Director: James Johnson
Producers: James Johnson, Kristen DiAngelo
Starring: Kristen DiAngelo, Pearl Callahan, Gina DePalma, Juliet Capulet, Tamsen Crown
MPAA Rating: NR
Running time: 90 min.
The sex business is one that seems to have entered the mainstream over the last few years. A number of filmmakers, notably Steven Soderbergh and Sean Baker, have attempted to tell realistic stories of women working in the industry but American Courtesans is a first, a documentary about the industry from the inside, from the women and men who are directly involved and make their living in the sex business.
On the surface, James Johnson’s documentary comes across as industry insiders lobbying for the legalization of the world’s oldest profession but once it begins, it’s clear that American Courtesans is not out to make a statement either way but rather to shed some light into a business that is largely misunderstood. It’s an intimate documentary, one that captures the stories, both happy and sad, of a number of women all of whom either work or have worked in the escort business. Some of the stories are painful, tales of abuse and abandonment and essentially children finding their way in the world and ending up with the wrong people doing the wrong things but not all of them end badly. Some of the women, including executive producer Kristen Diangelo, herself a retired escort, share stories that started badly but which led the women to take control of their own lives and how they have gone out of their way to help other women in similar situations take charge of their careers. There are also stories from women who chose to become escorts as a way to support themselves and still others who see what they’re doing as a benefit to society.
Norma Jean Almodovar, a sex worker advocate, speaks vocally about the service provided by sex workers, of women who provide men who would otherwise never have sexual experiences, with the opportunity to be with a woman. She also speaks of the sexual education and other benefits of a professional and it’s a story that is echoed by many of the women interviewed. What’s clear is that many of the women in the industry are there because they’ve chosen it as a profession and not because it’s a last ditch option.
Towards the end of American Courtesans, the pool of interviewees grows and we hear interviews from clients and family, children and partners, of escorts and hearing them speak of the women in their lives is fascinating. They’re not angry and though it’s clear that they’ve had to come to terms with their mother’s or wife’s jobs, they’re also proud of the fact that these women took control of their lives and their careers. As content and even happy as these women are, there’s a theme of sadness that runs through all of these stories. In nearly every case the women fell into the business out of necessity and though they have made the best of their situations, many getting degrees and in some cases other jobs completely, they have remained or returned to the business because it pays well.
Though it doesn’t set itself up as a documentary advocating for the legalization of prostitution, one of the things that rings through every story in American Courtesans is that if it prostitution was legal, with rules, regulations and enforcement, many of the horror stories some of the women recount would be a thing of the past and the business would be safer for everyone involved. Beyond that, Johnson’s documentary is a fascinating, intimate and eye opening look at the business from the inside and it shows that escorts are more than just sexual objects; they’re smart, savvy women who have taken control of their lives and their bodies and who are, in their own way, making a little corner of the universe a little better.
American Courtesans is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD.