On Tuesday, Sarah Jones announced that she was moving forward with a documentary titled Sell/Buy/Date that would examine the sex industry, much like her critically acclaimed one-woman show of the same name.
For the feature project, which will mark the Tony Award-winning creator’s directorial debut, Jones revealed that she had enlisted longtime supporter Meryl Streep, Rashida Jones and Laverne Cox as executive producers along with the Ford Foundation, SFFILM Invest and the Harnisch Foundation.
The documentary, per the release, will tackle themes of “inequality (criminal justice, race, sexism, poverty) through the lens of the debate around the sex industry. The documentary asks the question, ‘Is sex work exploitative or empowering?’ The sex industry is hiding everywhere in plain sight during the pandemic, and impacting Black and brown women in particular. That said, many people support sex work, and some even argue those in the commercial sex space are essential workers.”
The project would also find Jones revisiting some of the same current and former sex workers with whom she worked while shaping her stage play. In that version, Jones inhabited more than a dozen multicultural characters as a way to explore people’s relationships to and with the sex industry. Jones, a native of Baltimore who studied at the United Nations School and Bryn Mawr College, has long been an advocate for the empowerment of women and has served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
After The Hollywood Reporter tweeted news of the announcement, the comments section was flooded with responses. Many of those who responded objected to such a project and called into question how many sex workers would be consulted on the documentary and in what light the profession would be positioned.
Melody Kush tweeted, “At the very least, you should be including ALL sides of our industry to be fair to the hundreds of thousands of consensual workers who are one of the most misunderstood and marginalized groups on the planet. You want REAL data? Consult us, and our rights activists.”
Eva de Vil, also known online as Goddess Eva de Vil, posted, “I’m so tired of this exploitative or empowering paradigm appearing in every discourse around sex work. Please change the record. Ask different questions. Ask not if the work oppresses us, but why society finds it necessary to deny us access to rights and resources that everyone else gets. Ask how we can shake off this binary perception and be seen for the ordinary working people that we are. Ask how we can make it safer for us to work. Ask us.”
Cox was also singled out. One user with the handle @mstresscarmilla, tagged Cox and wrote, “Just what the world needs. Another movie where non [sex workers] debate whether sex work is exploitative or empowering. Laverne Cox this project is everything you’re supposedly against. Stop trying to tell [sex work] stories by ignoring them and doxxing them.”
Cox responded directly to the criticisms from multiple users by posting an official statement announcing that she has exited the project, citing outrage and the need to protect her mental health.
“When I agreed to come on as an executive producer of Sell/Buy/Date I did so because I was so deeply moved by Sarah Jones’ brilliant play and her unbelievable, undeniable talent as an artist, as an actor. I signed on to support her incredible talent,” she posted on Wednesday. “I have so much love for her as a human being. But I am not in an emotional place to deal with the outrage by some around my participation in this project. So I have decided to pull out. To be clear, I am no longer involved in any capacity in [‘Sell/Buy/Date.’] I have to take care of my mental, physical and emotional health.”
— Laverne Cox (@Lavernecox) January 7, 2021
Others also took aim at Rashida Jones. Their concerns are tied to her collaborations with Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus on two projects — Hot Girls Wanted and Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On, both Netflix documentary projects (one a feature and the other a docuseries) about the sex industry. After the premiere of the latter, several women came forward and alleged that they were outed for their profession without their permission while others flagged the misrepresentation of sex work as a profession and career like any other. The doxxing claims were rebuked by Bauer and Gradus in an interview with Variety in which they cited fair use.
The response to Sell/Buy/Date is a nuanced one and the criticisms from those in the sex industry are far from the first time a community has objected to being stigmatized, pushed aside or ignored by Hollywood creatives in pursuit of narrative or documentary stories. Sarah Jones also took note of the criticisms and released her own statement on social media Thursday, saying that she appreciated everyone who reached out or commented with concerns about how those in the sex industry would be represented.
“As a Black feminist artist, I have always centered the stories of traditionally marginalized people, especially women and femmes struggling for liberation and self-determination. My sisters in the sex industry are no exception,” she posted. “I am committed to deep listening to folks with lived experience, not only in my interviews but also in those we hire behind the scenes.”
Sarah Jones also responded directly to THR’s requests through her rep, saying that she stands by her public statements. She also added, “As I do with all my work, I’m approaching this documentary with compassion and in an attempt to understand the nuance and complexity of how sex work affects everybody, especially women of color,” she said. “For too long, BIPOC women have had our narratives controlled by others. Thanks to this new moment, I have the opportunity to finally share mine. I am committed to making this an inclusive, respectful documentary about my personal experience as a Black woman, informed by various voices of people with lived experience around this topic. As a feminist who cares deeply about the wellbeing and freedom of ALL people, I am looking forward to sharing my story in the creative way I know how. I hope those who have never lived in my shoes allow me the chance to express my own experience as a Black woman.”
She also responded directly to Cox (see below).
I’m so grateful to you Laverne for coming on the journey with me thus far, and I’m looking forward to continuing my work on the film, and only ask that everyone give Laverne her space while keeping an open mind about the project before judging it. ❤️ https://t.co/6muuEnyHXG
— Sarah Jones (@yesimsarahjones) January 7, 2021
Also wanted to share a word about the doc… pic.twitter.com/5CX1NzyETj
— Sarah Jones (@yesimsarahjones) January 7, 2021