Review: ‘Sell/Buy/Date,’ starring Sarah Jones

March 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sarah Jones (as herself, as the Nereida character and as the Bella character) in “Sell/Buy/Date” (Photo courtesy of Sell/Buy/Date Film)

“Sell/Buy/Date”

Directed by Sarah Jones

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York, California and Nevada, the documentary film “Sell/Buy/Date” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, white, Latino and Native American) from the working-class and middle-class discussing American society’s attitudes and laws about sex workers.

Culture Clash: People offer different perspectives on whether or not certain types of sex work should be legal and what the repercussions would be if the laws changed.

Culture Audience: “Sell/Buy/Date” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching an unusual documentary about sex workers that blends comedy and the seriousness of hard-hitting issues.

In the very unique documentary “Sell/Buy/Date,” director Sarah Jones takes viewers on a personal journey exploring diverse perspectives of sex workers in America. The movie’s tonal shift from lighthearted to tragic is jarring but necessary. The first two thirds of the film put more emphasis on Jones alternating between comedic sketches and interviews that she conducted with sex workers and celebrities. The last third of the film is when the documentary takes a much darker and more realistic turn, when sex workers talk about the exploitation and abuse that’s part of the sex industry, whether the sex work is legal or not.

“Sell/Buy/Date” is based on Jones’ one-woman stage show “Sell/Buy/Date,” which had a limited off-Broadway run in New York City in 2016 and a limited engagement in Los Angeles in 2018. In the stage show, Jones played various characters representing various perspectives of the sex industry. Jones is also known for her one-woman, off-Broadway show “Bridge & Tunnel,” which won a special Tony Award in 2006. Meryl Streep was an executive producer of “Bridge & Tunnel,” and Streep has the same title for the “Sell/Buy/Date” documentary.

In the “Sell/Buy/Date” stage show, Jones played 19 fictional characters of various races, ethnicities and genders. In real life, Jones (who usually identifies as African American and sometimes as biracial or multiracial) is the child of “an African American father and mother of mixed Euro-American and Caribbean descent,” according to Jones’ Wikipedia page. She calls herself a “woman of color” in the documentary.

In the “Sell/Buy/Date” documentary, Jones portrays four fictional characters: Lorraine, an outspoken 85-year-old white Jewish grandmother; Bella, an academic-minded white college sophomore, who’s majoring in sex-work studies and who’s “ashamed of her white privilege”; Nereida, a sassy half-Dominican, half-Puerto Rican advocate for female rights; and Rashid, a working-class African American man who’s an aspiring entrepreneur and who works as an Uber driver to pay his bills. The “Sell/Buy/Date” stage show also had fictional characters in the sex industry, but none of the play’s sex-worker characters are in the “Sell/Buy/Date” documentary, because Jones interviews real-life sex workers in the film.

Jones interviewed people in New York state (where Jones is based), California and Nevada. The interviewees range from sex workers to activists to people who are not in the sex industry but who know Jones personally. It’s clear from watching the tonal shift of the film that Jones started off thinking that the film was going to go one way, and it turned out going another way. “Sell/Buy/Date” had its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

The movie opens with a scene of Jones, Lorraine, Bella and Nereida gathered in Jones’ dressing room, as they talk about the “Sell/Buy/Date” stage show, which will soon close. It’s a comedy sketch where the four women discuss the controversy over the show, such as protestors and critics who call Jones and “Sell/Buy/Date” a “danger to women.” Nereida comments that with the “Sell/Buy/Date documentary, Jones was trying so hard to be the “wokest” to please everybody, the play has just ended up angering “everybody.” In a staged scene, Jones is seen getting criticism on social media for being a SWERF: Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist, which is a label that Jones says does not apply to her.

