“There’s no reason why a woman should be broke, should not have some type of financial option,” says Monica, one of three central characters in Alexander Perlman’s despairing yet compassionate feature documentary about truck stop girls. Her previously even-keeled tone unexpectedly takes on an edge of irritation. “Unless she’s close-minded, judgmental, or socially incapable of performing a hustle because she wants to be accepted by society. I’ve never heard of something so ridiculous in my life. Now who wants to be accepted by society? Society is making people kill themselves, kill other people.”
Monica has taken a philosophical view of her work. But Perlman, the director and cinematographer of the film, might call this “justification,” one of several strategies he says the women use to cope with their situations.
“I’m not a crack whore,” says Betty, another central character, who is addicted to crack. Throughout the course of Lot Lizard, nearly every woman we meet finds her own way of telling us that the labels and epithets do not apply to her, that for her it’s different, more complicated. An unnamed blind woman who lost her sight due to third-stage syphilis says she doesn’t call herself a prostitute because there’s a difference between a prostitute and a “working girl.” Elaborating on this distinction, they all seem to harp on the same thing: they work hard for their money, they say. They don’t steal. Nobody gives them anything they don’t earn. When I interviewed him, Perlman told me that these sorts of comparisons—to other people making worse decisions—were also quite common.
“I’ve never turned a trick, ever, ever,” says Monica.
One gets the sense that these women are grasping for agency over their own narratives, and it seems as though this urge—to look straight at a rolling camera and say, “I am not a whore”—might explain better than anything else why they agreed to be featured. Perlman says that the women were not paid for their participation, which allowed the crew to “[filter] out the people who didn’t really have a need to share their story” and weren’t interested in “self-exploration.” And while it would be naïve to assume that any documentary is objective, this is perhaps the best attempt I’ve ever seen to lean back and give sex workers a chance at narrative control. “You want to learn more about a person, but you don’t want to pry too much or force them to confront things that are too difficult for them to confront,” says Perlman. “It was a constant balancing act where we were helping them take control of their own stories and explore their own narrative, but at the same time inching closer and closer to the tough things.”
If one interprets their situations as simplistically as possible, these women can be said to be in control of their lives.
As I watched the film, the question of agency haunted me. To be clear, the film doesn’t cover trafficking, underage recruits, or women who are controlled by or beholden to pimps. If one interprets their situations as simplistically as possible, these women can be said to be in control of their lives. But there are undoubtedly other factors at play—addictions, toxic relationships, poverty, lack of alternative economic opportunities, homelessness—that weigh down the concept of choice. And some of the characters seem to have been brainwashed by hard lives, such that they no longer believe they are in control of their own fates. In one particularly affecting scene, Monica’s boyfriend Bobby feeds her soda through the straw of a fast food cup while she lies wrapped in motel blankets, recovering from what is likely a crack hangover. He tells her that if she’s pregnant she’s going to have to go into a rehab program, because he wants it and he wants her.
“Why do you keep getting me pregnant?” she says.
“’Cause it feels good,” he responds.
“It’s not funny, Bobby.”
“You think I do it on purpose?”
“We’re gonna fight!”
“No, we’re not. You’re gonna sit on my lap.”
The privileged mind boggles at such an abject relinquishing of power, is tempted even to lash out at her in anger, but I must remind myself that there are things that cannot be seen from my perspective. Likewise, it is difficult for me to understand how sex worker after sex worker can remain composed, almost blasé, as they list their abuses, as if they were as inexorable as the unpleasant side effects of a life-saving medication: their bodies subjected to rape, robbery, kidnapping, stabbing, and shooting.
All this said, the film does take a relatively compassionate view of truckers, some of whom, according to the sex workers, actively try to protect them. We are given a taste of life on the road via a tour of the truckers’ “houses” in their cramped, dismal sleepers, and many lament the loneliness of having to leave their wives and kids for weeks at a time. But if some of them treat the women well—even letting them hide out in their trucks when cops and other threats come around—each new john is nevertheless an unknowable risk to the sex worker’s life, and she is at his mercy when the two find themselves alone.
