Notes on the BBC3 documentary ‘Prostitution: What’s the Harm?’

This is not a very good documentary, it’s hard to make a claim towards unbiased journalism when you only give one side of the argument, and only interview a carefully selected set of subjects, and never ask them any difficult questions. This documentary doesn’t even hint at the existence of the Nordic model/Abolitionist approach to prostitution (where the prostitute her/him self is decriminalised, while the pimps, brothel-keepers and johns are criminalised), and there’s also no mention of the need for, or (lack of) existence of, exit services. It’s all about harm reduction and those magical choosy-choices that make all the problems go away, when it’s not being a blatant tutorial for pimping.

I watched it the first time it was show last year, and wanted to write some brief notes then, as it does reveal a few unpleasant truths about prostitution, especially it’s relationship to pornography consumption, and it’s normalisation among young people. I didn’t get round to it last time, and I’ve only just made it this time – it’s available to watch on BBC iPlayer until 2am on Friday (GMT).

First up after the intro/preview, the presenter Billie Porter talks to Chris Dangerfield who lives in Soho, and does a ‘comedy routine’ about being a john, and talkes about how it filled a void, after coming out of drug rehab. His take on it is completely predictable, and I’m not going to bother typing it out.

The documentary then moves to Prague, which is a popular stag-night destination, the flights, hotels and drink are cheep, and there is a thriving sex industry, Porter only describes the legal situation as ‘tolerant’.

According to the Wikipedia page on the subject, in the Czech Republic, while selling sex itself is legal, brothels and pimping is illegal. The Czech Republic is also a source, transit, and destination country for women and children trafficked from across the world, and it also has a problem with the commercial sexual exploitation of children, particularly children from the marginalised Roma population.

Porter then talks to a bunch of drunk English men who mostly talk about ‘value for money’. Porter then goes to talk to someone she describes as a ‘main player’ in Prague’s sex industry, who gives her a tour of his night club/brothel, and gets some free publicity in the process – there is no attempt at investigative journalism here, Porter is just shown round and her commentary is inane.

The tables in the bar have touch-screen computers where women can be picked from a menu, and even ‘modified’ with a choice of costume (nothing dehumanising going on there!). They also have a bar with a naked woman (she is from Brazil, which has worrying implications to me – this is not a specialist, well paid job; only poor women do this kind of work, so how did this woman come all the way from Brazil to do it?) laid out with cut fruit on her for johns to eat. The brothel-keeper offers Porter the chance to try being laid out naked herself; Porter declines, looking uncomfortable.

We are then shown a room big enough for group sex, with two naked women sitting in the adjacent hot tub, ready for the film crew.

Porter does interview one of the women, Laura, who works there, set up for her by the brothel-keeper of course, although he does at least leave the room for the interview. She says she ‘sees’ between 3-5 men a night, and that English men get too drunk to do anything. Porter asks if it’s difficult to enjoy it when she has to spend time with a guy she thinks is really nasty (this is a ridiculous question, as it implies that selling sex on it’s own, would be naturally enjoyable!). Laura says she cannot enjoy it, and has to be a good actor, and she does it for the money. She also says she has a son, who is 13, and doesn’t know, and she is worried he may come into the brothel one day and see her there. Laura also says that once she leaves work she switches off and gets on with her life.

Porter admits in voice over that the work ‘has its difficulties’, but she thinks Laura is ‘brave’ for ‘doing what it takes’ to ‘make a good living’.

Back in London Porter talks to four students in their early twenties, two male, two female. One of the women says that two of her friends paid for sex on a holiday to Portugal, and one of the men says he first paid for sex in Amsterdam, then again in London; the first woman asks him if he thinks they were enjoying it, and he says that in London, she was enjoying it more than he was, and described the two women he paid for (at the same time) in Amsterdam as ‘fake’ and ‘standard sex’. The first man asks the second man if he has ever paid for sex, he says no, when asked if he ever would, he says yes. The second woman is not shown clearly saying anything.

