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Louis Theroux Selling Sex documentary
Selling Sex, Louis TherouxCourtesy BBC

A sex worker honestly reviews Louis Theroux’s new documentary

Theroux's Selling Sex pushes the idea that all sex has to be special, and ultimately asks the wrong questions about the industry

Normal, healthy sex: intimate, with your partner, conducted with the lights out and most likely with Coldplay playing in the background.

Sex work: cold, dangerous, with a stranger, conducted in hotel rooms or Airbnbs, and most likely the result of intense childhood trauma. 

Or at least, this is what Louis Theroux’s latest documentary, Selling Sex, which came out this week, might have you believe. It’s not the national treasure’s first foray into the world of sex work – his past documentaries have taken a look at pornography and Nevada’s legal brothels – but it is perhaps the most vacuous. In 2020, and in a time when conversations around sex worker’s rights are more visible than ever before, we might have hoped for a more nuanced view of the industry, but let’s just say that if anyone had been playing “sex work documentary bingo” while watching, they would have found a full house.

As a brothel worker and activist, when I was invited by producers to discuss the documentary prior to filming, I was pleasantly surprised. I was told that they were interested in the effect of stigma on our lives. In turn, I told them all about the fight for our rights and safety. I encouraged them to explore the fact that people with disabilities are overrepresented among sex workers, and consider how things like inaccessible workplaces and benefits cuts have made sex work a more attractive option. I encouraged them to look at the way that problems with Universal Credit had drawn more people into the sex industry. I even invited them, and Louis himself, to attend the Sex/Work Strike in Soho, a demonstration organised by workers to demand rights, safety, and respect, so that they could begin to understand what exactly sex workers are asking for.

I thought, naively, that we might be getting a documentary about sex workers rather than sex work. Clearly, I was wrong.

Louis Theroux chose, instead, to explore whether or not sex work could be a ‘healthy way’ to earn money. It was entirely the wrong question and one that had been explored in basically every other sex work documentary that has been inflicted on us, from Sex, Drugs and Murder’s Life in the Red Light Zone to Rashida JonesHot Girls Wanted. And still, despite the hackneyed approach, his analysis lacked depth.

Louis dedicates time to sit down with one sex worker’s husband, pushing him to express discomfort in his wife’s actions. He described one participant’s sex work as a “side effect of her upbringing”, referencing her confession that she is a survivor of child abuse. While he admits that the money has allowed stability for the sex workers involved, he ends the documentary with a candid discussion with mother Victoria about leaving the sex industry. 

Rather than a documentary on stigma or even a great discussion around feminised labour and misogyny, Louis ruminated on whether or not sex work was good or bad. He pointed out that sex was a very intimate act and that sleeping with strangers for money seemed to pervert this. But how common, really, is it for a woman to have sex with a man in a way that is entirely free of the interference of patriarchy?

In a society that puts so much pressure on sexuality, with the pervasive myth of virginity as purity, with misogynistic ideas of “body counts” or acceptable numbers of sexual partners, with arbitrary rules like “no sex on the first date”, how do you even untangle your own desire to get down and dirty from outside pressures? How many of us have had sex with someone because we wanted to forget an ex, or out of habit, or because we’re bored, or even because we couldn’t be bothered to get the night bus home? Does Louis also have an issue with people having one night stands because they are not meaningful enough? 

“Louis failed to confront the canon of mythology built around sex by a patriarchal society. He missed the opportunity to have a conversation like I had with my client: why do we view some sex as more acceptable than other sex”

Coincidentally, yesterday I had this discussion with one of my clients. He had asked how my (admittedly fictional) boyfriend let me work in the sex industry and was taken aback when I said: “because he knows it’s just sex”. Despite having picked me out of a row of girls and not having told me his name, he insisted that sex was something special. I corrected him: “sex can be something special”. Sex can be extremely meaningful, but only when you attach meaning to it. Sex with a close partner can be synonymous with an expression of love. It can be a transcendental experience. It can be a form of commitment. But it can also just be sex. And sometimes, people trade it to be able to afford to live.

By focussing on whether sex work is healthy, Louis failed to confront the canon of mythology built around sex by a patriarchal society. He missed the opportunity to have a conversation like I had with my client: why do we view some sex as more acceptable than other sex?

Of course, it is important to consider mental health in the context of work. But we cannot pretend that poor mental health is unique to the sex industry. We cannot continue to perpetuate the idea that survivors in the sex industry are punishing ourselves, or recreating our traumas, or unable to comprehend our actions as a result of the abuse. And we cannot, as this documentary does, perpetuate the idea that the mere act of having sex for money is psychologically damaging, rather than the stigma and hostility that surrounds it. 

On top of that, discussions around sex work, and mental health, and abuse cannot be taken out of their material context – the fact is that the vast majority of us are here because, unsurprisingly, we need money to live. Those of us who have managed to escape abuse rarely have the same financial safety nets that have kept others from sex work. Those of us living with complex mental health issues or disabilities can rarely access other jobs. When I, like thousands before me, had to choose between sex work and starvation, I wasn’t in a position to consider things like morality or even my own health. We cannot even begin to consider reducing the number of people in the sex industry without first reducing the number of people in poverty, something that should have been an integral part of discussion in Selling Sex, and we certainly cannot reduce it through criminalisation, which only harms us more by preventing us from screening out dangerous clients or accessing help in an emergency.

Understandably, the documentary has been met with backlash. Participants Georgina and Ashley even wrote an open letter to the producers, detailing how they had been let down and misrepresented. In a response, the BBC said that Louis “has always had the utmost respect for the subjects of his documentaries”. 

Frankly, I beg to differ. When such a trusted, widely viewed documentarian refuses to consider that sex workers need resources and instead chooses to emphasise that the industry is bad and the people in it are usually survivors of abuse trapped in a vicious cycle of unhealthy sex, then sex workers are discredited, stigmatised and pathologised. Every day, politicians ignore our calls for decriminalisation – the safest legal model for sex workers – and an end to poverty because they subscribe to the same narrative that Louis Theroux perpetuates: that we do not understand our own needs. 

The nefarious side effects of documentaries like Selling Sex are widespread and dangerous. Louis Theroux, with his probing questions and doubtful looks, pushed his subjects into discussing the uncomfortable and negative parts of their jobs so that he could prove his obvious hypothesis that there is no “healthy” way to sell sex, that the act in itself is wrong. In the industry and in the sex worker rights movement, we know that such questions are essentially meaningless, and instead are having productive conversations about community care and harm reduction. Fingers crossed that one day we’ll get a documentary that does the same.