The film follows the third central character, Jennifer, as she attempts to regain control of her life after getting sober and discontinuing her sex work. She is determined not to let anything get in the way of her relationship with her daughter and the stability provided by her newly rented house. She seeks god in a “mobile chapel” as she struggles with her sobriety, and she reflects on how she’s trying to get to know herself for the first time. But Perlman says that while Jennifer had been “extremely enthusiastic” about the project at the beginning, when she felt hopeful about her story as one of personal transformation, “that began to crumble at some point, and as things began to fall apart, she became increasingly disinterested.” “She didn’t want this to be a story of her failure,” says Perlman. “She wanted it to be a story of her success.” Near the end of the film Jennifer experiences a breakdown when her job search remains unsuccessful; not even the K-mart would hire her, and she knows that even if she found a job she’d have to work full-time to make what she could in just a few hours per week on the lot. Meanwhile, her daughter finds a marijuana pipe in her mother’s closet and tells the camera that Jennifer is being a bad mom again because she has broken her promise.
Real sex workers largely remain invisible, and media portrayals of them have provided little room to imagine their humanity and their immense capacity for love.
This is precisely where this film excels: in its portrayal of the relationships and home lives of the sex workers. Ours is a society that thinks of sex workers much like the security guard on the lot, “White Devil,” who is quoted as saying: “They’re so far gone, like, they’re not even a human being to me anymore. They’re just some piece of trash scum that’s out there, you know, spreading diseases, selling drugs. It’s sad. Because I mean at one point, yeah, that was somebody’s little girl. And it’s not anymore.” Or else, in more progressive, educated urban environments, sex workers exist more often than not as theoretical beings in political, ethical, or philosophical debates. In either case, real sex workers largely remain invisible, and media portrayals of them have provided little room to imagine their humanity and their immense capacity for love—of their children, partners, and even parents. Rife with funny and tender moments in addition to the depressing ones, Lot Lizard insists on the familiarity of the characters’ prosaic everyday concerns as the camera lingers on them cooking dinner, sweeping the floor, doing laundry, sleeping, embracing their loved ones, caring for pets, and looking through old photos. These scenes are juxtaposed pointedly with footage of drug use and ominous, grainy shots that look as though they were recorded while the filmmakers were in hiding: blurred-faced women loitering on the lot or running away from authorities, some of them only half-dressed.
Monica and Bobby’s relationship is by far the most touching. Their love for one another is so plain in the way they laugh and play during good times, even if they are prone to meaningless fits of aggression towards one another when they’re high. Monica is at her most relatable when she says that being in love is the worst thing she’s ever gone through. But the quick glimpse we get of Betty’s relationship to her mother—who seems, like Bobby, to be in denial about her loved one’s profession—is heartbreakingly tender. Betty claims that her parents treat her badly, but when in their home we see her revert a bit, shedding her carefully constructed, impenetrable persona as she leans her head on her mother’s shoulder and tells her that she knows she is loved. Despite what asshole security guards might have to say about it, we are reminded that Betty is, in fact, still someone’s little girl. After Betty has left her parents’ house, her mother says that the only thing she wants out of life is for her daughter to get clean before she dies. “Betty is the only one that can help Betty,” Betty’s stepfather reminds her.
After his experience with this film, Perlman has decided to pursue a Masters in Social Work because he does believe it’s possible to help women like Betty. It’s natural to question his or any other man’s suitability for the role, but Perlman intends to focus his efforts not on the sex workers but on the truck drivers. He believes that educating the truck drivers can reduce demand and can turn the truck drivers into advocates for the women when they’re in trouble. He argues that many truck drivers, as well as the sex workers themselves, could benefit from therapy and rehab. Secondly, he says, it’s imperative to stop throwing the women in jail, and instead focus on getting them the help they need. Perlman is not in favor of legalization, however. “There’s some dissention among the filmmakers about this. Me, personally, I don’t think legalization is the answer,” he says, adding, “I’m not an expert; my opinion is mostly anecdotal.”
