Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Review

A sex worker reviews Good Luck to You, Leo Grande

The film claims to offer a progressive, sex-positive and feminist take on sex work. But is it good for sex workers?

Jaimie Tomas
13 September 2022, 9.24am

Landmark Media/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

What options are there in society for bereaved older women facing apparent sexual invisibility? The new British comedy Good Luck to You, Leo Grande suggests hiring an escort might be the way forward.

Structured in four acts, the film is presented as a heart-warming exploration of vulnerability, intimacy and desirability in which Nancy, a recently widowed former teacher, embarks on a journey to access sexual pleasure with the help of a Black-Irish male escort, Leo Grande.

Throughout the film, the viewer follows Leo (Daryl McCormack) and Nancy (Emma Thompson) as he slowly breaks through her insecurities and sexual shame. Nancy reveals to Leo that she has never experienced any kind of sex other than vaginal penetration, and her late husband was an inattentive and perfunctory lover. Although she has long wanted to book an escort, Nancy is conflicted about her role as a client. She feels there is a moral dimension to purchasing sex, and that the act itself is exploitative. Her ambivalent position on the industry likely mirrors that of many in the audience. It is Leo who must reassure her (and the viewer) that he really wants to be there. Nancy puts intense pressure on Leo to reveal details of his personal life; when he refuses, she stalks him and discovers his private identity. The final scene, after their conflict and reconciliatory meeting, has Nancy disrobing in front of the mirror, admiring her naked body, as Leo walks away down the street, a satisfied smile on his face.

A naive premise?

Leo and Nancy’s story ends happily, but the film is wilfully dishonest. Although Leo Grande wants to send a progressive message, its reversal of gender roles, total silence about race, and framing of sex work as socially necessary ultimately misrepresent the industry in ways that undermine sex workers’ labour struggles.

Leo is Black and Irish, and Nancy is white, but there is no mention of this in the dialogue, save for a deeply uncomfortable moment where Nancy speaks of the “power” she feels at having sexual access to Leo. Ignoring the obvious racial power dynamic between them, the film tells the story of an older woman fulfilling her fantasies with a younger (but still adult) man, a hypothetical scenario often used to argue for sex work as feminist and sex positive to those with misgivings. Although people of all genders sell and buy sex, the global reality of the sex trade is that overwhelmingly men purchase sex from women. Male escorts are not uncommon, but they almost always sell the majority of their labour to other men. Successful, exclusively straight, male escorts are rare (and often have a well-established career in porn). All but one of the clients Leo mentions are women, and he doesn’t have penetrative sex with his one male client, which comes across as an intentionally sanitised portrait of a sex worker’s labour.

Can you imagine sexually servicing a stranger who asks for your history of abuse?

The film is clearly trying to convey the inherent value and necessity of sex work as a form of care work, but it can only do so with a switcheroo female client/male worker dynamic – one of the encounters least representative of the industry. If Leo and Nancy’s roles were reversed, it would be significantly harder to market the film as a touching story of care work. Leo’s labour as an escort is presented as being more meaningful than just sex – he provides intimacy, companionship and conversation to his clients. These are services offered by most sex workers, but in emphasising Leo’s professionalism and implying that his job is somehow therapist-adjacent, the film winds up functioning as an exercise in respectability politics, rather than advocacy. Leo Grande has no supportive message for sex workers who are not perceived as ‘professional’, such as street-based sex workers and sex workers who use drugs, although the labour they perform is virtually identical to Leo’s.

In addition to the gender dynamics, the film utterly misrepresents the legal landscape for sex workers in the UK. When Nancy asks if Leo has ever been “in trouble” because of the partial criminalisation of sex work, he responds that solicitation is illegal, but selling time and companionship is not. Significantly, neither of them – Nancy supposedly having taught a course on the subject – mention the criminal brothel keeping laws that govern sex work in the UK and Ireland. These laws prevent two or more workers from sharing premises, even for separate businesses at separate times.

Working alone can be hazardous in any vocation, but it is especially so in sex work. Dangerous clients use the brothel keeping laws against workers; they know that we risk being prosecuted ourselves if we go to the police, leaving us vulnerable to attacks. These laws cause significant harm to all sex workers in the UK and Ireland, especially migrant workers; it is bizarre for them to go unmentioned. Neither Nancy, nor the film itself, are really concerned with Leo’s labour rights – only that he convincingly performs enjoyment and enthusiastic consent.

