Mary O’Hagan explores the pitfalls of Louis Theroux’s most recent documentary, ‘Louis Theroux: Selling Sex’.
Louis Theroux is an honorary member of most student flats. Cramming five or six freshers into a grimey first-year bedroom to watch Louis attend a swinger’s party or hang out with die-hard Christians probably sounds familiar to most of us. And this may have even been a similar scene when another Louis Theroux documentary graced our screens in January this year, this time focussing on sex work.
‘Louis Theroux: Selling Sex’ investigates three sex workers, all women, but with different backgrounds and levels of experience. Louis chats to them about their work and even attends their appointments (remaining outside the bedroom, of course) but he also asks about their personal lives and histories. All sounds fairly typical Louis, right? To a layperson, the documentary goes off without a hitch. You can easily trust that the Theroux narrative gives a true and full picture, just as you would when watching him try to understand the members of the Westboro Baptist Church or form an insight into the Beverly Hills plastic surgery scene.
Suddenly, the picture became blurred and the warmth of Louis’ trustworthy embrace loosened, as participants in the documentary, Ashleigh and Georgina, released their open letter to the BBC detailing their distress and mistreatment when dealing with the BBC/Theroux team. The letter, which was written back in August long before the documentary aired, called out Louis’ dismissal of Ashleigh’s disabilities and his ignorance of the pressing schedule of their work, when the team made her late for a client appointment. Furthermore, the two students highlight that they were repeatedly undermined in the editing process. The crew focussed on abuse and victimisation, which the pair deemed to be overstated and just one dimension of the story. Ashleigh wrote about her personal experience of it all for GalDem and even exposed their request to drop out of the documentary altogether.
Once highlighted, the narrative of trauma and victimisation is undoubtedly there throughout the documentary. However, Ashleigh and Georgia point out that other aspects of their personalities were erased, to allow the team to push this one perspective. And it isn’t an original viewpoint at that. Sex workers have been consistently victimised in certain strands of research: only recent works have offered alternative viewpoints, resulting in divisive feminist arguments over whether sex workers are oppressed or empowered. This is mentioned in the documentary, of course, with Ashleigh even explicitly saying that she “does not need to be saved.”
But, both sides of the debate are not given equal weight. Louis consistently questions Ashleigh’s feelings from the outset and we’re even told by their letter that he questioned her on whether she is actually autistic. This ‘faux pas’ on Louis’ part shows a clear readiness to label her as ‘vulnerable’ because of her engagement in sex work. But then, her medical and objective disability label is met with scepticism because of her lack of obvious vulnerability in that area. Ashleigh’s disability is briefly mentioned at the beginning of the documentary, but this short sentence bears little weight compared to the clear focus on Ashleigh’s abusive past. Her disability, which plays an integral part of her personality and being, is overshadowed by the ‘victim’ narrative. This was the first of many alarm bells that stood out to me, each of them fairly different but all representing a lack of understanding for the complex, intersectional issues at play in this sector of work.
Some may suggest that this is just the nature of television. As the BBC said, they own the rights to the footage and are able to do what they like with it; if someone is unhappy with their portrayal, then that is just the ebbs and flows of agreeing to be on TV. But, in a documentary featuring women who have been consistently branded as vulnerable, why were these preconceptions not challenged in the editing? Especially when the participants in question requested certain changes and expressed distress. This sector of work is extremely diverse yet delicate, but isn’t necessarily treated as such. The publication of any research, in particular video research broadcasted on TV, means that the participants are objectified in that way forever. So, it is arguably extremely challenging to portray your subjects in a fully authentic way, in an hour-long programme. But, I think you could probably start by listening to your participants – at the very least when they beg you to, and most of all when you are in a position of power and can support an already struggling community.
As interest and exposure of sex work grows thanks to online communities and social media, there is a sense of backing and support on the surface But, the deeper understanding of the sector is limited and stereotypes and microaggressions are still bred, leading to the continuous marginalisation of those involved in the industry. Louis and his team lacked this knowledge. Had they gained a more nuanced understanding of sex work, they would have known how crucial it is to uphold and support the women that make up ‘the oldest profession’ in history and to establish the work they do as valid. As Ashleigh described in her article, when investigating and focusing on a particularly marginalised group for any reason, whether it be for social research, television entertainment or anything else, those members’ voices should be platformed and prioritised, rather than muffled and talked over. This was something that Louis absolutely failed to do. Perhaps this is a sign that as much as we love Theroux, he is not infallible.
Artwork by Rivka Cocker.