Louis Theroux’s Selling Sex has made one thing very clear: the conversation surrounding sex work is far from simple.
The conversation surrounding sex work has always been complicated.
In the UK, the act of selling sex is legal, as long as it does not involve coercion or exploitation, or create a public nuisance. But the legality of such work rarely comes into play when it comes to the vociferous debate surrounding the practice. In fact, as Louis Theroux’s new documentary proves, society’s response to sex work – and the people who do it – is as complicated as ever.
The new documentary, which explores the sex industry through the lives of three women – Victoria, Ashleigh and Caroline – is truly insightful. The film’s subjects, all of whom come from different backgrounds and have very different reasons for selling sex, are presented in a sensitive and non-judgemental way. Indeed, Theroux’s ability to stand back and let the story tell itself is more important than ever, allowing the women to speak openly about their experiences, thoughts and opinions.
The film’s biggest success is its refusal to approach subjects in black and white terms. In one particularly moving moment, 23-year-old art student Ashleigh opens up to Louis about being sexually abused as a child. There is a delicate line to tread here – while, in Ashleigh’s situation, the abuse she has experienced is inextricably linked to the way she thinks and talks about sex, the documentary is careful not to exacerbate the stereotype that sex workers who have suffered trauma have no control over their choices.
Instead, Theroux leaves Ashleigh the space to explore her relationship with sex, allowing her to demonstrate her self awareness and autonomy. “I think [abuse] gives you a sort of numbness,” she explains. “I know that [sex work’s] not sustainable and I know that it’s not going to cure me.”
The other women in the film – Victoria and Caroline – came to sex work for very different reasons. While Victoria is a single mum using her sex work to support her young family, Caroline is in a committed marriage of 44 years, using her sex work to explore and express her sexuality after a childhood dominated by repression. There is no one ‘type’ of sex worker – and the film works hard to avoid this stereotype.
One thing the film does fail to mention is the legal debate surrounding sex work – and the activists trying to make the practise a safer one. Currently, as previously mentioned, it is legal to sell sex as long as the transaction does not involve coercion or exploitation, or create a public nuisance. But a number of related activities – including soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel, pimping and pandering – are crimes, making it difficult for women to work together in order to ensure their own safety.
“Current UK law makes it a criminal offence for sex workers to work together for safety,” said sexual health specialist Louise Cahill, when she called for the government to change its current sex laws earlier this year.
“Brothel keeping is defined as just two or more sex workers working together. Therefore, sex workers have to choose between keeping safe and getting arrested. No one should be put in danger by the law.”
Speaking ahead of the film’s release late last week, Theroux stressed the difficulty of exploring such a sensitive subject, admitting the documentary was “arduous” to make.
Writing in a post on Facebook, Theroux said: “Ashleigh, Caroline, and Victoria use social media and an industry website to sell sexual services and intimacy. The online technology allows them to review customers and customers to review them, much like Uber, Airbnb, Yelp, Ebay, etc.
“It’s rather surreal - users claim it makes the act of selling sex safer I don’t have a clip to show you, I can’t find one online. So for now I’ll just say: it was one of the most arduous films to make because of the sensitivities involved but I’m very proud of it.”
At the end of the day, Theroux’s exploration of the subject makes one thing very clear: conversations about sex work will always be complicated. Sex work – and the people who take part in it – cannot be dealt with in black and white terms.
Selling Sex is now available to watch on BBC iPlayer
As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.
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