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May 25, 2022

SXSW review: ‘Sell/Buy/Date’ offers a humorous trip through the sex industry

Actress and comedian Sarah Jones plays multiple roles — and has multiple perspectives

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“Everything Everywhere All at Once” kicked off the South by Southwest Film Festival on Friday, with Michelle Yeoh walking the wintry red carpet at the Paramount.

By most accounts, it was a flashy premiere, focusing on a Chinese-American woman (Yeoh) who is trying to finish her taxes but gets caught up in a crazy multiverse world.

Next door, at the Stateside Theatre, a less-buzzy movie was having its premiere, but it probably won’t be regarded as a second-fiddle affair for long. It’s titled “Sell/Buy/Date,” and it follows Tony Award-winning actress Sarah Jones on an exploration of the sex industry.

The movie started off as an Off-Broadway one-woman show in 2016, with a restaging in Los Angeles in 2018. In the show, as in the movie, Jones plays five characters, and the result is a hybrid of a documentary and narrative feature. Jones does not try to make a final judgment about porn, but tries to highlight various voices in the sex industry through a social justice lens. The central question, as publicity material for the film states, is: “How can we as a society have a healthy relationship to sex, power, race and our economy, without exploitation or stigma?”

The movie opens with a lively discussion of the controversy of tackling such a topic without making it seem like it will be yet another anti-sex-worker screed. And Jones is told repeatedly that she will have to “let sex workers speak for themselves.”



Part of the controversy comes from an announcement by Laverne Cox that she is dropping out as a producer of “Sell/Buy/Date” after a social media backlash. A central social media demand was that Jones include the perspectives of sex workers. And in the movie, that’s exactly what Jones does.

The vast majority of the interviews that Jones conducts, in fact, are with sex workers. One of the strangest involves a tour of the Chicken Ranch, a legal brothel 60 miles outside Las Vegas. Jones takes the tour with Debbie Rivenburgh, the general manager, who does not work as a prostitute. But she knows the ropes, so to speak, especially in the sex-toy room.

Others tell stories of exploitation and the devastating feeling of having sold yourself. But others offer more upbeat assessments and declare their independence.

One of the oddest developments is the recent empowerment of porn stars, some of whom have begun to take home the largest share of the profits from their movies. This is discussed at length with Evan Seinfeld, the former leader of the Brooklyn metal/rap hybrid group Biohazard.

Seinfeld has built an empire in the adult movie industry after he himself became a porn star. And he has launched an internet platform called IsMyGirl, where porn stars can produce and sell their own content. The site basically allows porn stars to connect directly with their fans, and thereby keep most of the money they make.

If all of this sounds rather reportorial rather than entertaining, it should be pointed out that Jones inserts the various characters that she has created into many of these situations. And they are not at all the same, ranging from an older, world-weary wise-ass woman to a young and eager ride-share driver.

The presence of these characters not only offers different perspectives on the porn industry but also provides much-needed levity.

“Sell/Buy/Date” has an online screening on March 12, followed by two more in-person screenings: 12 noon March 15 at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center, and 9:30 p.m. March 17 at the Alamo South Lamar. See schedule.sxsw.com/2022/films/2053827


Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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