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Firefly's Companions: Hope for a Sex-Positive Future

Although the sci-fi space western Firefly has been off the air for 13 years, many of the motifs and ideas that Joss Whedon explored in the ill-fated series have slowly crept into real life. As of 2015, China is widely considered an emerging superpower and has become one of only three nations to have launched a human into space[1]; upon further consideration, the possibility of people speaking a mix of the Mandarin and English languages in the future no longer seems particularly far-fetched. Some characters in Firefly also send each other “waves,” which are audio-visual transmissions sent over an interplanetary computer network – in other words, they are audio-visual emails. Only 9.1%[2] of the world population used the internet when Firefly aired in 2002, and today the number is estimated at a staggering 42.4%[3], so billions of people around the world send each other “waves” of one kind or another every single day.

Perhaps most interestingly, one element of Whedon’s universe that is still lacking in most of the world is the legalization and celebration of sex work (with consent and agency). The prevalence of abstinence-only education in the United States that often excludes information about sexual and reproductive health may be a contributing factor, and the social stigma that surrounds prostitution also drives many people to look down on sex workers as "lesser" people who do not deserve health care or to work within a safe, regulated industry. However, Joss Whedon’s Companions' Guild and the character Inara, a member of this Guild of courtesans and entertainers, show both the possibility and necessity of a professional organization that protects and empowers men and women so that they may choose to pursue sex work in a safe, legal, and celebrated fashion.

Inara instructing a group of Companion trainees

First, Companions[4] are taught how to protect themselves in multiple ways. Not only do Companions learn how to read body language and maintain strict self-control, but they also receive annual physical check-ups and rigorous training in martial arts to ensure that they are healthy and can defend themselves. In fact, Companions can report clients to the Guild who behave inappropriately, which results in a black mark in the Companion registry that essentially guarantees that no Companion will contract with them. Also, Inara is so well-respected that she even helps the crew escape dangerous situations due to her Companion status, cunning, and undeniable charm.

In addition, Companions are also trained to be educated and well-rounded people with a strong sense of self-respect and independence. Although the Guild was originally a female organization (and one of Joss Whedon’s staples is writing strong female characters), it eventually became more inclusive by admitting male trainees. Companions form short-term contracts with their clients and therefore get to decide with whom they work, including clients who are of the same sex, if they so choose. While the Guild must approve all clients, they do not force clients on any of its members; the Guild only serves to educate and protect its members. Companions often come from upper-class families and must display both academic and artistic proficiency in order to complete their training. They fill many roles for their clients, from that of a well-read conversationalist to that of a therapist. Notably, Companions do not learn about the art of pleasure until after they have successfully completed their academic training. Those who do not pass their examinations are sent back home.

However, not all sex workers in the Firefly universe are as respected and educated as the Companions. If a Companion ever leaves the Guild, they are officially shunned, and registered Companions are expected to cut off communication with them. This contributes to the formation of an informal, binary sex worker class system in which Companions are at the top and generally well-respected, while the men and women who work outside of the Guild are called prostitutes and treated with the same lack of respect as many modern-day sex workers experience. Despite the series’ short run, one episode introduces the viewers to a brothel run by a former Companion who needs the crew’s help to combat a sheriff with a particular disdain for prostitutes. Although the captain, Mal, chastises Inara throughout the series for being a Companion, even he recognizes that aiding the unprotected prostitutes is the right thing to do.

Empowered Inara, a well-resepected Companion

An encouraging indication of change in the present-day world’s view of prostitution can be seen in the legalized adult sex trade of New Zealand.[5] While sex work, running a brothel, and street solicitation are legal, coercing a sex worker is not. In 2003, New Zealand’s parliament narrowly passed the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA), which decriminalized brothels, escort agencies, and soliciting, and prostitution must be voluntary, giving providers the right to refuse clients. With the support of the PRA, the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective has established workplace safety and health rules, and there is an emphasis on practicing safe sex. Instead of working to identify and arrest prostitutes, the police now focus on protecting them from mistreatment and exploitation. While some religious organizations made efforts to modify or overturn the PRA, they fell well short of the required number of signatures, which suggests that a sizeable amount of the country’s population supports the legislation. While the government does not officially track the sex trade’s contribution to its GDP, some estimate[6] that the sex trade contributes over $800 million annually to New Zealand’s economy. That is the approximate amount contributed by the clothing, footwear, and textiles sector – combined.

Sex workers deserve the same kind of safe working conditions and respect enjoyed by an employee providing a service in any legal industry, and both the Companions' Guild in Firefly and the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective provide excellent models for what that could look like. The achievable ideal, too, is that the people who pursue sex work will eventually only do so by choice; if the industry is stable and safe, it is not unreasonable to hope that the influx of voluntary sex workers will erode the sex trafficking industry to extinction. While the Firefly series takes place in 2517, hopefully the formation of a group similar to the Companion's Guild is not so far off anymore.

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