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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 6:00 AM EDT

AP: As one sex worker put it: “We sell our bodies, they sell their time—how different are those really?" Both truck drivers and sex workers were doing a job that wore them down emotionally, but the money was good enough to keep them working.

Power dynamics varied from one person to the next. In some cases, it seemed like truck drivers were taking advantage of sex workers, in others like sex workers were taking advantage of truck drivers, and, in a rare few, it seemed there was mutual respect.

MJ: One of the film’s most powerful moments is Jennifer’s reunion with the trucker who introduced her to prostitution. How did that come about?

AP: Oddly enough it was Jennifer’s suggestion. It seemed like she needed a sense of closure and empowerment. Ultimately, I think she bit off more than she could chew. It’s hard to confront your past when you’re struggling to redefine yourself.

"Most of the sex workers have been robbed, raped, stabbed, shot. It’s not a profession for the faint of heart."

I think he [the trucker] was in love with Jennifer and that he was genuinely remorseful for what had happened. Jennifer approached the interview with a confrontational outlook, but she has a heart of gold and as the interview progressed it became clear that she was deeply moved by his repentance.

MJ: The film presents a side of sex work that we don’t often see: Prostitutes’ private home lives and romantic relationships. Monica and Betty both have intense but turbulent bonds with their boyfriends—how would you describe their relationships?

MJ: Both couples were bound by two desires: the real need for love and the compulsive need for drugs. These two drives vied with one another and the ebb and flow of each was the driving force behind the turbulence. Betty’s idealism was heartbreaking: she was genuinely in love with Mitch, whereas he seemed more interested in the crack that she provided. Bobby really loved Monica, but he was much more honest with himself about the self-destructiveness of their lifestyle. He wanted out. Monica didn’t.

MJ: Tell me about the logistics of making this film. How did you evade the police, for example?

AP: We couldn’t just show up at a truck stop and start shooting because that would set off red flags. We had to make a presence known, so we introduced ourselves to truckers, shared a beer (they really dug Bud Light for some reason), hung out at barbecues, you name it, until word got around and the people who met us could vouch for us. After a day or two, truckers were happy to be interviewed. The hardest thing about being a truck driver is the isolation and a lot of them were enthusiastic about sharing their stories.

At first, police and security assumed we were truck drivers—we did our best to look the part—but they inevitably caught on. We were trespassing on private property and they had every right to kick us out. Weaving through the shadows and ducking under trailers when the cops showed up gave us a small taste of how terrifying it is for sex workers. We were always looking over our shoulder for cops, security guards, angry truck drivers, pimps, drug dealers, and drug addicts. Most of the sex workers have been robbed, raped, stabbed, shot. It’s not a profession for the faint of heart.

MJ: Was anyone hostile towards you?

AP: Some truck drivers became irate when they saw the cameras, but we were judicious in taking them out. Betty told us her drug dealer said that he was going to kill us. We didn’t really believe her, but even if there was a 10 percent chance she was telling the truth did we really want to take that risk?

Betty works the lot. Photo courtesy Alexander Perlman.

MJ: Jennifer's story is a poignant example of a sex worker trying to get sober and reorient her life. Did the women you meet hope to do the same? What kind of support exists for a prostitute who wants to get clean?

AP: Deep down inside, almost all of the sex workers harbored doubts about their lifestyle. There were three approaches to dealing with those feelings. Most of the sex workers rationalized their doubts away. They often said: “It’s the oldest profession in the world,” “I’m not hurting anyone,” or “we’re doing a service for the truck drivers.”

Other sex workers relied on a constant supply of drugs to medicate their doubts away. When they ran out and were forced to confront their choices in the bright light of sobriety, they would go on a rampage.

Many used a combination of the two approaches. A rare handful were honest with themselves. They expressed a sincere desire to change but felt trapped by the easy money. Unfortunately, support is not as widespread as it could be. Aside from the occasional truck stop chapel, the sex workers were left out in the cold.

MJ: Mother Jones has reported on a truck stop prostitution rehabilitation program—based on your experience, do you think such a program can succeed? How would you help them if you could? Do they want help?

AP: The first step to helping the sex workers is humanizing them. It’s easy to judge people that you know nothing about. The next step is treating the sex workers as victims as opposed to criminals. There needs to be more of an emphasis on rehabilitation as opposed to criminalization. It’s also important to educate truck drivers. They have the potential to become the front-line of help and rehabilitation.

MJ: Lot Lizard offers a pretty bleak depiction of life both on and off the lot. Does the film say anything ennobling about sex work?

AP: The film does not portray sex work in a positive light. That wasn’t our agenda. We approached the film with questions, not answers, and we did our best to let the story speak for itself. There’s no narrator and only a handful of statistics. If anything, we tried to tone down the darkness in order to make the film more watchable. A lot of footage that wound up on the cutting room floor is darker than anything in the film.

If there’s nobility in the film, it's rooted in the protagonists, who are strangely relatable despite their unorthodox lifestyle. We wanted to show that no matter how far gone people are, there’s still something fundamentally good about them that is immune to adulteration. We see it in Monica’s philosophical musings and affection for Bobby, in Betty’s love for her parents, and in Jennifer’s love for her daughter. Despite all the darkness, there’s something’s luminous about them, and we can’t help but relate to that.

MJ: At one point Monica says, “nothing is as it seems,” and cautions us to not judge based on appearances alone. With that in mind, what didn't you capture on film? What did you experience or see that the audience doesn’t?

AP: I was once in a safe truck with three sex workers, all of whom looked under the age of 22. They were joking around, playing music, and showing off their cell phones. They seemed like any other girls that age. When the cops left, they went on with their business. It seemed so normal.

MJ: What are your plans for distribution?

AP: We’re currently raising funds to finish the film. It still requires some polish in the edit, color-correction, and sound-design. We recently screened the film as a work-in-progress at the San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival in order to solicit feedback and wound up winning the Audience Award. If anyone is interested in learning more about the film, they can visit our website, like us on Facebook, or see our Indiegogo campaign page.

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