I just finished watching the french film Student Services (the original title is Mes chères études, which roughly translates to “My expensive studies”) on Netflix’s Instant Streaming. If films about sex work interest you, I would encourage you to watch this film. If you’re not interested, you can continue reading but, of course, there are tons of spoilers.
I think it’s important to know some background before getting any deeper into the film. The film is based on a french memoir written by “Laura D.” who was a college student focusing on language studies (Spanish, specifically). She, while in school, became a sex worker to pay her bills after struggling to juggle different low-paying jobs. It’s clear that in the film, Laura reluctantly goes into the sex work business. As a viewer, we assume that if she could find a part time job with flexible hours that paid just as well, she would do that. This is an important point that is made repeatedly throughout the film (and, I imagine, many films about sex work) – in the end, it’s about the money. At the closing the of the film, we see that Laura has become something of a national curiousity. She is giving an interview on TV (semi-anonymously) and we are led to believe that she’s promoting her memoir. It’s hard not be reminded of Belle Du Jour and the attention she received in England and abroad. We all know how the Belle Du Jour story goes: woman blogs anonymously about her life as a sex worker. She is simultaneously in academia and doesn’t want her career demolished if word were to leak out. Before she is found out, she preemptively informs the press. Press goes wild and now there’s a TV series about her side-job. But these two stories are a bit different. Belle’s tone is (from the admittedly limited amount I’ve read of her) one of utter glee while Laura’s is of pain, misery with moments of happiness.
Laura struggles with sex work, has difficulty maintaining a relationship with her partner and we see her life spiral to a breaking point. She is abused and exploited by some clients and with others she is treated respectfully. What happens to her incites anger from us because what people are doing to her is wrong and utterly heartbreaking because there are no easy answers here.
When thinking about Student Services, it’s tempting to draw broad conclusions about the sex work industry, women’s bodies as commodity, choice and women’s empowerment. Yes, there are some obvious messages we can gather from this film and (assuming most of this is accurate) take away but I think to do so would be a mistake.
This would be a mistake because no film can represent any industry or line of work entirely and sex work is no exception. Make no bones about it, Student Services has a bleak outlook on sex work but it tries to focus its criticism (or skepticism, depending on how you look at it) on that work when it is pursued by desperate college students. I’m not joking here. The film ends with a sort of ominous statistic about the number of college students who secretly do sex work to make ends meet. When combined with the movie, the suggestion is, of course, “my God, how can we let these poor kids do this!”
This is similar to the usual refrain from those that vehemently oppose prostitution/stripping/pornography except that with the film, there is a sort of parental twist. The comment here is both that these people shouldn’t do this and that we can’t have a society that pushes people to pursue this line of work. The former blames the sex worker. The latter blames the culture, the patriarchy. But in either case, I know that it can certainly feel that it is just critical of sex work as a whole. But I don’t think that’s what the movie is trying to do.
What the movie is trying to do, in part, is to scrape away the notion that everything one does (and what Laura did) is a choice. In fact, it’s one of the ending lines in the film. She’s asked by the interviewer something to the effect of “did you feel like everything you did was your choice?” Her answer is simple, “No.”
Watching the film, we know exactly what she means when she says everything wasn’t her choice. We see the circumstances she is caught in and we understand the ways in which she is set-up to be taken advantage of by society through financial institutions, hurt by gender stereotypes and exploited by men who know she’s in a bit of a bind if she were to run to the police. Yes, in many jobs she was at, she could’ve left at some point but to say that she had a choice with 100% freedom without repercussions I think blames her here. If there’s one thing this film does astonishingly well is remind us that the decisions she makes are difficult ones. Why is she going back to that creepy and possibly murderous client? We know why. We don’t like it, but we understand. I would not hesitate to call her the victim in this story and I know many people are going to have trouble agreeing with me on that but if she’s not a victim, she certainly is victimized again and again.
One of the most common things people say about sex work and exploitation (or being taken advantage of) is to boil it down to the transaction of money for services. Inevitably, someone comments that when someone is making tons of money for sexual services, the customer (that is, the man in most cases) is the one truly being taken advantage of and as such, the worker (that is, the woman in most cases) is the one with the power in the situation. I think this idea means well but it always rubs me the wrong way because it’s rooted in the idea that if sex equals power and money equals power, to have both is to be truly powerful. In many ways, sex does seem to equal power but it’s not the kind of power that is equal necessarily for men and women. Women do not have access to the same well of privilege and power that men do. In a society that places top dollar on access to women’s bodies, we can’t draw the conclusion that women are consequently all-powerful and free from sexist oppression. Privilege just doesn’t work that way. The work can certainly beempowering but it does not in and of itself wrestle away male privilege from men or take the sexism out of gender oppression.
The film is not an all-damning portrait of sex-work. I hope you don’t read it that way and I hope you don’t read my commentary that way. It is, however, wary of sex work in certain contexts like Laura where the playing field is set-up to be at her disadvantage. There is no level playing field for her. In that way, she’s more different from Belle Du Jour or Sasha Grey than she is the same.