June 23, 2009
Sex For Sale
Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience Is All Business
Sex is a commodity. It can be bought and sold like any other product and is subject to the complexities and volatilities of the free market economy. Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, explores the obvious relationship between sex and economic trade through a glimpse into a few days in the life of Chelsea, a high-end New York call girl.
Chelsea (played by porn-star Sasha Grey) is an independent business woman for whom sex is only one element of her trade. Though she does exchange sex for money, she spends the better part of her time branding herself with designer fashions, marketing her website with search-engine optimization, documenting her transactions and managing her finances according to the advice of her more connected clientele.
Those who know little about sex work often accuse workers of selling their bodies — Chelsea sells an experience. Transactions with clients appear like any other movie-made date scene with dinner, wine, awkward silences, snuggling and a superficial discussion of current affairs. But The Girlfriend Experience, despite Grey’s professionally-earned, genuine sex appeal, lacks the sexiness and glam of your typical film. The transactional element of sex strips away the potential for the perfect Hollywood experience and reveals the uncomfortable realities of clammy hands, religiously-dictated inhibitions and the impact of practical stresses on the (not-so) sexual experience.
The challenge of maintaining boundaries between personal and professional is intensified in a field that draws upon the most fundamental of personal needs. However, it is Sasha’s live-in boyfriend, Chris, who really struggles to define such boundaries in his work as a personal trainer. Though all subtlety is lost in the obvious disparity between Chris’ hard selling of himself and Chelsea’s dispassionate approach, Soderbergh effectively normalizes the sale of sex by a woman in an otherwise committed relationship and realistically highlights her motivation for selling sex: money.
For those anticipating a soft-core version of Grey’s previous work, disappointment awaits. Like real-life sex work, The Girlfriend Experience is more about an entrepreneur’s struggle to survive during an economic downtown than hedonistic pleasure. Admirably, Soderbergh not only avoids having Chelsea meet a tragic downfall or a gallant rescue, but also resists the temptation to frame her as an empowering hero. Like real-life women who sell sex, she is a multi-dimensional woman, salesperson, capitalist, daughter, lover and friend.