The Term is Companion: Sex Work on Firefly

Geek Lord and feminist extraordinaire Joss Whedon is well-known for creating interesting and complex women characters. Even non-nerds are familiar with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the girl hero who showed us that being an ass-kicking demon hunter and having a talent for accessorizing butterfly clips with chunky heels are not mutually exclusive characteristics.

Another Whedon character that was just as revolutionary, though less prominent in the popular consciousness, is Inara Serra, the beautiful and sophisticated “companion” aboard the spaceship Serenity on the short-lived but brilliant series Firefly.

Inara is respected, well-educated, kind, independent, and clever. She also happens to be a sex worker.

Actually, “The term is companion,” as ship’s mechanic Kaylee tells brash Captain Mal when he refers to Inara as a whore.

In the universe of Firefly, prostitution is a well-regulated and respectable business. Companions belong to a guild that protects the health and safety of sex workers, and which places the power to define the parameters of an encounter firmly in the hands of the sex worker.

“A companion chooses her own clients. That’s guild law,” Inara explains.

Of course, even when a companion has the opportunity to screen her clients, there is still the possibility of encountering danger. In episode #6, “Shindig,” Inara is threatened and verbally abused by a client who turns out to be less charming than he initially seemed. But the Companion’s Guild empowers Inara to protect herself and others from his abuse.

Atherton: Get ready to starve. I’ll see to it you never work again.

Inara: Actually, that’s not how it works. You see, you’ve earned yourself a black mark in the client registry. No companion is going to contract with you ever again.

By networking through technology that allows them to easily communicate with each other, companions are able to ensure that clients who pose any threat to their safety – or who simply do not treat them with respect – will never be clients again.

Inara searches an online database to screen potential clients

While Firefly takes place some hundreds of years in the future, the technology to make a “Companions Guild” a reality exists right now. By harnessing the power of 21st century technology, we can create a world in which the abuse, exploitation, and murder of sex workers becomes a thing of the past.

In his study “Prostitution 3.0,” University of Chicago professor Scott Peppet observes that the internet has already had a positive influence on the too-often dangerous world of prostitution. As new technology has enabled sex workers to find clients online, street prostitution has decreased. Pimps are becoming a thing of the past as sex workers have gained the ability to book their own clients online, decreasing the risk of physical, emotional, and financial exploitation.

What still needs to be developed, says Peppet, is a system that, like the Companion’s Guild, verifies the STD status, criminal history, anti-trafficking credentials (which verify that the sex worker is of age, a legal citizen or resident, has no history of drug abuse, etc.), and biometric identity (which verifies that the individual is who s/he says s/he is online) of both sex worker and client.

Inara chats with a potential client from her shuttle

With current technologies at our fingertips, these systems would be simple to create.

However, the illegality of prostitution has prevented the development of technologies that would ensure the safety of consenting sex workers and keep underage people and victims of trafficking from being abused and exploited. In many states, any actions that “advance or promote prostitution” are criminalized – which would include the development of the technologies Peppet envisions.

While moralists may claim that laws against prostitution are intended to protect women and children, in practice they often have the opposite effect. The fact is that making prostitution illegal does not make it disappear – it usually just makes it much more dangerous.

We can turn back to Firefly for a picture of the darker side of prostitution – in episode #13, “Heart of Gold,” the crew is called on to help save an unauthorized, illegal brothel from powerful local Rance Burgess, who abuses and exploits the women who work there. He has threatened to kill Petaline, a prostitute who is carrying his child, as well as the rest of the workers in the brothel, if she does not hand the baby over to him.

Rance’s despicable speech to a riled up mob encapsulates his attitude towards the women:

“Sharri here, [a prostitute who has been bribed to help Rance] she understands a whore’s place, don’t she? But…those others, they spit on our town.  They’ve no respect for the sanctity of fatherhood, or decency, or family…we will show them what power is.  We will show them what their position in this town is. Let us all remember, right here and now, what a woman is to a man… [to Sharri:] Get on your knees.”

Illegal prostitution keeps sex workers disempowered, with no one to turn to when they are victimized by clients, pimps, police, and other authority figures. Because in the real world, there are no heroes showing up in a spaceship to defend them from exploitation.

But the same tool that allows me to share in-depth articles about cancelled sci-fi shows can also serve as a tool to prevent the exploitation of sex workers. If an online “Companions Guild-esque” system for sex workers were legalized, they would be empowered to  lead lives that are safe, healthy, and fulfilling.

While many people believe that sex work is harmful or immoral –  even many feminists – a major goal of feminism is to give women full agency over their own bodies and lives, to trust women to make choices based on their own personal morals. The online sex worker’s networks that Whedon and Peppet envision respect women’s ability to, like Inara and  the other fictional women that we admire,  safely and freely live the lives that they choose.  

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