The documentary then moves to Cheshire, where she interviews two men (aged 22 and 23) who are regular sex buyers. One of them was in a relationship with a woman who told him a few months into the relationship that she was an ‘escort’, he says he was bothered at first, but he liked her having money. The relationship lasted 6 months, and after that, the first time he paid for sex was with someone he had met through his then girlfriend.

The men say that they pay for sex every 3-4 months, when they have the money. They use brothels and ‘escorts’ – they consider escorts safer, because they came to your house, and ‘anything’ could happen in a brothel.

One of the men says he would be put off by escorts that offered unprotected sex.

Buying sex was described as like “having a wank, but you’re paying for it to come out of your lap-top and onto your sofa”.

Porter asks if buying sex was something people were becoming less ashamed off, and the man says yes, and that “porn’s got a big part to play in it. You watch a porno, you’re not going to get that down the town […] you’re not going to get a woman that’s going to do that sort of stuff.”

The men admit that their use of prostitutes has affected their relationships, a mixture of worried that they are putting pressure on their girlfriends to ‘perform’ and, at the same time, resentment that their girlfriends don’t ‘perform’ like a porn performer or prostitute.

Porter then interviews 27-year-old Charlotte, who started in the sex industry stripping part-time at 18. At 22 she discovered web-camming; she moved onto ‘escorting’ though the same website she used for web-camming (it’s the same website the previous men use to find prostitutes, and it gets more than one name check, but I don’t suppose it really needs the free advertising), she has been selling sex for a year. Charlotte says she limits herself to 3 or 4 bookings (a week, I’m assuming), because she doesn’t want to look tired or burn herself out – but she knows other women who do 10x 15-30min bookings a day. Charlotte says that in a good month she makes £1000/week web-camming, and £2000/month escorting (if she is doing 16 bookings a month then she is making, on average, £125 per booking).

Charlotte also goes ‘on the road’ booking hotels and apartments around the country for bookings. She charges £300/hr for a ‘porn star experience’ – it’s more expensive because there is more sex. Charlotte says she prefers “older guys” because they are “nicer” and “more respectful”, while younger guys will “want to treat you like you’re a whore”; she has written on her profile that men will not be able to spend the whole hour ‘ploughing through’ her, and she says she is a human, not a machine.

When asked by Porter, she says it is not for everyone, because not everyone can “deal with it mentally”.

Charlotte has a legitimate business, employs an accountant and pays taxes, a total of £89,068.90 is shown on the screen, which is the total from web-camming for the past two years.

Next there’s a segment on prostitution laws, with a ‘pub quiz’ format. It’s so boring I skipped through it last time, and I’m skipping through it again.

Next, Porter meets ‘Madam Becky Adams’, who shows Porter what’s ‘really involved’ in running a brothel. Porter hires a serviced apartment, which is a cross between an apartment and a hotel room, and has the advantage of short contracts.

This segment is all very light-hearted, and very ‘English’ (that nudge-nudge, wink-wink, aren’t we naughty attitude that is actually deathly dull and conservative). It’s all bubble-baths, tea and biscuits, and euphemisms like ‘hunt the soap’ and ‘front massages’. But also lots of towels, baby-wipes and condoms.

Adams says that there are ‘unwritten rules’ “no drugs, no underage girls, no alcohol, no coercion,” and as long as national insurance and tax was paid, the police turned a blind eye (but she had been raided and closed down by the police – without ever being prosecuted – six times).

Adam’s said that she thought she wasn’t doing anything wrong, just helping ‘girls’ stay safe – nothing about the fat percentage she must have been taking for providing this service, she was obviously only doing it out of the kindness of her heart – she also campaigns for brothels to be decriminalised, calling current laws ridiculous.

At the end of this segment Porter says she feels “properly equipped to run a brothel now.”

Next the documentary moves on to street-based prostitution, and finally becomes hard-hitting, admitting that ‘many’ start before 18. Porter joins Shelly, an NHS out-reach worker in Liverpool; she hands out condoms and needles, as most are dealing with addiction. Shelly says that they often interrupt attacks on street workers – men throwing eggs or stones, or johns getting violent when they can’t “follow through on the act”.

