Rupert Everett's Love for Sale: Channel 4
The media usually manage to be both mealy-mouthed and prurient in their attempts to deal with prostitution. BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour recently ran a week of discussion on the issue of criminalising the buyers of sex using what is called ‘The Swedish Model’. Speakers managed to discuss the Swedish Model without any apparent sense of irony. An effort was made to involve those sex-workers who thought the idea of prosecuting ‘punters’ would make their lives more dangerous but you could tell that the presenters’ hearts were not in it. Instead the weight of opinion concentrated on the views of moralists whose quasi-religious motivations and dislike of men and sex were thinly cloaked by the default setting of concentration on the vulnerability and exploitation of drug-addicted street walkers and trafficking.
Channel 4 on the other hand has a notable taste for the grotesque in which voyeurism is poorly disguised as documentary. So one’s initial reaction to Love for Sale: Episode 1 Why People Sell Sex (Monday 28 April) was of hope rather than confidence. The hope engendered by Rupert Everett’s presence as host to the (two-part) programme.
Channel 4 has had the wisdom to allow Everett total creative control. He conducted his inquiry with delicacy, balance and restraint. There was nothing louche in the way he explored the world of paid sex – in which he has been both consumer and vendor. Instead he used his credentials to elicit the views and commentaries of his respondents with great insight and gentle empathy.
Nor did he run away from the dark side of the low rent end of the profession. A young Palestinian male refugee in Tel Aviv and a crack cocaine single mother in the vaguely defined urban ‘north-east’ were allowed to respond to his calm and direct questions without interruption or commentary. In two interviews he established very clearly where the real poison infected the wellsprings of sex work: social isolation and drug dependency.
By contrast, his meetings with workers further up the scale showed themselves to be entirely self-possessed, self-aware and far from feeling exploited. Rather, they were tough-minded and realistic about the business they were in. There was a single mother in Exeter, who rented a flat for her work (as an escort), and who never had more than three clients a day. It was the day because she had a school run, and it was only three because she enjoyed sex (the only one who came out on that) and liked to have her orgasm and while it didn’t always happen three was about what she could manage. She was very proud of having won a golden winged phallus at the Erotic Awards in 2013.
We met an ex-call girl and now escort agency manager who made the bookings for her ‘girls’ from behind an impressive desk top computer screen in a smart office. In shot over her shoulder was a white board with men’s names and comments such as ‘rough’ or ‘ignore’ or ‘boring’. These women were adamant that the best way to ensure the safety of sex workers was to allow women to work in small groups out of shared premises.
There was also a informative meeting with an Amsterdam window girl – who had her own methods for assessing the risk characteristics of passing men. In any case those she invited in had first to pass an interview outside the glass security door.
At the high end – and we are talking several hundred pounds an hour we met a Brazilian girl and a very butch male model type. Both liked the international and jet-set life and jewellery that their work provided. But they acknowledged there was a price to pay. The girl would rather not have become so reliant upon the comforts she enjoyed for renting her body and the man admitted to occasional loneliness and dark places. Not the least of these having been the suicides of a number of his friends in the same business and the difficulty of keeping a boy-friend.
It was a further measure of Rupe’s fair-mindedness that he conducted a discussion with two criminalisation campaigners (a social worker nun and an ex-prostitute from Belfast – who had clearly been abused – but carried it like a campaigning cross and admitted no compromise) and Dr Brooke Magnanti (not in evidence in the BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour week). No headway was made on the ideological front – Everett confessing his ambivalence and leaving the interviewees to make the case. The reason for this was that a very good prostitute friend of his had been murdered in the Bois de Boulogne some years before.
Perhaps the most emotionally engaging bit of the programme was his return to the Bois and his encounter with various and extraordinary former acquaintances. Rupert was greeted with kisses and in discussion of his murdered amie visibly shocked to be told she/he? had wanted to marry him.
Being a prostitute is a tough business that demands specific strengths of character. But it is a business that men, as well as women, can choose. That some (and the programme noted that half of all prostitutes are street workers) need specific help and protection is undoubted. The help element is about drugs and other social vulnerabilities. The protection is about organisation – and for the most part, if allowed, they can do that for themselves.
One thing is sure, only extreme feminists and their pusillanimous political allies think that criminalising clients will do other than harm.
Do catch this on 4OD and Part 2 next week. If he carries on like this, Mr Everett has a great future ahead of him as a documentarian.
Part 2: Love for Sale, Why People Buy Sex on Channel 4 at 10 pm on Monday 5th May