In a voiceover, Jones says of the “Sell/Buy/Date” characters that she created: “On stage, in my play, they help me share different sides of a topic that’s not often talked about in the sex industry.” As time goes on in the documentary, Jones eventually reveals that she’s created “Sell/Buy/Date” (the play and the movie) as a way to try to emotionally heal and come to terms with the death of her 18-year-old sister Naomi, whose drug addiction led to her becoming a sex worker. Jones doesn’t go into too many details about this tragedy in the movie, but she has said in media interviews that Naomi died at the start of Jones’ career in the entertainment industry.

Early on in the documentary, Jones mentions dreading the anniversary of Naomi’s death. She also talks about keeping Naomi’s journal for three years and being afraid to read it, although she eventually does read parts of the journal on camera in the documentary. It’s one of the best parts of the movie, when Jones is being herself and showing a very vulnerable side to her, instead of playing characters to get some laughs.

Jones’ mother Leslie (an obstetrician/gynecologist) appears briefly in the documentary and mostly shows support for Jones in making this movie, but she also expresses her disapproval of her daughter having to spend so much time with people whom Leslie thinks are unsavory characters because of their line of work. These mother-daughter scenes are mostly heartwarming, but viewers can tell that the subject of Naomi is too painful for them to talk about in depth on camera. (Jones’ parents are divorced, and her father does not appear in the documentary.)

There’s a little bit of Leslie that comes across in Jones’ grandmotherly Lorraine character. The character of Bella represents people who think all sex work should be legal everywhere. The character of Nereida is vehemently opposed to prostitution being legal, because she believes that prostitutes (especially female prostitutes) will still be exploited. In the beginning of the movie, Nereida argues with Jones about Jones glorifying prostitution in the documentary. And later, Nereida gives a passionate monologue that’s one of the movie’s best scenes. As for Rashid, this character is in the movie for pure comic relief as Jones’ driver. He doesn’t have much to say about the sex industry except to hint that he’s had experience in hiring sex workers.

People have different definitions of “sex work,” so “Sell/Buy/Date” talks mostly to sex workers whose primary sex work involves sex acts that are done in person. For example, there are no interviews with people who work only in phone sex or Internet/webcam sex. It’s debatable whether or not getting paid to strip and dance nude is considered “sex work,” but the movie includes a segment where Jones goes to a pole-dancing class taught by Amy Bond, founder of Pole + Dance Studios in San Francisco. During her interview, Bond opens up about her puritanical Mormon background and how she used to do porn. Bond encourages Jones and other people in the pole-dancing class to have more of a mind/body connection.

One of the more ironically interesting parts of the documentary is when Jones is in Las Vegas for a Sex Industrialist Revolution Conference taking place right next to an anti-sex trafficking conference. However, the documentary could have used more exploration of what making prostitution legal would really mean for sex-trafficking activities and how it all relates to gender issues. Men are the majority of customers for prostitutes, but the customers are punished less than the prostitutes, when it comes to the law and society’s judgments. It’s debatable if legal prostitution really erases the society stigma that prostitutes (who are usually female) have to bear more than their customers.

Some celebrities make cameos as themselves in the documentary. Rosario Dawson gives words of encouragement to Jones about making the movie. Ilana Glazer and Jones talk about the controversy over the “Sell/Buy/Date” play. Bryan Cranston appears toward the end of the film and shares a very personal story with Jones about how he lost his virginity to a prostitute.

At various points in the scripted parts of the movie, Jones is seen interacting by phone only with two characters from her “support team”: her manager Roger and her publicist Nora. These are fictional characters that could be based on real-life people. In the movie, it’s mentioned that Jones is in a “dead-end relationship” with Roger and that they are “just using each other.” Roger is also evicting her from a home that he’s been renting for her because he doesn’t want to pay her rent anymore. It’s never really explained in the movie how true any of this information is, but it looks out of place in a documentary.

For most of the documentary, the fictional characters drift in and out of the narrative. Other scenes not involving these fictional characters are deliberately staged, such as a scene where Jones is in a waiting room for a doctor’s appointment, and she’s sitting near a sex worker named Tish “The Dish” Roberts. The scene is staged to make it look like Roberts and Jones are meeting as random strangers for the first time, as Roberts sees Jones and gushes to Jones that she’s a fan of the “Sell/Buy/Date” play.

