend’s pimp; however, by episode 3 she is striking out on her own with a freelance business of selling herself. All of Christine’s buyers are “high-class,” wealthy business men (but, of course, no one with any degree of class buys another person for sex). So far in the show, Christine spends her time in luxury, makes a lot of money, and is treated well by the sex buyers.
But we know this glamorized view of prostitution promotes a dangerous lifestyle and normalizes sexual exploitation.
Christine is living the good life in The Girlfriend Experience. She gets paid tons of money, goes on dates on yachts, and apparently suffers little to no emotional or physical trauma from her “sex work”.
Prostitution survivor Autumn Burris disagrees with this depiction of prostitution. “I did high-end, I did low-end, I did all points in between, and it is all the same. It doesn’t look like that,” she says in Demand Abolition’s response to The Girlfriend Experience.
The Girlfriend Experience repeatedly emphasizes that glamour, money, and success are easily attained through selling sex.
In the show, Christine gets 30 percent of the money while under her pimp, but she quickly moves to freelance where she is depicted as receiving 100 percent of the money from the trade.
“Most women involved in high-paid, high-clientele absolutely have a trafficker that is taking 100% of their money,” says prostitution survivor Rebecca Bender in Demand Abolition’s response.
The show depicts things that simply don’t happen in the real world.
The Hollywood image of prostitution in The Girlfriend Experience shows nice guys in nice hotel rooms. It draws young women in who think prostitution is an option to make some extra money. Impressionable viewers don’t realize the danger and trauma they would be getting themselves into by entering the sex trade.
Promoting a Dangerous Lifestyle
“I was waiting for the bad part when she gets beat up. I thought the girl laying in the bed, in my view, I am looking to see if she is dead or hurt because that is the reality of it,” explains prostitution survivor Marian Hatcher in another Demand Abolition response to the show.
Hatcher is right. Research has found that actively prostituted women are 18 times more likely to be murdered than women of similar age and race. The homicide rate for women in prostitution, 204 in 100,000, was many times higher than that of men and women in the U.S. in occupations with the highest homicide rates. The female liquor store worker homicide rate was 4 in 100,000, and for male taxi cab drivers it was 29 in 100,000.
Yet, The Girlfriend Experience does almost nothing to portray the dangers of prostitution. It takes the show six episodes to even begin portraying a fraction of the danger that exists in prostitution, when one of Christine’s sex buyers starts acting very possessive. By the end of the episode he is stalking her.
“It is promoting a lifestyle that is dangerous, that does not exist in the way they are depicting it. . . . They (prostituted women) are being put in a lot of danger: rapes and beatings by the buyers,” says Bender in her response.
But Starz and the writers of The Girlfriend Experience aren’t the only ones trying to normalize prostitution. Amnesty International, a group that prides itself on defending human rights, wants to decriminalize prostitution. Doing this will only normalize the sexual violence inherent in prostitution.
Normalizing Sexual Exploitation
Not only does Amnesty International’s push to decriminalize prostitution normalize sexual violence, but it also tells sex buyers that what they are doing is okay (Amnesty’s intractable push for full decriminalization of prostitution has landed the organization a spot on NCOSE’s 2016 Dirty Dozen List as a major contributor to sexual exploitation).
A Chicago study of prostituted women showed that sex buyers were responsible for 62-100 percent of violence against street-level prostitution.
Amnesty International and The Girlfriend Experience are telling sex buyers that perpetrate a majority of the violence in prostitution that paying for sex is normal and okay.
The Girlfriend Experience tricks buyers into thinking that, “they are going to get this gorgeous woman who has no problems in her life. And that she gets to keep this money and use it to buy her cars… it just isn’t reality,” says police officer Mike Gallagher. Through watching the show, sex buyers don’t come to understand the dynamics of the lives of prostituted women or the painful realities behind their carefully constructed facades.
But this normalization of prostitution doesn’t just tell buyers that it is okay, it tells everyday people that prostitution is a choice and is normal.
Shows like The Girlfriend Experience make it look like women enjoy selling themselves for sex. If juries think that the women enjoy it, then why should they convict the pimp?
“When I have a jury pool, and I am trying talk about this 17-year-old or 25-year-old that has been victimized, the jury pool thinks they wants to be in it. Aren’t they putting themselves through college? They are making all this money and drinking champagne and driving in Bentleys,” says Dan Steele of the Denver Police Department.
When everyone thinks that prostitution looks like The Girlfriend Experience then no one will be willing to convict their sex traffickers and buyers.
The Girlfriend Experience sends dangerous messages to the public and makes prostitution look like just another lifestyle and a viable way to earn money. Hatcher pretty much sums up the problem when she incredulously comments, “They are selling prostitution on a TV show.”
 Potterat, J., Brewer, D., Muth, S., Rothenberg, R., Woodhouse, D., Muth, J. et al. (2004). “Mortality in a long-term open cohort of prostitute women.” American Journal of Epidemiology, 159(8), 778-785
 Raphael, J. and Shapiro, D. (2002, August). “Sisters speak out: The lives and needs of prostituted women in Chicago.” Center for Impact Research, 1-35.