I was hoping to get this post out by Valentine’s Day, but just as well that I’m a few days late. Inspired by the romance of the Holiday of Lovers, I wanted to touch upon a different side of intimacy: that of the sex industry. First of all, I think the term “sex industry” can be problematic, but I don’t have a better term to use for the broad spectrum of services of a sexual nature that are offered. The two documentaries I am going to review look into the world of the legal sex industry as portrayed by Pandora’s Box in New York City, and the Chicken Ranch in Nevada. These films focus mainly on the lives of the women who work there, what they think of their work, their clients, and their own personal lives.
Fetishes looks into an upscale S&M club in New York City called Pandora’s Box, (still in operation). Filmed solely on location at the club, we meet the various women who work there, and see what kind of work they do. The movie is divided into chapters based on the various fetishes accommodated by the club from bondage to role play and beyond. Most of this film puts the audience in an uncomfortable Clockwork Orange-esque hold. What you see may disturb you, and yet you can’t look away. (At least I couldn’t, but I have a high tolerance for the awkward and uncomfortable in movies). Viewers may find it unsettling viewing because they cannot believe that some people actually get off on the fetishes that the club addresses (from licking toilets, to being locked up in a tiny cage and more). On the other hand, I think many viewers might be disturbed at the mirror this film holds up to themselves and society. After all, if there were not a demand for such services, they would not exist. The fact of the matter is that many of us harbor conscious and subconscious fetishism to some degree, but many are unable to act out these fantasies in their day-to-day lives. These fetishes are taboo, and society tells us to be shameful of the unconventional ways we find arousal. It is because of this sex-shame that many people in otherwise healthy relationships find themselves growing distant sexually, perhaps seeking services such as those at Pandora’s Box on the side to fulfill those urges and desires that the individual is too afraid to mention to their partner, lest they disturb them to a point of no return.
Although this film provides an educational aspect into the world of fetishism, perhaps the most interesting and somewhat subtler goal of the film is to explore the lives of the mistresses of Pandora’s Box. We learn of the various motivational factors that lead women to this work, and we see the varying degrees of compassion (and more often lack thereof) that these mistresses have for their clients. Many of the women working at Pandora’s Box display an obvious disdain and disgust for their clients, and men in general. In some cases, it is clear that this attitude is all part of the act, as humiliation and disdain is what the clients request of the mistresses. In other cases, these women have been wronged by men in their relationships outside of the club, and they have become embittered and hateful of men, and thus may get pleasure out of humiliating them within the confines of the club, because they can take out their aggressive feelings they have about men from their personal experiences out on clients, and get paid to do so. Finally, I think for many of the mistresses, the lines become blurred, and they don’t know where their professional persona ends and their real self begins. Working in this capacity day in and day out obviously either shapes, encourages or enriches these women’s domineering personalities against men, so that when a client comes in that is not submissive or respectful, the claws really come out.
While watching this movie, I was a little uncomfortable (especially because I was watching it with someone else), and I couldn’t even watch it all in one sitting. When I finished the movie, I rated it 3/5 stars because I didn’t find it particularly enlightening or enriching. That was about 6 months ago, and since then, I have reflected upon the movie from time-to-time. I think it was something I needed to pull away from and think about to get more out of it. It is not for the weak-of-heart, but perhaps you want to explore your own fetishism, observe how clients and mistresses navigate the BDSM space, or maybe you just want to gawk at the spectacle that is Pandora’s Box. Whatever your reason, it couldn’t hurt to give it a change. Unless you’re into that kind of thing. 🙂
Chicken Ranch (1983)
How can a movie about a brothel be so non-titillating (pun intended)? This documentary is about the institution of legalized prostitution in the state of Nevada as practiced at the Chicken Ranch, a brothel deep in the desert (also still in operation). Clients drive long distances and fly in on private jets to visit Chicken Ranch, which was started in Texas and was the inspiration from a lil’ ol’ Dolly Parton musical y’all might’ve heard of. Like Fetishes, this film takes an intimate look into the lives of the women who work for this establishment. Unlike the former film, Chicken Ranch goes very little into detail of what goes on behind the closed doors of the business. This documentary zooms in on the lives of the women who work at the Chicken Ranch, a place where they also live while they are working for 3 weeks at a time. You watch the girls hang out and smoke cigarettes, chat about clients and relationships, eat dinner together, watch TV, get ready for work, and other mundane tasks. You seem them meet clients for the first time, which consists of the girls standing in a line-up and introducing themselves just by stepping forward and saying their name. Clients then choose which woman they want to “party” with, and they lead the client to their bedroom, where a variety of sexual services are offered. For how much more sexually explicit their work is at the Chicken Ranch (sex is not permitted on the premises of Pandora’s Box), the film is much tamer than Fetishes.
Some recognizable themes come up in Chicken Ranch that you see in Fetishes. Most noticeably the disdain that some of these women have for their clients. At Chicken Ranch, however, it seems as though the women have to put up with a great deal more subjugation and domination from clients. These women for the most part still won’t take shit (Connie and Fran the madame come to mind).
I think that when many people think of the sex industry through the traditional western societal lens, we tend to pity the women involved, see them as victims that are forced into a sort of sex slavery. While it is true than some women are in the sex industry to support drug habits, or due to psychological issues, there are also many women who work in the sex industry because they enjoy it, they are good at it, it beats an office job from their point of view. Many of us are a slave to our jobs without even seeing it that way some times, and the Chicken Ranch and Pandora’s Box are just one more place of employment for the women who can handle that line of work. While these two films are not all-inclusive of the various facets of the sex industry, nor do they show the myriad of perspectives of the work, they are a fascinating and entertaining start.
You can find Fetishes on Netflix, and Chicken Ranch on Hulu.com.