One of many intriguing characters on The West Wing is Laurie Rollins, the sex worker introduced in the first episode when Sam Seaborn picks her up at a bar and only later realizes that she’s a sex worker. While she only appeared on the series briefly, she managed to pack a great deal of politics, society, and culture into her role, deftly portrayed by actor Lisa Edelstein. At the same time, though, her presentation sometimes seemed very conflicted, making it seem like the writers had ambiguous feelings about sex work.
As she’s initially presented, Rollins is described as a “high class callgirl,” immediately distinguishing her from those other low-class sex workers, like women who work on the street and in “unsavory” circumstances. We were supposed to feel a kinship with her because while she was choosing to work in the sex industry, at least she was doing it “the right way,” commanding a high price for her services, interacting with powerful people, and, better yet, using her work to fund her way through law school. She’s a very middle class liberal version of what “good” sex work looks like.
This was a key component of her characterization: being a sex worker in her case wasn’t bad because she had a heart of gold (where have we heard that stereotype before) and she was doing it to better herself. Since there weren’t any other sex workers on the show, we didn’t have a chance to contrast the treatment of Rollins with that of other people in the industry. By only choosing to show one facet of life and employment in the sex industry, The West Wing reinforced the idea that there are good girls and bad girls, and that within the industry, some sex workers count and are worth more than others.
Paying your way through law school by being a “high class callgirl”? You pass muster. Working the corner? Mmmm…not so much.
At the same time, though, when Sam attempted to use her, Laurie soundly smacked him around for it, metaphorically speaking. On the night Sam and Toby approach her in the hopes of getting dirt on some of the city’s most wealthy and powerful, she tells them her professional ethics are insulted by their actions, and she’s personally offended at being treated that way. There’s also an excellent scene where Sam, angry and desperate that she’s out with a client, offers her a large sum of money “not to go home with that guy.”
Laurie gives him a sharp look, shakes her head, and walks away. Is it a statement that this is her life, her body, and her choices? Is it anger that Sam inevitably turned into the dreaded sex worker reformer/rescuer? Is it anger about Sam acting like he owns her? I’d like to think it’s these things, and not regret. Their complicated and loaded friendship, though, can make that scene challenging to read.
Sam is also defiantly protective of her inside the West Wing, arguing that he shouldn’t have to give up his friendship with Laurie simply because of her occupation. Even as his coworkers warn him to stop associating with her because it might get out and compromise his position at the White House, he’s quick to argue that freedom of association is a right, and his friends are not anyone’s business but his own. It’s a stance ultimately taken by the White House itself, most notably when a rogue photographer outs the friendship, splashing it all over the papers and exposing Laurie to considerable public attention.
No less a person than the President himself states that Sam should contact her to apologize for the disruption she’s going to experience, and he adds that should she encounter any trouble passing the bar (which still has outdated and ludicrous “character” requirements), the White House will stand behind her. This sounds like a profound statement about sex work: that it is like any other kind of work, that sex workers should not be discriminated against, that they should instead be treated with respect and granted full rights in society.
Was that the statement the show wanted to leave viewers with? I would have been more inclined to believe it if we’d seen models of other kinds of sex work and other kinds of sex workers being treated with equal respect. Where were the trans women of colour being beaten and robbed while on the job, an issue that’s common in Washington, DC? Where was the White House’s support for them? What about young gay men working in bathhouses and massage parlors? What about sex workers struggling with drug addiction and other health conditions thanks to social marginalisation?
The West Wing presented a highly sanitised and palatable version of sex work. Laurie is well-kept, she’s beautiful, she’s put together, she’s going to law school, she’s respected. Is that the only kind of sex work that deserves care and respect, though? One should hope not, but the show did tend to send a message that it was, and in so doing, it was a reminder that Aaron Sorkin has some very specific ideas about women in society.
The idea of a “high-class callgirl” is loaded with mystique and romance in popular culture: it’s one of the most common depictions of sex work other than the broken down, traumatised, miserable sex worker or the trafficking victim. Yet it’s not the only manifestation of sex work, it’s not without serious risks created by social and political attitudes, and those employed in such jobs aren’t the only sex workers who deserve to live and work safely and freely. All sex workers should be so lucky as to have the President backing them up when they’re being hounded in the media; tragically, for many, the media attacks only start after they’re dead. Where is the President for that?