The ostensible hook for Louis Theroux’s new documentary, Selling Sex (BBC2), is that social media has made it easier to sell sex online. Workers and customers often have online profiles, complete with ratings and reviews, and at a click both parties can do the kind of due diligence their ancestors could only dream of. Theroux promises to investigate this “new sexual economy”, but while the smartphone has become the principal method of interaction, the core business is unchanged. In truth, this film feels as though it could have been made at any time in the past 15 years. He has covered prostitution before, in Nevada, and the central question of whether selling sex can ever be a healthy way to make money hasn’t changed.

Which is not to say it isn’t as thoughtful and humane and compelling as ever. His subjects are three female sex workers at different stages of life and approaching the job from different angles. Caroline has been married to Graham, a chartered surveyor, for 44 years. In other ways, they have a conventional West Sussex lifestyle, but she has recently found escorting to be a profitable and empowering line of work. In an excruciating opening scene she asks him to give her away for an hour so she can be with a client. Victoria is a 33-year-old in Nottingham, who does it to provide her four children with a better life than she has had. Ashleigh, a 23-year-old London student, is doing it to avoid getting a 9-5 and to support her artistic interests. Theroux spends time with them all at home and at work. In each case, a confident first impression gives way to something more complicated, and for Victoria and Ashleigh, childhood trauma.

The subjects are well chosen, and Theroux builds their portraits with his usual intelligence and patience. The handheld, ambling style disguises what must be a huge amount of research. He has the knack of subtly prompting in the viewer’s mind questions that he goes on to answer, with the result that his best films are a series of building narrative resolutions. In this case, some of the questions are obvious: what were these women’s childhoods like; how does it affect their other relationships; do they ever doubt themselves; will they do it forever; what does the husband think; what do the kids think; do they enjoy themselves; what do the customers think?

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The answers do little to dispel the view that the theory of sex work is different from the practice. Doubtless there are happy, fulfilled sex workers out there, but on the evidence of the film, it is not so simple for these three women. It’s possible Theroux was editorialising to suit his own argument. Ashleigh and her flatmate, Georgina, wrote an open letter to the BBC last year expressing their concerns that sex work had been misrepresented in the documentary. The BBC replied to say that their concerns had been addressed.

Another problem for Theroux is that these days he is famous enough to make his own micro-climate wherever he goes. It is impossible to be a sentient licence-fee payer and not be aware of him, or his signature mode of reserved curiosity, in which he withholds judgement but occasionally swoops down with a compassionate, psychologically astute insight. To feature in one of his programmes is not just to submit to difficult interviews, but to knowingly participate in a British Telly Event.

Afterwards, I found myself wondering what effect Louis Theroux has on his interviewees. When they cry as they recount their abusive childhoods, on some level they must be aware they are crying to Louis Theroux, celebrity interviewer. The recognition is clearly true of Ashleigh who asks for a hug instead of a handshake when they meet. Theroux’s fame gives a surreal quality to already strange situations. We don’t see the moments where, when walking through London with his subjects, he is stopped for selfies by adoring fans, but it must happen.  

At one point, after visiting a sex shop, he and Caroline and Graham decamp to discuss their relationship. Theroux says they go to “a local coffee shop”, but keen-eyed Sohoites will spot that it’s a private members’ club, Quo Vadis. It’s a tiny deception that doesn’t affect the documentary, but why bother? Theroux’s shtick is the friendly but disarming stranger. For all his roving brilliance, he has never been a man of the people.

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