Sarah Jones’ Sell/Buy/Date, a hybrid doc/narrative succeeds on many levels. Premiering at SXSW, Jones directed and wrote the film based on her titular play (2016, 2018). Indeed, the Tony award winning comedian presents some of Jones most entertaining and thought-provoking work. Stylistically, the mixed race Black comic channels equanimity and social inclusiveness via her characters. Intrusively, they tag along on her journey of discovery into the sex industry. Eventually, she exposes her personal relationship with the subject. Finally, in the reveal at the end, Jones poignantly elucidates the secret she hid from herself and others for most of her life.
Sarah Jones’ funny characters drive ‘Sell/Buy/Date’
Regarding her characters, Jones twits us that the line between their reality and her own blurs. Often, they take over the narrative to express their strong perspectives. Vitally, much of Jones’ witty humor rides on their multi-cultural cache. Without Lorrene, Bella, Nereida and Rashid, the juxtaposition of perspectives about sex industry exploitation versus empowerment would just be rants and rhetoric. Instead, Jones, who deftly portrays each character’s unique “being,” uses their viewpoints to present countervailing cultural winds. In conclusion what results fosters a kaleidoscope of perspectives which explore issues about the controversies related to sex work.
Insightfully written by Sarah Jones and David Goldblum, Sell/Buy/Date delivers a clear understanding of our culture’s attitudes and behaviors toward sex. The hunt for the middle ground of truth fuels Jones’ complicated journey. Subsequently, Jones meets with important influencers in the sex industry. And for fun and additional insights some of Jones’ friends in the entertainment industry provide advice and encouragement along the way. Their appearance surprises and delights at the right moments. Expanding to highlight the complexity of the subject, Jones and her entourage crisscross the country interviewing sex workers and more.
Sex Workers voices are vital part of the examination
By including sex workers’ voices, perhaps not Jones’ overriding intention initially, she satisfied an imperative. Controversially, Laverne Cox (Inventing Anna), publicly pulled support for Jones’ documentary. Emotionally distraught from the media backlash, Cox received she felt to apologize and disengage. Though Cox believed in Jones’ amazing talent and brilliance, on Twitter and other sites, sex workers condemned Jones and begged Cox to dump the project.
Essentially, they targeted the comedian accusing her of cultural appropriation. Jones titular stage production which inspired the film did not include the voices of sex workers. How could Jones, a Black feminist whose work always represented stories of traditionally marginalized people, “stab sex workers in the back?” As they struggled for liberation and self-determination, how could Jones write their story without consulting them? Their online outrage threatening to “cancel” Jones provides the opening grist for her documentary. Also, humorously with her characters advising her, she decides to seek out sex workers to include their experiences.
Sex Workers are outraged by anyone else telling their story
Sex workers had a point; what did Jones know about their lives? Interestingly, Jones knew more than she let on. Thus, by the conclusion of the film we receive Jones’ perspective and that delivered by her characters and a host of others running a full continuum of cultural attitudes. That way Jones allows viewers to make their own conclusions, hopefully as more informed individuals.
Whether one views the subject intellectually or plunges into it on a visceral, personal level, the topic fascinates. Indeed, the sex industry sits at the intersection of race, feminism, power, paternalism, and economics. Thus, with humor and grace Jones’s expansive approach in Sell/Buy/Date is an imperative. In this work Jones lays bare themes of criminal justice inequality and gender discrimination with tie-ins to poverty.
Vitally, the overriding question that allows Jones to eloquently explore the perspectives of sex workers includes this. How can we encourage a healthy relationship to sex, power, race and our economy, without exploitation or stigma? Jones’ goal is not to prescribe solutions, but highlight the human faces and voices at the center of sex work, exploitation and empowerment.
Sell/Buy/Date showcases sex workers from diverse backgrounds
Naturally, most of the interviews that Jones conducts in fact highlight sex workers. After introducing the themes and controversies, Jones visits the state which legalized prostitution. She tours the Chicken Ranch, a legal brothel 60 miles outside Las Vegas. Importantly, a non-judgmental approach applies as Jones takes a tour with Debbie Rivenburgh. Rivenburgh manages the place and does not work as a prostitute. With state of the art prostitution, the women view the business as a trade, not exploitation of their bodies. Being demeaned as “chickens” doesn’t come into it. That branding lures the men who visit and pay for their services. Indeed, empowered women choose to exploit men and become earners, as men turn a blind eye to being exploited.
However, others become abused by sexual exploitation. Importantly, Jones visits an indigenous reservation where the women discuss the trafficking and the killing of First Nations’s women. To her credit Jones’ interviews cover the stories of the devastation these women feel at having to sell their bodies. Conversely, their testimony diverges from other women (usually white). They tend to offer upbeat assessments about their sex work and affirm their independence and enjoyment as “working women.”
Sarah Jones’ film initiates discussion about a vital topic
Jones’ Sell/Buy/Date entertains with her wonderful humor. Also, the film enlightens us about a topic that cries out for open discussion and in the hope of eventual legislation. With no right answers, Jones notes destructive attitudes that need revision. Predominately, black and brown women don’t find empowerment from sex work they enter because of their circumstances. Oftentimes, poverty drives them to what becomes an abusive and demeaning miserable life.
In her humorous, non judgmental approach even Jones’ online detractors turn into friends. Finally, Jones resolves an issue in her own family that haunted her. Sell/Buy/Date is one to see. Catch it at the film’s SXSW website.
Sell/Buy/Date marks the first production of Jones’ recently launched Foment Productions, a social justice-focused entertainment company aligned with her progressive, intersectional activism. Check your favorite channels online for its release.