What ‘Hustlers’ got right and wrong about the sex work industry

My first time making it upside down on a stripper pole, I slipped a little and landed on my head. My “phony pony” flew from my head and would have hit a fully enchanted customer in the head if it weren’t for the fact that we were separated by bulletproof glass and a peep show curtain. I slid down, crawled over to pick up the hair piece, and got off stage for three minutes before coming back, pony reglued. It’s not a glamorous job, really. 

Suffice it to say I watched Hustlers from a significantly different perspective than the other millions of people who contributed to its $33 million opening weekend. Though much has been said about the controversy surrounding Jennifer Lopez’s interviews with sources in the industry, very little has been done to give a louder voice to the performers and sex workers whose stories are ostensibly being told on screen. 

In my experiences, and in talking with other sex workers about the film, there’s plenty that the film gets right about dancing in clubs. However, there’s much, much more that it gets wrong—to the detriment of the industry and its employees. 

Hustlers is a heist film like none other. It tells the story of two women who run a crime ring, drugging Manhattan men and dragging them to strip clubs to drain their credit cards. It is based on the maybe-true story (told first in the Cut, then again in a recent 20/20 special) of Roselyn Keo’s relationship with Samantha Barbash, the self-described Queen of Wall Street. The film was executive produced by Lopez, who cast herself in the lead role. Hustlers asks you at once to believe that strip clips are really these wonderful, sex-positive places and warns you to be wary of the cunning masters of seduction within them who might rob you blind. 

Ramona’s main targets were the “wolves” of Wall Street. She’s portrayed from the beginning as a sort of Robin Hood, but she honestly sounds more like a Scarface. Barbash relied on a group of younger, less-experienced sex workers—all escorts and strippers—to meet up with these men, make advances, lace their drinks with MDMA and ketamine, and drag them to the club before they felt the memory-erasing high. Ramona breaks bad; she stops caring what happens to her family. And though she claims she was only targeting the 1%, the men weren’t always rich. A man called “Doug [Bleep]” is stripped of his life savings, a legend that frames every aspect of how this story has been covered.

And in addition to being based on a possibly maybe-true story, there’s a lot that Hustlers nails about dancing in a club. 

There are things that happen in the film that are so real I can smell them. Retail bosses are shit. Club bosses are shit. Boyfriends can be shit. And clients, even the good ones, can be the worst.

Cardi B’s portrayal of the work was most true to my own experience. I relied on eye contact and gentle shifts, not fancy inversions. It wasn’t until about four months after I got the job that I tried to do anything special with the pole. It brings eyes to you, but at the end of the day, it’s not your job. Your job is to maintain some sort of meaningful eye contact or relationship with the customers that are drawn to you, taking them out of their life for a moment and into the one you’re creating for them in the club. Most of the money comes from tips handed to you over drinks, lap dances given in an even darker room, and tributes from those who fall in love. There are only so many dollars you can make in a nine-minute floor show.

I like the way Wu represents Destiny, too, down to the way her revenge tale gets interrupted by her own emotional response to a journalist’s endless prodding over the dramatic relationship she was kind of exploiting. 

There’s an incredibly self-aware and brilliantly performed moment in the film when Destiny gets anxious about how sex workers will be portrayed in the article that’s being written. “I really hope it’s not some story about all strippers being thieves or whatever because they’re not,” Destiny tells the journalist/narrator (Julia Stiles). “And it’s things like this that add to a stigma and I don’t want to perpetuate anything.”

It’s ironic that Hustlers itself represents and perpetuates a radical misunderstanding of sex work; it does the industry a disservice by showing a version of sex work that only exists in the movies.

What Hollywood does to this story is what media does to sex workers time and time again: Try to represent us—no, try to become us—while simultaneously separating themselves by adopting a pink-tinted ideal version of our world and digging for the worst horror stories they can find in our lives. “Did your parents abuse you?” “Was your Dad not around?” “Did your uncle touch you?” “Why don’t you get a Real Job?” Even something as benign as “Do you ever go home with the customers?” or “What’s your REAL name?” This film shoves these probing questions down your throat because the people in charge of this film are too distant from the world of sex work to be able to represent it honestly and without exploiting those who do. 