By now it is probably clear that the film does not celebrate sex work. Even the visuals of the film tap into a common American nightmare of ruin in the forsaken flyover states—which we have no doubt inherited from the overactive imaginations of scores of urban directors to come before. Betty and her boyfriend Mitch take a walk in a field full of cacti, dead trees, and all manner of depressing trash; motel rooms are cheerless and dingy; people live in trailers and shop at Wal-Mart; and the rows and rows of trucks in the endless pavement of the lots gleam in the florescent lights, forming the most beautiful images of the whole movie. An end-of-days pastor rambling on incoherently about Satan’s trickery and “homosexual acts” reminds us that life is just different out there, in the literal and metaphorical desert. Perlman says that although city people don’t know much about these women, they are integrated into the collective consciousness in the middle of the country.
Context is crucial to understanding sex work.
Perlman says that, though they ended up winning the Audience Award at an early screening of the film at the San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival, at least one audience member was outraged at the negative depiction of sex work. “A lot of the people there were pro-legalization and they were interested in sex workers’ rights, and she was saying that by selecting what we did, we were making it seem like every sex worker was a drug addict and every sex worker was down and out. And her goal was to empower sex workers,” he says. “And we’re like, ‘This is who we got in the movie. We didn’t see any empowered sex workers.’ This is not really a portrayal of sex work as a whole; it’s not what we’re trying to do.”
Perlman hits on an important point here: context is crucial to understanding sex work. It’s not difficult to imagine that there might be significant differences between the experiences of a dominatrix in New York, a cam girl in Chicago, and a truck stop sex worker in the middle of nowhere. And individual experiences within each of those contexts, even, could be expected to diverge dramatically. It’s important to recognize that perhaps the women whose stories made the cut were the ones whose lives made for the most interesting material or the ones who felt the most drawn to participate because of the therapeutic aspects of the experience. Their stories become to the viewer representative of all sex workers of a certain type in a certain cultural climate, but it’s essential to keep our eyes trained on the truth: the singularity of this film.
In a move that could be read as an invitation to debate or a challenge to contribute to the rendering of a more complete picture of sex work, the filmmakers nod to the possibility that some sex workers in these communities may lead less tortured lives. At least one woman in the film, who elected to obscure her identity with lighting tricks, tells us that she loves the work. Another woman, Cinnamon, smiles broadly for the camera as she reports that she’s been coming out to the truck stop for three years and cheerily shares a list of what she would typically bring with her to work: condoms, wipes, make-up, deodorant, a comb, a knife, maybe a change of clothes. Yet another, Tequila, who is relaxed and confident, says she feels no shame. That although she could have been a nurse, she believes she is there for a purpose, as a result of some divine reason.
Perlman anticipates that the film will result in other controversies, too. The title, for example, is likely to spur a certain amount of outrage, as “lot lizard” is a phrase that the sex workers generally consider a slur. “One in 100 Americans is a truck driver, and I want at least one in ten to see this,” explains Perlman. “They’re much more likely to watch a movie called Lot Lizard—which is what they call it, and that’s their language—than they are to watch a movie with some abstract art house title.” The filmmakers may also face significant criticism due to the lack of female involvement in the film.
But Perlman is reluctant to continue this sort of film work. “I don’t think I could ever make another film like that; I wouldn’t want to just bear witness to somebody self-destructing and not get involved.”
“I have extremely mixed feelings about the film,” he says. “I feel incredibly ambivalent about it. And I think there’s a lot of ethical ambiguity in terms of, is it okay for us to make this film? Have we exploited these girls? I don’t have clarity on those questions. I really debated taking my name off the project.”
Perlman notes that one of the goals of the film was to challenge why we collectively look past people in the midst of profound hardship. “But just the process of taking somebody’s suffering and turning it into a spectacle, even if it is for a good end, do the ends really justify the means?” he asks. That’s a line of questioning that media in all its forms could benefit from.