In her early 20s Andrea Werhun spent two years working as an escort. For Werhun the job offered a lot of new experiences, both good and bad. Nights of big tips and romantic gestures were juxtaposed by grown men with no sense of personal hygiene. Some clients owned expensive apartments, while others proudly displayed their “vintage” Toronto Maple Leafs bedding. But for Werhun one of the most surprising experiences was the existence of escort review boards.
“A few months into working I first heard about the existence of these boards, and of course I vanity searched my name,” said Werhun. “I don’t think I ever got a bad review but there were reviews that said my legs were stubby. One pointed out that I didn’t offer cum in mouth, even though he had never asked for it.”
Werhun documented her experience as an escort in Modern Whore, a book of photographs and essays in collaboration with artist and videographer Nicole Bazuin. For the past year Werhun and Bazuin have been using the review boards to frame the film adaptation of the memoir.
"Escort review boards are a place where johns—who call themselves hobbyists—congreagate to talk about the experiences they had with sex workers. It’s a genre of erotica that’s predicated on a misogynist approach to seeing escorts," Wehurn said. “It has nothing to do with sex workers themselves. It’s to impress the other men on the board. The whole thing is a circle jerk of mediocrity.”
The 11-minute short, which will debut early next year, walks audiences through discrepancies between how a client describes an encounter online and the actual events that happen within a session. A standout scene in Modern Whore deals with a john referred to as Mr. CEO.
“He went into so much detail about all the different ways we had sex,” Werhun said. “The reality of the situation was that, in real life, we never had sex. He told me he had gotten into a bicycle accident as a kid and had never been able to jizz in his life. People on review boards act like they’re some kind of Fabio but this was just a routund old man.”
The gap between hobbyists bragging and Werhun's memory of the affairs sets the narrative tension of Modern Whore, which seamlessly switches between documentary style interview and stylized dramatizations. While the the narrative discrepancies are largely played for comedic value in the film, it also points towards a real challenge faced by many sex workers. Because sex work is heavily stigmatized and criminalized in Canada, when escorts face violence or abuse, seeking justice is extremely complicated. Many escorts are hesitant to speak with authorities because of the legality of their job. That leaves sex workers vulnerable, and can have a huge impact on their mental health and safety. Werhun explores a particularly difficult situation in the film.
“There was a client who overstepped my boundaries and put me in an extremely uncomfortable situation. Afterward he continuously emailed me like nothing had happened. After months of messages I had to reply saying here is what you did to me. You violated me. Now you know …part of what we’re doing with this film is challenging other people’s stories about us.”
For Modern Whore's director Nicole Bazuin the film offers audiences an accessible look at the world of escorting, giving viewers a better understanding of real encounters and hopefully breaking down prejudices. Framing the short with review boards was an easy device to hit on bigger themes of consent, independence, and who gets to tell what stories.
"I talked with Andrea a lot about how escorting is performance. It’s inherently cinematic,” said Bazuin. “Thinking about the review board… the he said/she said aspect of it can be really funny, but can be really dangerous too… Modern Whore trojan horses that stuff in with jokes and sex appeal.”
The gap between how clients describe sessions with escorts and how escorts experience those sessions can be viewed as an easy metaphor for cultural misunderstanding about sex work as a whole. The narratives fed to us about escorts are rarely coming from the people who actually do the work. With Modern Whore Werhun and Bazuin bring a hilarious and important perspective on the realities of escorts. It also offers a forum for Werhun to tell her own story and clap back against clients who felt the need to rate their time together, treating their sex like it was a restaurant on Yelp.
"If guys had the gall to publicly review me on the internet, I certainly had the right to review them back in my book and now in the film. That felt great but overall,” Werhun said. “Every time a sex worker sees a realistic depiction of themselves on screen one less person feels alone in the world.”
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