In this waiting room, the two women then talk about Roberts’ experiences as a sex worker. Roberts (who is African American) says she became a sex worker at age 17, when a white male schoolteacher she had at the time gave her a lot of attention that she craved. The teacher knew that Roberts came from an impoverished, broken home, so the attention that he gave her eventually turned to paying her to perform sex acts with him.

Roberts says that these payments for sex acts continued on more than one occasion, and she obeyed the teacher’s orders to keep everything a secret. She comments to Jones about that sexual experience: “It felt like a transaction. I learned to detach from it.”

In the conversation, Roberts thanks Jones for doing the “Sell/Buy/Date” play and movie for giving a voice to sex workers. Jones doesn’t pass judgment on Roberts, but neither does Jones call this teacher-student experience for what it really is: sexual exploitation. And depending on the age-of-consent-law in the state where it took place, it would have been illegal sexual abuse.

Lotus Lain, a sex worker who is also described as a “sex worker advocate,” warns Jones about the pitfalls of directing this documentary and not being in the sex industry herself: “You’re about to get yourself cancelled. You’re an outsider. You are what we call a ‘civilian.’ You do not understand what it is we go through to be telling our stories.” The conversation between Jones and Lain ends on a cordial note, but Jones does seem very aware throughout the film that she’s learning more about the sex industry as she goes along in making the documentary.

At first, some of the sex workers interviewed in the documentary paint a rosy picture of being in control of their work and their bodies. A common theme in this talk is that sex work can equal “empowerment.” But what “Sell/Buy/Date” eventually does is expose the different layers of the sex industry to show that the people who push the most for prostitution to be legal are the ones who are most likely to get the most financial gain from it. And men are the vast majority of the business owners in the sex industry.

In the documentary, these business owners include porn entrepreneur/actor Evan Seinfeld (also known as a musician who used to be the lead singer/bassist for the rock band Biohazard), who essentially brags about how much money he can make from porn and talks about how his employees (who are mostly women) can make a lot of money too. What he doesn’t mention (but is obvious to anyone who knows anything about business) is that because Seinfeld owns his company, he still makes more money than the people who work for him.

In Nevada (where prostitution is legal), brothel owner Alice Little gives Jones a cheerful tour of her Chicken Ranch brothel, which has only women as sex workers. Little talks about how the brothel is safe and regulated, but she glosses over any negative experiences her employees have had with customers. Little admits that she’s one of the very few women in the United States who owns a legal brothel. What Seinfeld and Little have in common is promoting their businesses in this documentary, so of course their agenda is to make the sex industry look as glamorous as possible.

But then, Jones shows another side of the sex industry that is more common: the workers who don’t own businesses in the sex industry, and who are at the mercy of customers, pimps/madams and other people who can exploit them. The documentary starts to get real when sex workers/activists such as Esperanza Fonseca (a transgender woman) and Pueblo tribe member Terria Xo open up about the violence and other abuse they’ve experienced in their line of work. Addictions to drugs and alcohol are also occupational hazards. When people talk about making prostitution legal, no one likes to talk about who’s going to pay the medical bills when these sex workers get viciously assaulted during their work.

Jones interviews Xo with other Native American activists, such as Jennifer Marley (who is Tewa, part of the Pueblo tribe) and Becki Jones (from the Diné/Navajo tribe), who give honest and direct talk about how sex workers who are women of color and transgender women are disproportionately more likely than any other sex workers to experience violence and death because of sex work. And therefore, they say that even if prostitution became legal everywhere in America, it still would not change the violence that can happen, and the racial and gender disparities in who gets to profit the most from sex work. “Sell/Buy/Date” doesn’t force viewers to think one way or another about these issues, but it admirably presents enough perspectives for viewers to make up their own minds.

UPDATE: Cinedigm will release “Sell/Buy/Date” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 14, 2022.

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