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Real lives behind sex trade examined in ‘Bordello’ at Chicago Dramatists

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

When playwright Aline Lathrop was 16, she was attacked by a man who had been anonymously sending her pornography. She fought back, he ran and she escaped with bruises and post-traumatic stress.

Now some 20 years later, that emotionally scarring experience has been the impetus behind the creation of a new play.

“I’ve been thinking about the commercialization of sex and sexual violence ever since,” Lathrop said. “I’ve been doing a lot of research over the years and sorting out my thoughts.”

When she was ready to write the play, she a chose a controversial topic — legal prostitution — that she felt “was the most complicated and had the most gray area.” She says her feelings about the topic have evolved.

“There is a way of looking at sex workers along a continuum of sexual violence against women,” Lathrop said. “That anyone involved is a victim. But I’m not entirely convinced of that argument anymore. I wanted to explore how choice functions here.”

The result of Lathrop’s exploration is “Bordello,” a seven-person drama that attempts to demystify the Nevada sex trade and the women who make it their living.

“What drew me in was the strength and fortitude of the characters,” said director Meghan Beals McCarthy. “And the structure of the play felt alive and very vital. While time passes, lives are built up and broken down.”

Lathrop’s research reached from highbrow to lowbrow, from academic books and memoirs to the HBO series “Cathouse,” a show that documents the professional lives of workers at a legal brothel in Nevada, which she realized is simply “porn propaganda.”

“I realized that sex workers are portrayed in a gritty fashion but not realistically,” Lathrop said. “They’re not reflected with much depth. I wanted to give a real face to the people who work in the profession.”

The play’s seven women work hard and are good at what they do. Lathrop shines a light on their dreams and ambitions and the things that get in the way. There is a delicate balance in their relationships and the bonds they form with one another.

“These are complex characters with incredible needs,” McCarthy said. “There is camaraderie and love but also professional jealousy and mistrust and wariness.”

Lathrop also wanted to explore the nature of choice in the women’s lives. What brought them to this lifestyle and why have they stayed?

“Are all people engaged in sex work really free agents or have they been coerced?” Lathrop asked. “And whose decision should it be how a woman uses her body for her own goals? I wanted to think about all the kind of circular questions of choice and see how they functioned in that environment.”

♦ “Bordello,” currently in previews, open Feb. 4 and continues through March 6 at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago. For tickets ($32), call (312) 633-0630 or visit

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