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Caught on Film: The Dark World of Truck Stop Sex Workers

Filmmaker Alexander Perlman documents the bleakness of truck stop prostitution—but it's more complex than you might think.

| Sat Jul. 13, 2013 3:00 AM PDT
Monica prepares to work the lot.

"The truth is, making the movie was a really traumatic experience. I suspect I may have developed some mild PTSD." This is how filmmaker Alexander Perlman describes shooting Lot Lizard, his hypnotic new documentary about truck stop prostitution. While his claim might sound hyperbolic—or like a canny bit of marketing—it rings true: He logged thousands of miles and hundreds of hours to make the film, braving roach motels, crack highs, and homicidal pimps. Indeed, what Perlman captures in Lot Lizard is visceral and harrowing.

The film's three protagonists—Betty, Monica, and Jennifer—work on the fringes of the trucking industry. America's Independent Truckers' Association estimates there are nearly 5,000 truck stops across the country, and although many offer nondescript places to sleep, eat, or shower, many others host a bustling shadow economy of sex and drugs. Lurk on truckers' online message boards long enough and you'll likely come across what amounts to a guide to interstate sex, replete with lurid tall tales (see here, here, and here).

Life on the road, they say, is lonely. To quote one trucker in Lot Lizard: "These walls close in on you. Being in this truck can actually make you crazy." As Perlman discovered, however, the women—and, occasionally, men—who cater to this loneliness don't fare much better. Betty and Monica are addicted to crack, Monica is homeless when she's not crashing with friends or sympathetic drivers, and both are entangled in dysfunctional relationships. "I can feel money," Betty says, a kind of human divining rod, and yet she spends most of the film desperately searching for just that.

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Jennifer, an ex-addict and single mother who recently quit prostitution, struggles to maintain her sobriety. She buys a house but can't find a job. With time and money running out, she weighs the economics of earning minimum wage at a McJob versus hustling on the lot again. (Guess which pays more?) It's a particularly wrenching moment in a film loaded with them.

I recently spoke with Alexander Perlman about life on the lots, dodging the police, and what he left on the cutting room floor.

Mother Jones: So this film was inspired by a truck stop prostitute you met while hitchhiking from New York to San Francisco?

Alexander Perlman: Yes. It was midday at a truck stop in Ohio, and I was sitting on a bench outside the travel center. My camping bag lay on the table next to me and a cardboard sign with the word “WEST” scrawled on it. A woman sat down and struck up a conversation. I assumed she was a truck driver. We were in the middle of talking about her grandchildren when a truck driver who looked like Santa Claus walked by. She offered to show him her breasts for $10, he took her up on it, and they walked off into the sunset.

MJ: What was it about the encounter that intrigued you?

AP: There was something about the set of her jaw—she had the strength of someone who had come to grips with a hard life. Also, it was clear that she was living outside the bounds of traditional society. On a much smaller scale I knew what that was like—I hit a rough patch in my teens and almost dropped out of high school. I identified with her, as I identify with anyone who doesn’t really fit the mold.

MJ: How did you choose specific truck stops?

AP: The majority of filming was done over eight weeks. Dan Livingston, the field producer, looked for ride shares on Craigslist and eventually found one with Juliana Star Asis, his friend who was headed to Tucson, Arizona. We set out from New York, drove south on I-95, then west on I-10 until we hit L.A. We did a lot of research online and spoke with truck drivers to find out where the sex workers were most prevalent. We put together a map indicating hotspots around the country. In the end, it came down to luck. A lot of the truck stops were clean as a whistle. When that happened, we hit the road.

MJ: You focus on three women—Betty, Monica, and Jennifer. How did you describe the project to them?

AP: We pitched the film as a feature documentary about truck stop sex workers. We resolved ahead of time that we wouldn’t pay them because we thought that would make the film disingenuous. Unsurprisingly, most of them turned us down. We had to go through a large volume of sex workers to find our cast.

They weren’t writers, filmmakers, musicians, or painters. They had no outlets, but like everyone else had a need to express themselves and sort out their personal histories. Eventually we became their therapists—listening patiently, empathizing, asking questions, and being there for them to the best of our abilities. By the end it was challenging to document rather than participate. My experience on the project helped me recognize that I would rather be a participant. I’m applying to MSW programs in February.

MJ: Describe the different codes or shorthand that prostitutes use when advertising themselves on CB radios.

AP: Where do I begin? Most truck drivers refer to the sex workers as “lot lizards.” The girls prefer the term “working girls.” They call the act itself “turning a trick” or “dating.” I find the euphemisms indicative.

“Commercial Company” refers to sex workers, as in, “any commercial out there tonight?” Or, “anybody looking for some company?” The sex workers play an elaborate game of tag with the security guards and police officers. The sex workers hide in a “safe truck” when the heat turns up. It’s kind of like base. In the truck, they use the CB to advertise their services and arrange to meet with other truckers on the lot. There can be several safe trucks on a large lot.

“40-60-80” is shorthand for a fairly standard rate: $40 for oral sex, $60 for sex, and $80 for both. When arranging deals over the CB radio, the sex workers would ask the truck drivers, “what color is your house?” Which means, “what does your truck look like?”

"We met some pimps. One of them had a grill, a giant, gem-encrusted belt buckle in the shape of a “G,” and a bottle of scotch in his breast pocket."

MJ: The film briefly introduces a gay male prostitute offering “massages.” How common are male sex workers on the lot?

AP: We heard a lot of stories, but the only one we met was Jesse. I think there’s less demand for male sex workers. There’s the risk of violence motivated by homophobia.

MJ: None of the women you profiled had pimps. Did you meet any who did?

AP: We met some pimps. One of them had a grill, a giant, gem-encrusted belt buckle in the shape of a “G,” and a bottle of scotch in his breast pocket. This begs the question: Why did none of them feature prominently in the film? Unfortunately, the pimps prohibited it.

One of the concerns we had with our lead characters is that selecting them downplays the prevalence of pimps and trafficking in the industry. There’s an amazing organization called Truckers Against Trafficking that addresses the issue. We had to bite the bullet on that because we just didn’t have the footage to deal with the issue of trafficking in a meaningful way that was consistent with the rest of the film.

MJ: Describe the police or security presence on the lot.

AP: It varied. Like I said, some truck stops were clean as a whistle. Others were out of control. When police rolled through, truckers would announce their arrival and precise location. If you closed your eyes and listened you could see the police cars driving around the lot. The sex workers hid out in safe trucks until the lot cleared.

In many truck stops, security was comically ineffective. Some of them enjoyed ogling the sex workers as much as the truck drivers did. We heard stories about security guards and police officers receiving “favors” in exchange for freedom, but can’t verify these. It seemed there was a bias towards targeting the sex workers as opposed to Johns. It makes sense from the truck stop’s perspective—they don’t want to alienate paying customers.

MJ: The film depicts both prostitutes and truckers as victims in this larger drama of human appetites and loneliness. Do you see both parties as victims? How would you describe the power dynamic?

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