Judge Gordon Sullivan thought "courtesans" was a slang word for lawyers.
A Different Kind of American Story
Prostitution is often referred to as the world's oldest profession. This is doubly ironic because prostitutes themselves are rarely afforded any of the respect given to other professionals like doctors, lawyers, etc. Even more ironic is the fact that professional comes from the same root as the word profess, because in its original meaning a "professional" was someone paid to speak their knowledge about something. The irony, of course, being that prostitutes are rarely given the chance to speak, especially for themselves. The documentary American Courtesans hopes to remedy that situation, allowing a number of women to talk on camera about their experiences, while also giving time to some of their clients. The result is that says a lot about the shape of sex work in America.
The documentary itself is made up of on-camera interviews with eleven women discussing their lives (both personal and professional), and a few "johns." Interspersed with these interviews are archival materials like family photos, and the occasional interstitial scene that shows a few of the women dressed up for business.
There's a moment in the first minute of American Courtesans that sums up the major problem with the documentary. An elderly gentlemen is asked on camera, "Why should it stay illegal?" Without hesitation, the man answers, "Because it's illegal." Ignoring the staggering lack of logic in his circular response, this reply highlights just how closed-minded many people are about prostitution, and how much of that closed-mindedness probably stems from ignorance. The problem with American Courtesan is that it's highly unlikely that this gentleman, or the millions of people like him who only know about prostitution from crime shows and urban myths, will ever sit through the film to learn something about the real women who are involved in sex work.
On the flip side, however, I'm not sure the film will teach those who know a thing or two about sex work that much about the industry or the women in it. Most of the women interviewed came from poor families, many (though not all) were abused, and all of them seem to be happy with the money that being a sex worker affords them. There are, of course, horror stories as well. Talking to their clients, we hear from men who are unable to meet women in day-to-day life for a variety of reasons alongside men whose marriages have become sexually unfulfilling for one reason or another. We also hear from the partners of sex workers, who by and large are happy to look past the professional obligations of sex work because they love their wives.
American Courtesans, then, is great for a very narrow part of the population: those who are curious about sex work. Those viewers will appreciate hearing the stories of women in their own words discussing an industry that is often given only the most salacious and damaging image in the media. Similarly, those with an open mind will find the stories of a number of people and their experiences with sex work are human stories that are in many ways unexceptional (aside, one assumes, from the sex work), but the fact that these are ordinary people tell their stories in their own words makes the material interesting, even if you're learning nothing new about the sex work industry.
The DVD itself is pretty solid. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is generally clean and bright. The documentary would look at home on broadcast television, with good detail and well-saturated colors. No serious compression artifacts mar the image. The stereo audio is fine, keeping the interviewees audible and offering some atmosphere. Bonus features include deleted bits in which we see more of the street interviews that open the film, along with three complete scenes that were cut. There's also a short behind-the-scenes featurette on the women's hair.
My quibbles with the documentary are relatively minor. I think the interstitial scenes featuring the women all dolled up like a glamour shoot are cheesy, and they aren't really connected to the stories these women are telling. The film also does a pretty decent job of being balanced, offering the perspective of older and younger women, as well as non-white women, and their clients of different races. We even see different kinds of sex work, from those who provide the "girlfriend experience" to more fetish-oriented professionals. It's perhaps not the film's fault, but viewers should be aware that although this documentary sheds light on a number of aspects of the sex work industry, it is hardly an exhaustive account.
American Courtesans is a decent documentary that gives names and faces to the often anonymous and voiceless women who populate the world of sex work. More of their stories need to be shared, and though I have some quibbles with the presentation, American Courtesans does a fine job of sharing some of those accounts. It's a solid DVD and certainly worth a rental for those with an open mind.
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