Broadway review

The Hard Business of Selling Sex: The Drama of Sarah Jones’s ‘Sell/Buy/Date’

The Daily Beast

October 19, 2016

The future-world of Sell/Buy/Date isn’t scary as such, but it is a depressing extension of the one we are in, growingly dominated by technology.

The Manhattan Theatre Club show—an interval-less 85 minutes—is written and performed by Sarah Jones, and directed by Carolyn Cantor on an almost bare-stage furnished only by a filing cabinet, chair, and some artful strips of light on the floor.

The Tony and Obie-award winning Jones plays a lecturer, Dr. Serene Campbell, and we are her de facto class of students some time far in the future. She is here to tell us about the experiences of people of different ages and genders involved in the sex industry—all this to showcase BERT (Bio-empathetic resonant technology), which enables people to feel someone else’s feelings, as well as their memories.

Periodically, Dr. Campbell “blinks” out of the action to automatically engage her VA (Virtual Assistant) to take a series of calls, which brings its own mini-crisis.

In an interview with The Guardian, Jones explained that the show, which mainly focused on sex work, is the result of a number of interviews she has conducted around the world with sex workers and their clients.

Jones is wonderful with accents, and doing the very least with not much change to clothing or her look, to inhabit very different genders, races, backgrounds, and ages.

First we meet Lorraine L., an elderly Jewish bubbe, who first notes how cold the recording studio is; and then is asked about sex. She owns up to surfing the internet, only to find orgiastic scenes: “There was lots of making… of something, but they took the love part right out of it, the fun. It was all very ‘extreme’ like you would say, like the extreme sports. Lots of… endurance. But never tenderness.”

Next, we meet Bella, a student interviewed after what was called an “Intro to Feminist Porn” class at a college in the Bay Area, suffering from a headache—which she wonders if the person hearing her testimony will also feel thanks to the new technology—which is “the residual effect of the jello shots which I had last night at the bi-weekly feminist pole-dancing party which I co-host on Wednesdays. It’s called ‘Don’t Get All Pole-emical.’”

The act of pole-dancing, Bella tells us, “is like an AHmazing way to like get in touch with your like feminine power without essentializing what constitutes ‘the feminine,’ and while increasing upper body strength and stamina.” Jones cleverly skewers not just sex and technology, but also the thriving academic industry around them; Bella tells us she is “a Sex Work Studies major, minoring in social media with a concentration on notable YouTube memes.”

Bella speaks in a Valley Girl accent, and so her platitudes and sermonizing are particularly grating, especially when she groans about her mother taking her “on these like, Womyn’s Gaia Drum Circle retreats in Rhinebeck that were like ‘No men!’ ‘No sex’! And they all wore their like Eileen Fisher caftans, and I just think that’s wrong, to like tell girls they’re not allowed to be sexy to boys, or men, or whoever, because then you’re being ‘objectified.’ But like, what if I want to be an object, but like a powerful object?”

And after all this sermonizing, a neat punchline: Bella wants to become a lawyer.

After Bella comes Jamaica No Fakin’, a sex worker—“There’s a lotta things I hate about doing this, but the money is not one of them… I’m not even from Jamaica, but that’s how they market me”—and then, in nary a blink, Jones is inhabiting the Irish Maureen Fitzroy, who slipped into prostitution as a kind of drifting with life: “I was never really a wife, or a nun, but I wasn’t a prostitute either, not even really, because nobody ever asked who I wanted to be. They just told me. If you legalize it, then you’re really telling these girls, go on and get lost for a living. And a lot of them, they’ll do as they’re told.”

We must be far in the future, because then Dr. Campbell shows the class a Barbie, as if a Stone Age relic.

Jones is excellent at inserting these witty side-plays into the performance, emphasizing the distance between today and the setting of the play: Dr. Campbell initially assumed Barbie was “an educational tool for anorexia prevention… but actually she was considered a wholesome symbol of femininity.”

Campbell, again in a tone conveying this is no longer the case, explains the concept of dieting, and how girls in 2017 were encouraged to be “sexy” but not “sluts.” And what were male sluts called, she asks the class, rhetorically. “Men.” Our audience gave that line the biggest laugh of the show.

Speaking of which, Jones is just as convincing as male figures like frat boy, AV, as the women. “Of course I believe in women’s rights, I’m marrying a woman,” he insists. Prostitution doesn’t hold an interest to him, he says, seeing it as an admission you can’t get a regular girlfriend.

Meanwhile, Cookie Chris, a “reformed and remorseful pimp, turned motivational speaker, life coach, and therapist,” revealed he had left pimping behind after listening to Oprah Winfrey talk about co-dependence.

After Chris comes Gary Weaselhead, a stand-up comedian—or, as Dr. Campbell describes his art (implying it will die out): “People in that society were coping with a lot of stress, laughter did not necessarily come easily, so these people were paid to induce it.”

By 2025, Dr. Campbell says that prostitution has been legalized “in California, Florida, and New Jersey—oh and note, class, most of New Jersey was still habitable at that time.”

A Russian entrepreneur taking advantage of the relaxing of laws goes on to become head of the World Bank, Dr. Campbell says.

The voices are not only comic, or making a humorous point: Jones also plays Nereida, who campaigns against sex-trafficking and the easy banalities of sex work advocates. “You’re having… some sales experience, and that’s fine if it’s what you wanna do, but don’t keep calling it sex, and running around doing all these philosophical gymnastics about how freeing it is to sell your body, and that you have ‘agency’ and you’re empowered.

“Look, if you wanna argue that you have agency, fine, but that is not the same as power. ‘You have agency.’ Nobody even knows what the hell that term means unless they went to friggin’ Sarah Lawrence like you did.”

The mainstreaming of commercialized sex leads, in the mid-2030s, to the decriminalization of sex work in New York, and Dr. Campbell tells us, to sex resorts.

This wholesale licentiousness also led to the “Male Health Crisis” in the following decade, in which “thousands of men across all backgrounds experiencing cardiac arrest, stroke, crippling anxiety, no apparent biological explanations for symptoms.”

The final voice belongs to Bonita, an impressive young woman who is brave, bolshy, and determined to do good in the world. Her voice is a resonant bell of positivity, although Jones is scrupulously careful not to proselytize throughout the show—she genuinely lets the characters speak for themselves.

Still, that Jones ends Sell/Buy/Date, with such an uplifting and genuine voice signals, one presumes, that she too thinks or hopes that humanity and the best of human spirit will ultimately triumph over the degradations of our addictions to technology and acquisition of pleasure, sexual and otherwise.

In that sense, Sell/Buy/Date has a point to make about now, and the-time-still-to-come. But the voices would be just as powerful if they had come to us straight from the present day. The future is a shiny and dramatic prop in Jones’s thought-provoking play, but it is also strangely defunct.