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.