Henry Northmore takes a look at Louis Theroux’s latest documentary, Selling Sex, an intimate investigation of the UK sex industry

T here’s something about Louis Theroux that makes his subjects open up. His softly, softly approach helps them feel at ease even when they are discussing deeply personal issues. He seems to genuinely care, creating a safe space where people open up and share. It’s what has made him one of the most popular documentarians in the UK.

His latest show Louis Theroux: Selling Sex investigates the world of legal sex work in the UK. ‘I’m always drawn to stories that involve ethical wrinkles issues that are deeply felt, but are also divisive, and in which good-hearted people can come to opposite conclusions,’ explains Theroux. ‘The debate around selling sex is exactly that kind of story.’ It’s a topic Theroux has examined from several angles with documentaries about brothels, prostitution and pornography over the years. Exchanging sex for money isn’t illegal in Britain as long as ‘it doesn’t involve coercion, exploitation, or any kind of public nuisance’ and with the rise of the internet and social media, women and men are moving away from the street and brothels into a new grey economy. ‘It is one of the most straightforward, yet complex interactions that can take place between two people,’ says Theroux. ‘On the one hand, none of the activities taking place here are illegal; everything is above board and both parties have mutually agreed on the arrangement. On the other, it’s impossible to deny that for many maybe most people, there is something unsavoury in the idea of accepting money for an act that is so intimate. They have a problem with those who do it and see it as a symptom of a society that is controlled and dominated by men.

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‘What we ended up with was a very intimate look at three very individual women and the different paths that led them to this field of work. I found it revealing and thought- provoking to make I hope viewers have the same experience. Mainly, I’d like to thank the women who so openly and honestly let me in to their lives and helped broaden my understanding of their lives and experiences.’

Theroux watchers will have noticed a trend for his shows becoming more and more sombre. Starting with wide-eyed peeks into UFO cults, wrestling and infomercials via spending time with oddball celebrities such as Paul Daniels, Chris Eubank and Jimmy Saville (though in retrospect that particular episode is a far darker portrait of a deeply evil man), Theroux is now looking at some of the most serious issues affecting US and UK society. Recent documentaries on end-of-life care, alcoholism, anorexia, autism, dementia, post- partum depression and drug addiction have helped humanise difficult and complex topics with sensitivity and understanding. ‘I take on difficult subjects because it’s what I find most interesting, and if anything, it’s in a spirit of self-doubt and anxiety that I tend to take on difficult subjects,’ he says ‘In other words, my biggest fear as a programme maker is the idea of either being boring, or presuming on the good will of the audience that they’ll want to see whatever I do. That runs completely counter to how I see myself, which is as a journalist and a curious person, but not as an entertainer who is interesting in his own right.’

Louis Theroux: Selling Sex, BBC Two (date tbc).

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