Louis Theroux: Selling Sex review – employment, empowerment or exploitation?

With the sex economy booming, Theroux sensitively shadowed three women at its coalface – from a hard-up student to a woman married for 44 years

Selling sex is legal in the UK, as long as it does not involve coercion or exploitation, or create a public nuisance. Combine this situation with the rise of technology that makes it very easy for people to set themselves up as sex workers and for potential clients to find them and you get exactly what we have seen – a rise in the numbers of both, among people who might not previously have considered such activities.

So explains Louis Theroux as a prelude to his latest documentary, Selling Sex (BBC Two). The question of what the “usual” sex worker or client might be is an interesting and pertinent one, but goes unaddressed. Instead, Theroux introduces us to his three gatewomen to this new world.

They are 33-year-old Victoria, whose life moves in quartets – four years in the sex industry, four bookings per working day, four children for whom she is the sole provider; 23-year-old Ashleigh, a student with Asperger syndrome who streamed live sex shows from her home for several years before selling sex to pay her way through art school; and sixtysomething former dental nurse Caroline, married for 44 years to her devoted husband, Graham – she turned to escort work after a friend who had done the same joked that she should try it.

What follows is probably not, the world being what it is, going to be some of Theroux’s most headline-grabbing work, up there with his visits to the toxic Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas or meeting Jimmy Savile. But it is a fine exploration of a potentially sensationalist, exploitative topic and an excellent showcase for Theroux’s softer skills – patience, reasoning, hanging back and letting subjects find their own words.

It is a relief, too, after his recent outing, which saw him investigate the phenomenon of profound postpartum depression in Mothers on the Edge. There, his usually impervious air of neutrality began to desert him, but here, thankfully, normal, nonjudgmental service has been resumed.

Like an archaeologist brushing away layers, Theroux gradually reveals the depth of the women’s stories through his questions. Beneath Victoria’s description of sex work as something that fits around caring for her children lies a story of a child who left home at 14 and entered an abusive relationship with a man aged 25. “If you’ve got nowhere to go … and someone shows an interest, you don’t realise it’s just sexual, you think they care about you … I used to do all these crazy things to keep him happy”. There is no meaning or good connections for her with sex, she says, so she has turned it into a way to support her family.

This dissociative state, which surely has been experienced by people for almost as long as the oldest profession has existed, is familiar to Ashleigh, too – and for not dissimilar reasons. She talks about her absent father’s resistance to her attempts to build a relationship with him (“I’m so desperate for people to acknowledge my existence”) and sexual abuse from the age of six to 12 (“That was the time I felt wanted … when it stopped, I basically thought he hated me. So it made everything worse”).

But she is over it now. “I say that as I cry!” she acknowledges brightly through her tears. “But it’s fine. Shit happens. You just have to use it as something to make yourself a better person.”

In this context, Caroline’s story amounts almost to light relief. A repressive religious upbringing left her alienated from and scared of sex, which she considered dirty and sinful. Now, in her seventh decade, she is beginning to emerge from its shadow. Whether her marriage will survive is unclear, but set against the other stories it looks at least a little more like genuine empowerment.

There are those who argue that it is the stigma attached to sex work that does the harm. Selling Sex suggests the harm is done much earlier and causes the kind of emotional cautery required to undertake it. Whether it should be legal or not is almost beside the point. The true question is how we define coercion or exploitation. The aim of the law’s definition is surely to ensure that anyone selling his or her body is doing so willingly, as a matter of absolutely free choice. Whether this can be said of any of the women here, I am not sure.

Contributor

Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Louis Theroux: Surviving America’s Most Hated Family review – a deeply uncomfortable watch
This follow-up film about the supremely intolerant Westboro Baptist church finds plenty to be outraged by, but it also veers into exploitation

Lucy Mangan

14, Jul, 2019 @9:00 PM

Article image
Louis Theroux: Dark States – Heroin Town review: bleak as hell
The documentary-maker is back with a tale of America’s worst ever drug epidemic and its forgotten victims. Plus: it’s party time in John Singleton’s new LA drama Snowfall

Sam Wollaston

08, Oct, 2017 @9:55 PM

Article image
Louis Theroux: Drinking to Oblivion review – you’ll worry about your alcohol consumption
The docu-king is back in Britain with a brilliant, brutal look at addiction. Plus: the genius of Yehudi Menuhin, the 20th century’s greatest violinist

Sam Wollaston

25, Apr, 2016 @6:20 AM

Article image
TV tonight: Joe Exotic gets the full Louis Theroux treatment
A year after Tiger King, the documentarian charts the rise and fall of the animal keeper. Plus: Wellington Paranormal. Here’s what to watch this evening

Ammar Kalia, Ellen E Jones, Hannah J Davies, Jack Seale and Paul Howlett

05, Apr, 2021 @5:20 AM

Article image
Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge review – 25 years of oddball odysseys
This new four-part series sees the documentary maker revisit the highlights of his long and varied career, from cornering hucksters to run-ins with neo-Nazis

Lucy Mangan

06, Sep, 2020 @9:00 PM

Article image
Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America review – a terrifying meeting with the new far right
Rape threats and racism feature in this alarming encounter with white nationalists who spread hate online while denying they’re fascists. Might this documentary do more harm than good?

Lucy Mangan

13, Feb, 2022 @10:00 PM

Article image
Louis Theroux: 'I worried I might be mansplaining motherhood'
As he tackles one of his most harrowing subjects yet, the documentary-maker talks about parenting, psychosis – and his secret beard

Gwilym Mumford

08, May, 2019 @2:59 PM

Article image
Louis Theroux – The City Addicted to Crystal Meth | Grizzly Bear Face-Off: Austin Stevens' Adventures | Engineering Britain's Superweapons | Girls Aloud: Out of Control | TV Review

For Louis Theroux, life is just one big awkward moment. And thank goodness for that, says Sam Wollaston

Sam Wollaston

09, Aug, 2009 @11:05 PM

Article image
Thunderbirds Are Go and Louis Theroux: Transgender Kids - TV review
As a young boy I loved the Tracy brothers and this update is pretty FAB too

Stuart Jeffries

06, Apr, 2015 @6:00 AM

Article image
Louis Theroux: ‘My secret fear is that I'm not helping'
The quirky documentarian has graduated from Weird Weekends to must-see TV, though the dark places he goes to can sometimes haunt him. ‘I wish I had pursued Jimmy Savile more aggressively,’ he admits

Sophie Heawood

26, Mar, 2015 @7:00 AM