Decriminalization of Sex Workers

in Cannes 2024

by Barbara Gasser

23-year-old Anora aka “Ani” (Mikey Madison) makes a living as an erotic dancer in a New York strip club. As the only Russian speaking dancer at the club, Ani gets close to Ivan “Vanya” Zakharov (Mark Eidelstein), a 21-year-old son of a Russian oligarch. After a whirlwind romance, Vanya quickly proposes to Ani, and the two get married in Las Vegas. Both view this marriage as a win-win situation. Through Ani, Vanya would obtain a Green Card and never have to return to Russia, while Ani would be able to quit her job and enjoy a wealthy Cinderella life. What starts off as a fairytale romance, quickly turns into a chaotic nightmare when Vanya’s protective parents jet to New York to have their son’s marriage annulled.

The Palme d’Or winning film is reminiscent of Peter Weir’s 1990 romantic comedy, Green Card, in which the undocumented Frenchman, Georges Fauré (Gerard Depardieu), exchanges matrimonial vows with New Yorker, Bronte Parrish (Andie MacDowell), to obtain a Green Card and become a US resident. However, in Green Card, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) puts an end to the romantic story and orders the deportation of George.

To this day, obtaining a United States Permanent Resident Card (Green Card) is the primary goal of any US-immigrant. Official data shows receiving permanent residence status in the 90’s was as difficult as it is today. In 2024 only 1.1 million Green Cards will be issued, which relates to 97% of applicants being rejected. The first permanent residence cards were issued in 1940 under the Alien Registration Act. Over the decades, requirements to achieve immigration status have changed, as did the color of the card. The current pocket-size plastic shines less green than its predecessors, but still has not lost any of its desirability. The most common ways to gain the coveted US Green Card is through a family reunion (spouse and/or children), humanitarian based, employment and the annual Green Card lottery.

Following the premiere screening at the 77the Cannes Film Festival the story of Anora has been compared to Pretty Woman, an iconic romantic comedy from 1990, in which millionaire Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) hires beautiful prostitute Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) to escort him to glamorous Hollywood events. Director Gary Marshall received a Cesar and Golden Globe nomination for Pretty Woman in 1991. Julia Roberts won her first Golden Globe Award for best actress, as well as an Oscar and BAFTA nomination, which ultimately catapulted Roberts to stardom. To this day, Pretty Woman enjoys unparalleled popularity around the world and ranks amongst the highest grossing romantic comedies in movie history.

In the press conference following the Anora screening writer, director and producer Sean Baker was asked about the similarities between Pretty Woman and his film. In his reply, Baker stated that “not until hindsight, halfway through editing, someone called out the fact that it has similarities to Pretty Woman.” Baker continued remarking that having grown up in the 80s, Pretty Woman may have had some subconscious effect on him, but his intent was keeping the story of Anora grounded in a true reality and not diluting it into a Hollywood product.

In his acceptance speech, the Palme d’Or winner reiterated his sincerity with the subject matter of sex workers who still suffer the burden of an “unfair stigma”. He dedicated his award to “all sex workers, past, present and future.” Anora is Sean Baker’s fifth film that deals with the subject of sex workers. “I did not know I would go that direction. It happened organically,” remarked Baker during his press conference in Cannes. The indie filmmaker got introduced to the adult film world while doing research for his drama Starlet (2012) and has befriended many sex workers over the years. As a writer and director, his goal is to help decriminalize the oldest profession in the world by telling their “stories with universal meaning in the hopes that everyone can identify with their plight, on an emotional level.”

Today on a worldwide scale, there are approximately 52 million people that work in the sex industry, making it an estimated $180 billion enterprise. In the United States, prostitution is illegal in all states except in Nevada, where licensed brothels are legal in some rural counties, except for the metropolitan areas such as Las Vegas and Reno. Though illegal, the sex trade continues to flourish, with up to two million workers grossing a staggering $14 billion annually.

Sex services are offered through escort services, massage parlors, strip clubs, sex shops, adult movie theaters, peep shows, sex clubs, and street prostitution. In California prostitution is illegal, while escort service is legal, since it is considered companionship without physical engagement. To decriminalize the sex industry, the state of Maine has legalized selling sex, however buying sex is still illegal. In Rhode Island, indoor prostitution was decriminalized from 1980 to 2009, but since 2009, buying and selling sex is charged as a misdemeanor. Texas has become the first US state where buying sex is a felony with an up to two-year jail time. In Louisiana, convicted prostitutes are required to register as sex offenders. Each year approximately 80,000 people are arrested for prostitution in the United States. With his film Baker may ignite a debate about work conditions of sex workers in the USA however it is very unlikely that the legal status will change any time soon.

Sean Baker wrote the title role of Anora specifically for newcomer Mikey Madison who delivers a powerful, fearless, foul-mouthed, yet charmingly sweet performance. This will most likely earn her a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination, as it did Julia Roberts thirty-five years ago.

Winning the Palme d’Or was clearly an honor for Baker, as the 53-year-old filmmaker said in his acceptance speech, that this was “literally my singular goal as a filmmaker for the past 30 years, so I’m not really sure what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. But I do know that I will continue to fight for cinema because right now as filmmakers, we have to fight to keep cinema alive. This means making feature films intended for theatrical exhibition… I see the future of cinema as where it started: in a movie theater,” he said. 

Barbara Gasser
Edited by Savina Petkova