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Is ‘Euphoria’ a Rare Positive Take on Sex Work, or Yet Another Pornographic Male Gaze?

Sex workers are divided about how the stylish HBO drama handles Kat's secret life as a camgirl, citing the show's critical take on porn.

Barbie Ferreira on “Euphoria”

Eddy Chen/HBO

Since its debut on HBO in June, “Euphoria” has provoked conversations around teen sexuality, trans representation, full-frontal male nudity, and One Direction slash fiction, to name just a few. Only one of the series’ many envelope-pushing plot-lines revolves around sex work, specifically online webcam modeling, otherwise known as camming. After losing her virginity at a party, Kat (the luminous Barbie Ferreira in a breakout role) discovers a video of the interaction has been uploaded to PornHub without her consent. Once she sees how many views it’s gotten, she decides to take matters into her own hands and turn a profit from her viral fame.

To some sex workers who watched the show, it’s the rare positive media portrayal of sex work; an empowering and relatable example of sex work as self-actualization, as Kat learns to love her body and take ownership of her sexuality. For others, the character’s arc by the end of Season 1 is not only unrealistic but worrisome, and tainted by the show’s overwhelmingly male gaze and highly critical lens on porn.

“I like that sex work is only a small part of her storyline. I think that humanizes sex workers as multi-dimensional,” said Allie Oops, a queer indie porn performer and filmmaker who also works as an on-set intimacy coordinator. (Oops did not work on “Euphoria.”)

“I think it’s a very realistic portrayal,” said Ari, a therapist and former sex worker who has worked as a camgirl. “She’s so smart. She sees that people really liked her video and she’s like, ‘I’m gonna capitalize on this.’ I identified with that so much. I was like ‘Yes, bitch. Exactly.’ I saw her wheels turning. I had the same thing happen that caused me to go into sex work myself. If somebody’s giving you that kind of attention, why not make money off of it?”

Almost instantly, Kat finds a generous client who showers her with money for humiliating him, otherwise known as a pay pig, or financial domination. Later, an anonymous client buys her entire Amazon wish list before she even agrees to a session.

“You don’t just put up a video online and it goes viral and you suddenly have tons of cash pigs. There’s all these rich men just willing to give her so much money without her showing her face,” said Oops. “It takes months, even years of full-time sex work to build a clientele and start making decent money. It just didn’t connect to what I know about sex work.”

“She’s just figuring it out. She’s kind of fumbling through what her boundaries are, what are hard no’s, what feels flexible, she’s just exploring her sexuality both professionally and personally in a pretty realistic way. She’s trying to figure out what her worth is. Sex work is just a minor part of that,” added Ari.

“Euphoria”

HBO

Adapted from the eponymous Israeli series, “Euphoria” was created, written, produced, and directed by Sam Levinson — by all accounts a straight, white, cisgender man. (It’s also executive-produced by Drake.) The teen-drama-for-adults is ripe with complex female and genderqueer characters, and the central romantic friendship between Rue (Zendaya) and Jules (Hunter Schafer) has been hailed as a highlight. As Levinson’s name cycles endlessly through the end credits, it’s impossible to forget that everything onscreen is filtered through his male gaze. (In the case of Jules being an object of desire, this is undoubtedly a positive shift for trans representation.)

“The sex work plotline seems to be written by a man’s shallow understanding of someone’s relationship to sex work. A lot of the show feels similarly male gazey — lacking depth in the most sexualized characters,” said Oops. “The writer’s own negative relationship to porn and sex work comes through at many moments.”

She cites a scene in the show’s controversial first episode, a “rape fake-out” where the camera freezes on a frame of Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) being choked during sex and saying “no.” “I promise you that this doesn’t end in a rape,” says lead character Rue (Zendaya) in her direct-to-audience voiceover. “But here’s the thing, everyone on the planet watches porn — fact — and if you were to click on the 20 most popular videos on Pornhub right now, this is basically what you’d see.” The screen then cuts to a dizzying montage of laptops opening and pants unzipping, spliced with disembodied images of extreme pornography, the use of which HBO allegedly did not get permission, a claim the network denies.

“You didn’t license porn because you don’t see porn as valuable, you don’t see the humanity of the performers involved, you think it’s all for your disposal. To put porn stars on an international TV show without their consent is in act of violence against sex workers — you are outing them. You can’t make a hot take on revenge porn while simultaneously pirating sexual content from real life sex workers. The juxtaposition of that is really bizarre,” Oops said, admitting that her opinion of the show is filtered through knowledge of the alleged licensing controversy.

“It’s such a shallow take that porn influences violence in teenage boys. It’s the lack of pleasure based sex-ed that is the real issue here. He’s constantly taking jabs at porn on one hand, yet pornifying many of the teenage girls on the show.”

The time and care put into getting the Jules character right — Levinson reportedly consulted transgender sensitivity trainer Scott Turner Schofield extensively — doesn’t seem to have translated to the sex work elements. HBO confirmed the production did not consult any sex workers in the development of the show. In Kat’s last interaction with a client, her overly generous pay pig uses a creepy voice modulator to deepen his voice, and she slams the laptop shut and walks away. Is this foreshadowing a darker relationship to sex work for the next season, or an example of Kat having good boundaries?

“For that [much money] to be dangled in front of her, and for her to listen to her gut and listen to how shaky she felt, to shut the computer and set that boundary, I think that’s huge,” Ari said of the computer-slamming scene. “If she didn’t listen to herself and felt disoriented and confused, but continued doing the call and then went to bed and was crying and had a nightmare and then wasn’t sure if she wanted to do sex work anymore, that would be a really negative portrayal. But this one was really positive. She listened to her gut. She set a boundary.”

Oops pointed out that Kat being underage raises the question around consent, and whether the storyline can even be considered sex work — not to mention the fact that it would be very difficult for her to work online as a camgirl.

“How is she uploading this stuff to the internet being that she’s underage? How would a 16-year-old get a sex tape online and be soliciting cam clients?,” she said. “Also, a lot of teenagers who have gone into sex work have gotten there through survival sex work. Often they’re queer, they’re being kicked out of home, and then turn to sex work. So to see this rich privileged 16-year-old be the face of teen sex work, is this representative of a lot of 16-year-olds who get into sex work?”

It’s unclear whether Kat will continue camming in the second season, and if sex work will ultimately be a tool for liberation or a path to self destruction. But if “Euphoria” wants to do right by its sex worker character, the way it did for Jules, Levinson should listen to sex workers.

“I would like to see her strengthening her boundaries, maybe getting access to sex work community,” said Ari.

Oops has grander ideas.

“I would make her into a sex work rights activist and start standing up to all the slut shaming and revenge porn that’s happening at school and organize the other characters around it. I hope she discusses SESTA/FOSTA, censorship and discrimination. I hope to see her get a little more politically charged because of the work.”

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