The controversial “Sell/Buy/Date” explores the intersecting worlds of sex work and trafficking


Sarah Jones is a Tony Award-winning playwright and performer who, in 2016, returned to the New York stage with her fourth solo show, Sell/Buy/Date. In the play, Jones plays herself and a number of other characters talking about various aspects of the sex work, pornography and sex trafficking industry, with the narrative stuff that this is presented through the goal of a university course in the future. As Jones brings her play to the movies (sort of), that gimmick is ditched in favor of a new gimmick: a quasi-documentary about her making a film adaptation of her show.

If that doesn’t seem to make much sense, that’s fine. As Sell/Buy/Date opens, we meet Jones closing his theatrical show, and we also meet several characters from the show. There is Lorraine (an elderly Jewish grandmother), Bella (an ultra-liberal white student), Nereida (a Dominican/Puerto Rican women’s rights activist) and Rashid (a young Uber driver). Over the course of the film, Jones and these characters will meet many of the real people who provided Jones with many of the stories and context that were incorporated into his show. The guideline of the film’s “story” is that she speaks to these people before a big announcement of the film at a studio, ostensibly to better understand the actual controversy surrounding her project. (We will return to this controversy.)

Structured as such, this film is only an adaptation of the play (as I understand the stage show, having not seen it) in the loosest sense. The characters played by Jones are likely reusing some of the play’s content, but everything needs to be integrated into this new storyline and, more importantly, all of the stories in others told by his characters in the play are here told by the people to whom they belong. Those parts of the film, where it really acts like a pure documentary, are the strongest and most touching parts of the film. Everyone’s story, whether positive or negative (or sometimes both), is deeply personal and important. When it’s Jones’ characters doing the talking, that’s where the film is in its most non-documentary narrative form, and that’s where the film is weakest. There are fun moments, but more often than not the characters fall into one of two modes. They never have significant and distinct characterizations; instead, they either espouse arguments that sound like college debate speeches or are painfully naked, stereotypical, and uncreative caricatures.

That’s not to say documentaries that blur the line like this can’t be made (go watch Bart Layton’s masterful American animals, which proves this point better than I ever could). In this case, a version of Purchase/Sale/Date it was a more standard documentary would have been more interesting and compelling. Not just because it would remove those other unnecessary characters and elements, but because it would also allow the movie to get a little more meat off the bone. Towards the end of the film, Jones comments on how the subject of the sex industry is so problematic and that “I hope I can do the [fictional] film that talks about all this… it’s too complicated to be simple. Yet that is largely what this film does, without addressing the complexity of these issues. By spending so much time with its characters (and its mother), large parts of the film that could focus on unpacking these issues are wasted, leaving me wanting more complicated dissection and discussion.

That said, it’s not fair to criticize a film for not being what I want, and that’s apparently exactly the movie that Jones wanted to do, so thanks to her for sticking to her vision. It at least tries to address some of these issues more than the original piece, I guess, in light of the aforementioned controversy. Following the announcement of a film adaptation of Jones’ play with Meryl Streep, Rashida Jones and Laverne Cox attached as producers, there was heavy criticism of Jones and his play by some in the labor industry. of sex (and their advocates). Although more nuanced, the high-level version is that Jones’ show has recklessly confused sex work and sex trafficking and that producers Streep and (Rashida) Jones have their own complicated stories that are seen as supporting anti-sex work causes and issues. Cox quickly walked away from production, but the film otherwise moved forward.

In the narrative element of the film, Jones plans to do an adaptation of her show but, after some producers drop out due to a mooted controversy, she sets out on this journey to find out more and figure out if she should do this again. movie (assuming the studio still wants it). It’s all exactly as confusing as it sounds, especially because she references and dances around the controversy without ever really directly engaging with it. To be fair, at the start of the film, Jones explores somewhat whether she’s “allowed” to tell these stories, in a scene with sex worker rights advocate Lotus Lain. Lain notes that Jones is an outsider and that “you have to let sex workers speak for ourselves” while saying that allies who make a mistake should be given the opportunity to learn and grow and be forgiven before they go wrong. to be struck off. She’s of course right, but it’s also a bizarre subterfuge because Jones never unpacks the mistake she’s already been accused of, and she never has a real, frank conversation about the overlap and confluence of work sex and trafficking.

It does a disservice to the public, but it’s also arguably dishonest. For example, early in the film, one of Jones’ characters expresses confusion that the play went on for several months without any of these criticisms now being revealed. That’s not just wrong, but, even if it were true, it shows a lack of awareness of the scale of a film versus the theater, that a one-man theater show played in a handful of cities can not receive the same attention as a Streep- produced film. More troubling, however, is that Jones spends much of the film talking about how she wants to present “both sides” of the discussion, and she doesn’t have her own opinion or point of view which, again , was a criticism directed at her: That her show had a clear anti-sex work viewpoint, compounded by the botched confusion of labor and trafficking. By the end of the film, it’s clear that she does indeed have a specific point of view, that the film has been structured and edited to support that point of view, that she’s not going to engage in criticism of amalgam, and that she thinks her critics can get away with it.

“I wish we lived in a reality where I could tell just one reality, but that’s not the world we live in, it’s too complicated.” It is Jones who apparently claims that his critics’ view ignores the reality of the world we live in, which misses the fundamental criticism that sex work and sex trafficking, while inextricably linked, are not the same thing and that it is not an all-or-nothing offer. In other words, she’s right that it’s complicated, but unfortunately Jones doesn’t seem willing to really explore that complication and the nuances within it. Towards the end of the film, Jones talks about another complicated part of this confusion of issues, which is that for many underprivileged and minorities, any involvement in the sex industry is less a matter of choice than a final decision. appeal. It’s an important part of the conversation – where is work truly chosen and empowering work versus coercion or something worse – and one that, in retrospect, clearly drives Jones’ overall view against sex work . But, again, she rushes in a way that seemingly really brings back her family’s own trauma with sex work as a last-minute, good-faith attempt to explain why she can finally tell this story. From there, she concludes the film’s narrative by refusing the studio because they were going to make her focus on the decriminalization arguments more than she felt necessary.

We don’t need to blame Jones for the opinions she has; she has the right to tell her own stories and to help others tell theirs. I’m not trying here to pretend that this film should never have been made because of its content or its point of view. But I would have liked the film to be more honest.

Sell/Buy/Date had its world premiere at the SXSW 2022 conference.

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Seth is an editor and sometimes critic. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.

Header image source: SXSW

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