We Need More Stories Like It
by Megan Burbank
“This is one of the most vulgar ironies I could possibly even conceive of,” says Kristine, a caustic, funny welder by trade, toward the end of Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller’s new documentary Sweetheart Deal. She’s responding to the news that Laughn Elliott Doescher, who fashioned himself mayor of Seattle’s Aurora Avenue North and friend to sex workers including Kristine, had been drugging and sexually assaulting the same people he claimed to support, including a young woman Doescher had previously assisted in tracking down an abusive client. He was one predator hidden behind another.
Sweetheart Deal, which premiered at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), is a humanizing and tender portrait of what life looks like on the margins of a city that would often prefer to pretend it doesn’t have any. As Subarus speed blindly up and down the neon-flecked artery that is Highway 99, Kristine and her peers Krista, Sarah, and Tammy navigate the daily realities of living in a world where the forces of misogyny, capitalism, and criminalization make meaningful protections for sex workers scarce. By the time they discover the truth about Doescher, they’ve already faced everything from addiction and aging to health crises and challenging family dynamics, in a narrative that’s honest about sex work and addiction without ever slipping into exploitation or moralizing.
It’s also framed beautifully by co-director and cinematographer Gabriel Miller, who died in 2019. Footage of rain-soaked windows, Aurora’s kitschy mid-century motel signs, and changing traffic lights should be familiar to anyone who’s driven up Highway 99, but they’re captured so vividly in Sweetheart Deal that they take on a hyperreality as alluring and deeply lived-in as it is overwhelming at times. That quality is punched up by featured songs from Meaghan Grandall’s dream-pop act Lemolo.
But if the atmosphere is slick, neo-noir even, the story is human, one inspired by Martin Bell’s 1984 documentary Streetwise and based on deep trust between the filmmakers and their subjects developed slowly over time. The opposite of parachute journalism, “It was a long-term relationship that we were building with each person and a lot of getting to know them, and a lot of time we spent with them was without a camera present,” explains the film’s co-director and producer Elisa Levine. Sometimes that meant taking subjects to the methadone clinic or sitting with them in the emergency room. In all those hours of filming, she says, “They were people that we really came to care about.”
Co-producer Tracy Rector says she hopes the film will inspire viewers to feel similarly. “It’s an important film that brings forward needed conversations about rights for women, rights for underserved peoples, and especially rights for sex workers, and the much-needed conversation around humanizing the women who are daily undertaking this work,” she says.
Sweetheart Deal was filmed before the controversial U.S. Senate and House bill package FOSTA-SESTA went into effect in 2018, effectively preventing sex workers from advertising their services online. Though disingenuously framed as a way to prevent sex trafficking, the law actually made sex workers less safe in their dealings with clients; when sex workers can advertise online, they have more control over who enters their orbit. FOSTA-SESTA removed that layer of safety and pushed more sex workers into in-person environments like the one Levine and Miller captured on film.
This is exactly the kind of space that enabled a bad actor like Doescher, and while the film ends with Doescher’s sentencing for his crimes against sex workers, his trajectory feels like the exception that proves the rule. The same legal system that, through criminalization, makes sex work precarious in the first place cannot be relied upon to deliver justice when sex workers are harmed. Nor is it well-positioned to battle more mundane trespasses like one I encountered while working on this story, when I stumbled onto a YouTube account solely dedicated to videos taken of sex workers walking up and down Aurora without their knowledge or consent. Levine said she’d seen these videos too and found them similarly disturbing.
I reported the account immediately, but the dehumanizing sentiment behind it isn’t uncommon, nor is it limited to bad-faith social media projects. Consider the work of former KOMO news reporter Jonathan Choe, and his dispatches from Ballard, which once included exploitative images of a deceased person’s body, framed as news because the subject happened to be unhoused. Choe was eventually fired — from Sinclair-owned KOMO — for platforming the Proud Boys, but not after numerous inflammatory posts that whipped up panic and alienation in online community groups in the neighborhood where I live.
A neighborhood that happens to include Aurora.
Whether we’re talking about addressing homelessness or decriminalizing sex work, cultivating empathy seems like an unfairly huge barrier to meaningful change. But stories like Sweetheart Deal, which Levine described as “this one tiny microcosm of so many stories that are out there,” presents a powerful counter-narrative. I hope Seattleites will pay attention.
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Megan Burbank is a writer and editor based in Seattle. Before going full-time freelance, she worked as an editor and reporter at the Portland Mercury and The Seattle Times. She specializes in enterprise reporting on reproductive health policy, and stories at the nexus of gender, politics, and culture.
📸 Featured Image: Still from “Sweetheart Deal,” courtesy of Aurora Stories, LLC.
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