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.

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.

Again, the viewers of Blue aren't necessarily men—and, men or women, we're certainly supposed to primarily identify with Blue's struggles and child-raising worries, rather than primarily lusting after her. Identity and desire aren't necessarily quite that separable, though. Wanting to be someone and wanting to be with someone can be tangled up together, the desire to know someone better in order to become like them shading into the desire to know someone in a different sense. The creators here are well aware of this dynamic—which is why in, that scene where Blue praises the virtues of just being together to touch and feel, the client she is working with is a woman named Vera (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Vera eventually reveals (right before they kiss) that she is not a client, but a madam who is contemplating hiring Blue away from her current employer.

Vera's distant, severe demeanor, therefore, is evaluative; she is watching Blue's performance as a performance, much as the video's viewers are. When she praises Blue as "warm, appealing, approachable, just a regular girl," she's talking about Blue's presentation of herself as a sexual partner. But she's also talking about Julia Stiles's presentation of herself as Blue. And when, at the end of the episode, Vera basically propositions Blue, the idea is surely meant to be entertaining/stimulating to the female viewers as well as to any male ones. Blue's packaged approachability, the way she has secrets for others, but lets you in, is, then, deliberately figured as similarly exciting for clients, or viewers, of whatever gender.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with this. Better for men (and women) to care about the inner lives of women than not to care about them, after all. And why shouldn't women, as well as men, get to occupy the position of viewer and be pleasurably pandered to through the offer of secrets and knowledge and power?

The caveat is that, to deliver that charge of knowledge and power, Blue falls back rather helplessly on some of the hoariest and most invidious stereotypes of sex workers. It isn't enough for Blue to lead a double life; the drama demands even more shocking secrets. And so, inevitably, Blue must have a history of childhood sexual abuse and daddy issues. In the last episode she initiates a sexual encounter with the man who seems to have been her former abuser by pouting and sticking out her tongue at him as if she's 12.

Of course, some prostitutes do have a history of sexual abuse—it would be surprising if they didn't, given the high levels of sexual assault and abuse among women in general. (Though sex workers don't seem particularly more targeted than anyone else.) But the point is that the abuse and the prostitution and the daddy issues are narratively tangled together as exciting, stimulating secrets. We get to see Blue's secret meetings with clients. We get to see her secret relationship with her son. And we get to see that tongue come out—the wet, red, secret of her infantilization and trauma. Her life, it seems, is nothing but a secret, a hidden exotica to be excitingly opened and consumed by men, or women, or really anyone standing in a less marginal social position. In Blue, you get to own, not just an hour of a prostitute's time, but her life story, including her enticingly concealed and revealed soul.