“As a sex worker that saw the movie with other sex workers, I loved it. But seeing it with muggles may not feel as good,” says Maxine Holloway who wrote the essay What Actual Sex Workers Think About the New Movie ‘Hustlers’ for her column Brain-Throbs & Blow Jobs. I agree, and I propose that only sex workers and their allies are allowed to love this film. 

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Sure, there are little details Hustlers gets wrong, like the infamous scene where Ramona wraps Destiny (Constance Wu) in her fur coat. (In most clubs, you need to be in street clothes and street shoes when you go outside to smoke.) But one of Hustlers’ biggest issues is its misrepresentation of sex work. While the film is marketed as a fun, feel-good, empowering stripper movie, it represents a crime ring that took place in and among stripper communities and conflates sex work with crime in a way I am not comfortable with. It also presents a nonexistent version of an already problematic whoearchy (that is, whore hierarchy) where somehow a fat woman is allowed to be on stage in the club, and workers who fuck are looked upon as trashy and replaceable. 

There’s an issue of representation. Lizzo’s role, a sexy fat stripper with a night shift at the same club, is a bit of a fantastical representation. She should exist in any club you visit, but it would be extremely rare to see this kind of diversity in a strip club. I want five of Liz (Lizzo’s character) in every club. But in reality, even the young, thin, white cis girls get fat-shamed in the average strip club. “A lot of clubs tend to lean towards very Eurocentric beauty standards,” explains ethicaldrvgs, founder of Los Angeles’ queer and trans strip show Jolene.

In Hustlers, there’s also a trans woman working the floor, which is incredible. But is it real? “There are some trans women who work and are good at being stealth, but not openly,” ethicaldrvgs says. 

Another huge issue with Hustlers wasn’t actually onscreen at all. Vice reported that the regular dancers of the club in the film were informed bluntly via text, “don’t come to work this week,” which left them scrambling for last-minute income replacement and led one dancer to consider joining a union. In fact, there are many efforts to organize being made across the country so that dancers can be treated fairly. “It really speaks to our current hostile labor climate how the employees of the club where Hustlers was filmed dismissed the strippers who worked there and didn’t offer them any compensation, says Antonia Crane, co-founder of Soldiers of Pole and author. “It can be done. We are organizing in California and campaigning for better conditions … putting pressure on the clubs and working to end discrimination, coercion, wage theft and other workplace abuses.”

So where do we go from here?

To be clear, Hustlers was not about me. I am a white, plus-size porn performer and an XXX dancer. I’m also poor. I’ve never seen the inside of a juicy club like Scores because I’m not sure I have what it takes mentally to survive the fatphobia in mainstream stripper culture. I’m not sure people can picture me in a club like that, but as it is also a film centered around sex workers of color and how they are disproportionately punished for their perceived crimes, my point of view on how the film treated sex workers of color is meant as more of a conversation starter for other brilliant thinkers to pick up. I propose that media sources hire more women of color to write about sex work in their publications. It is time for people with more privilege (like me, a white writer) to point out where there is a lack of equity where I am able to see it, but journalism has to start mirroring those the field is trying to represent.

And for Hollywood’s part? Make the next stripper movie real. Hire the locals. Let us see the sweat on the stage. Don’t spend 40 minutes catering to a muggle crowd with pole dance fitspo. If it is a heist film, let it be dark. Turn the lights down. Hire Blondie Strange if she’ll do it. Even better, get the Queen of Wall Street herself. Maybe all you have to do is ask her.

There are so many ways in which this film was great but could have been better. The actual result is wonderful…  and terrible. A Showgirls for the 2020s. Ultimately, we need more films about the ways in which people use erotic labor to get by and thrive. The stories of sex workers are fascinating, they bring eyeballs to the theaters, and if done right, can bring more humanity and awareness to a world that’s drowning in stigma.