The problem with romanticising sex work

Despite its flawed perspective, the film’s dialogue is overwhelmingly convincing. Nancy asks Leo a number of invasive questions, such as his ‘real’ name, whether his family knows about his job and whether he has been abused.

I’m often asked such questions as a sex worker. The clients who asked them all left me feeling exhausted and dehumanised; they each contributed to the level of ambient stress (and sometimes violence) that I face at work. Clients do not ask questions like these out of concern, but to voyeuristically gain access to a sex worker’s private life as well as their body – can you imagine sexually servicing a stranger who asks for your history of abuse?

At an early point in the film, Nancy asks Leo if he is demeaned or degraded in his work, and Leo reassures her that he is not. Personally, it is the demand to prove my authentic enjoyment in the face of relentless scepticism that I have found to be one of the most degrading aspects of the job. For some clients, it is not enough to be present and willing; you have to display authentic pleasure, an undefined concept measured entirely by the client’s own standards. With Nancy, who is hell-bent on making each encounter “real”, performing authenticity is an impossible task; it can never be satisfyingly proved and the pressure can cause sex workers overwhelming stress.

Sex workers aren’t safer if the industry is presented as an unfairly maligned utopia.

The problem with Leo Grande then, is not that the script is unbelievable. It is that this horrifying dynamic is presented as quirky and loveable only because Nancy is a vulnerable older white woman. The final act of the film has Leo and Nancy in a cafe where she apologises for stalking him and then outs him to a waitress (although Leo, bizarrely, seems fine with this). There are many sex workers who would refuse to see a client like Nancy and be disturbed by further contact from her. Of course, some sex workers would accept this booking, as Leo does. Whilst Leo is presented as having genuine fondness and patience for Nancy, the real-life sex workers who take such work usually only have two concerns in mind: money, and getting out safely.

The politics of desire

Despite Leo Grande’s what if? approach to the gender dynamics and criminality of sex work, it deserves credit for thematising the invisibility of older women. There aren’t many films made about the sexual agency of middle-aged women, and even fewer in which the woman is depicted in such a complex yet compassionate way. Nancy has regrets about becoming a parent (her son is “boring”, her daughter a “disappointment”), and wonders what her life would have become if she’d had more options than motherhood. These are real issues worthy of attention and exploration. Leo Grande however doesn’t provide this; it offers only one strategy for coping with gendered invisibility and patriarchal desire: to purchase sex.

In this framework, wealthy older women can simply sidestep exclusion by booking an escort. Buying one's way out of gendered invisibility however, is a largely inaccessible, individual solution to the systemic problem of patriarchal oppression under capitalism. As Amia Srinivasan argues in Does anyone have the right to sex?:

“to understand what sort of work sex work is – just what physical and psychical acts are being bought and sold, and why it is overwhelmingly women who do it, and overwhelmingly men who pay for it – surely we have to say something about the political formation of male desire.”

If we say nothing about who is and isn’t considered desirable and ignore the exploitative gender and race dynamics of the sex industry, we risk sanitising it as a neoliberal buffet of sexual choice in which “everyone wants something different”, as Leo says.

Leo Grande has received positive reviews because it sends messages about the sex industry that people currently want to hear: that workers are free agents in a sexual marketplace, and that women buy sex from men sometimes too. The film encourages the viewer to dismiss their discomfort with an exploitative industry by depicting sex work as a necessary public health service. As Leo says, “imagine how civilised it could be. If it was just available to all and there was no shame attached, no judgement”. But the film does not understand that there is a difference between supporting the sex industry – managers and clients – and supporting sex workers.

Sex workers aren’t safer if the industry is presented as an unfairly maligned utopia of sexually blossoming middle-aged white women. The social value of sex work is debatable, but ultimately completely irrelevant to the struggle for sex workers’ rights. Sex worker safety, like that of all marginalised workers, is achieved through decriminalisation, access to healthcare and housing, and the free movement of people across borders. If you care about sex workers and our labour conditions, support your local strippers collective or make a donation to a sex worker hardship fund – just don’t romanticise the sex industry.

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