Orange Is the New Black Has a Sex Worker Problem

Tiffany Doggett from OITNB

I HAVE A LOT of feelings about Season 3 of Orange Is the New Black: some bad, most good. The focus on formerly minor characters at Litchfield was refreshing, as were the series’ multiple teaching moments: from the conversation on Freakonomics between Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), to the many astute observations on African-American beauty standards made by Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore). Yet one major story arc involving Pennsatucky’s past that comes back to haunt her in her present has made one thing remarkably clear: there are no sex workers at Litchfield.

I repeat: there are no sex workers in Orange Is the New Black.

Morgan M Page captures my reaction to this realization the best:

She’s right. There are no prostitutes, masseuses, or strippers in Litchfield Penitentiary. And that’s a major problem for a series that has, at least in its most recent season, done such a good job of tackling harsh issues in an open, educational way.

When Orange Is the New Black premiered in 2013, many viewers were relieved to find the show had not stereotyped trans character Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) as a sex worker. We welcome Sophia’s portrayal — even though she never confronts the privilege that saved her from becoming a statistic — because diversity in representation is just as important for the trans community as it is for any other marginalized group.

Still, the total lack of sex workers in Orange Is the New Black is both unrealistic and concerning. Sex work plays a large part in women’s lives across the United States and the world at large, yet it remains stigmatized, complicated, and explored only for sensational media. Leaving it to Netflix and Orange Is the New Black means putting representation of the issue in trustworthy hands.

Excluding human trafficking, sex work is not a federal offense in the United States. It’s certainly illegal, in most parts of the country, to accept money in exchange for sex acts, but only seven states classify repeat offenders as felons; New York, where Orange Is the New Black takes place, is not one of those states. Most of the US considers pimping and brothel ownership a felony, which means those who run prostitution rings could very well wind up as inmates on the show.

It’s much more likely that a sex worker character — if Netflix decides to add any — would find herself in Litchfield for crimes unrelated to her profession. Around 1 in every 100 US women will become a prostitute at some point in her life. This doesn’t count the women who work as dancers, masseuses, adult film stars, and photography models. That may seem a small number, but its almost certain that a facility like Litchfield would have at least one former sex worker within its walls.

There is already a sexual economy within Litchfield. In season 1, both Tricia (Madeline Brewer) and Leanne (Emma Myles) perform oral sex on Officer “Pornstache” Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) in exchange for drugs. Tricia offers sexual favors to Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst) as payment for baked goods, and tensions rise between her and Big Boo as their shared lover, Mercy (Katie Iacona), prepares to leave the prison for good. This economy is the result of a variety of factors, most — if not all — of which are directly related to incarceration.

While Litchfield is a horrible place to exist in, the inmates’ surroundings do not lessen their sexual autonomy. Although the women of Orange Is the New Black face horrendous circumstances, the vast majority of the show’s sexual transactions occur between inmates, or when an inmate has no other choice but to solicit a guard. In season 3, Red (Kate Mulgrew) explains the situation to Officer Healy (Michael Harney):

You take a woman’s power away – her work, her family, her currency – and you leave her with one coin: the one she was born with. It may be tawdry and demeaning, but, if she has to, she will spend it.

Revealing Pennsatucky’s backstory in Season 3 is the closest Orange Is the New Black has come to tackling the subject of prostitution. Without a sex-positive upbringing, Pennsatucky learns to connect uncomfortable, one-sided sex acts with gifts. Her affection is bought by men who give her soda and cigarettes in exchange for sex. When the cycle of rape and misuse repeats with a new guard, Big Boo – whom we already know to be an active participant in the sexual economy – helps her deal with the situation.

A woman’s decision to engage in Litchfield’s sexual economy, then, is largely consensual. While these are not ideal choices, the show’s creators do not appear to condemn them. Rather, Orange Is the New Black has made concerted efforts to portray women’s sexuality, and even situational sex work, in a positive light. Regardless of the circumstances under which the show’s first sex worker inmate will have entered the trade, we know we’ll understand them.

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