The Secret Lives of Prostitutes, as Told by Julia Stiles's YouTube Series

Blue, the WIGS show about a working mom who moonlights as an escort, plays on the idea that knowledge is power.

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YouTube / WIGS

"If you want to hear someone's life story, go on a date, right?" So says Julia Stiles in the role of Blue, a prostitute, to a prospective client. "I prefer to just... let us be together. Listen; touch; feel." Paying for an escort is about the moment, not the narrative; acts, not backstory.

This may or may not be true of prostitution, but it is certainly not true of Blue, a web series on the WIGS channel that debuted last summer as a kind of Lifetime of YouTube. The 12 episodes produced so far do have some interest in sex and kink—there are simulated sex acts, a guy in a diaper who likes being tickled, and a teasingly interrupted girl-girl encounter. But all of these are fairly low-key and sub-R. This isn't Belle du Jour, much less 50 Shades.

Instead, Blue's prurience is focused, precisely, on the life story—and, more specifically, on the double-life story. Blue is a single mother who works at a vaguely defined cubicle job during the day and moonlights as a prostitute at night to make ends meet. She keeps her sex work carefully segregated from the rest of her existence. She does not tell her family nor her co-workers—which seems realistic enough. But she also, has, apparently, no friends or confidants, and though she mentions other girls and a madam with whom she could presumably talk about her bifurcated life as a whole, we never see them. From the first episode, in which Blue discovers that the man she just had sex with is a childhood acquaintance, through the end of the series, when her 13-year-old son Josh (Uriah Shelton) tearfully accuses her of lying to him, Blue is obsessed with the closet. Sex is exciting and powerful not so much as a series of acts, but rather as a series of secrets. Knowing Blue is to have Blue for one's own—which is perhaps in part why stories in which one discovers the prostitute's heart of gold are so consistently titillating and popular, from Pretty Woman on down. (And since secrets are so important to the discussion of this series, there will be spoilers throughout this post. Fair warning.)

In some sense, the focus on sex-as-secret rather than on sex-as-act might be seen as a respectful effort by creator Rodrigo Garcia to steer the series away from grindhouse sexploitation drek. Relatedly, it could be seen as sign that the series is marketed primarily towards women interested in life drama rather than towards men interested in porn—the WIGS channel in general focuses on women-oriented dramas with female leads. Julia Stiles herself certainly views this as a positive thing. "What was fresh and appealing to me [about the character Blue] was that she's not just one role," she said in an interview at EW. "You get to see a full, well-rounded person. She's a mom, a daughter, a friend, an escort, and an accountant."

Less charitably, though, you might see Blue as fresh and appealing to viewers not because she's well-rounded, but because it's exciting to see all her secrets so enticingly spread out before you. In Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible, a 1999 study of porn narratives, Linda Williams argued that the defining generic feature of porn was not arousal, as you'd expect, but rather visibility. In '70s porn films, Williams argues, women were figured as a secret, and the narrative force of the film was directed at revealing that secret, whether through gynecological images of vulvas or confessions/enactments of orgasmic pleasure. The goal was to make women accessible to a (largely) male audience. The films unlocked a secret, or opened a closet, and so gave the viewer the rush of knowledge, excitement, and pleasure.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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