140 street workers have been murdered in Britain since 1990. They visit one of the main areas used by street workers, which is also the site of a murder in 2005.

Porter next talks to Liz, who was a street worker driven by drug and alcohol addiction. She is interviewed at the Amistead Centre in Liverpool, an NHS service described on its website as “a free and confidential sexual health promotion service for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT) people and for male and female sex workers.” It is a massive problem conflating homosexuality with prostitution, but that is beyond the scope of this particular blog post. Another thing to note is that both Porter, during the Liverpool filming, and Liz, wear red umbrella laminated pins, the red umbrella is the symbol of sex industry advocates, so it shows the bias in this programme.

Liz describes her experience of prostitution as a nightmare and something that caused her a huge amount of harm; and the men, which she calls punters, as violating her. She suffered gang sexual assault, and another man kicked all her teeth out and left her for dead (she calls this man a punter too, not a ‘fake client’). She describes another punter as holder her captive for eight hours, repeatedly raping and beating her – both these men were arrested, charged, found guilty, but only got three years.

I cannot understand why a woman who has had such a set of experiences, would be aligning herself with sex industry advocates who describe her violation as ‘work’ and call the men who abused her ‘fake clients’.

After this interview, Porter, talking to camera, says she now realises that both the ‘high class escorts’ and the ‘drug addicted prostitutes on the street’ both “put them selves at risk in the same areas.” Which is a bit odd, as the rest of the programme has been about showing how great ‘sex work’ is.

Porter then says in voice over: “if brothels can provide greater safety but remain illegal, what should the police do?”

This does not all add up, ~Madam Becky~ earlier in the programme already said that ‘safe’ brothels didn’t do drugs, alcohol, or underage girls, so legalising/decriminalising brothels isn’t going to help an underage drug addict engaging in transactional sex.

Illegal brothels already exist, and that hasn’t prevented on-street prostitution; when women’s lives are so chaotic and precarious that they can’t prostitute even in illegal brothels, why would a legal one take them in?

Porter next goes to Merseyside Police Headquarters to talk to Chris Armitt, the Assistant Chief Constable. He says they will raid brothels if there is fear of abuse, but that most women are ‘working there of their own choice’. He also says that Australia and New Zealand have “regulated and licensed” brothels and that the ‘early signs’ are that they are reducing problems – funny, the prime minister of New Zealand said that decriminalising the sex industry had done nothing to reduce either on street prostitution or the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Then it’s back to Charlotte, on tour, and a wrap-up where Porter mentions “long-term emotional health”, and that, thankfully, is that.

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2 responses

  1. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. Thanks for the summary.

  2. Thanks Mousesquared.

    There is a lot more I could say about this documentary, like how could they travel to the Czech Republic, a known trafficking hub, and not once even mention trafficking into the sex industry, or demand? How could they not mention the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the same context?

    Also Charlotte, who is an interesting case – I am not going to deny that there is a minority of women in the ‘high end’ of the sex industry who get to have a great time and make a load of money (as I keep saying over and over again on this blog, the sex industry is a pyramid with a very broad base) – but would a woman working at a strip club who ended up losing money on slow nights, because she had to pay to work, was subjected to unfair fines, and was competing with other women for ‘customers’, be so willing to be interviewed?

    Charlotte made approx. £45,000 per year in the two years before filming, just through webcamming, so why then subject herself to a ‘porn star experience’ to make more money on top of that? Is the money addictive, or does she know that, at 27, she may not have the same earning capacity for much longer? She has an accountant, I hope she is investing wisely, and I hope she stays safe.

    How can a documentary talk to a woman like Liz, and not mention exit services? Regardless of which comes first – the prostitution to pay for the addiction, or the addiction to make the prostitution bearable – the two feed each other in a vicious circle. How can someone quit addiction while one of the things that is keeping them addicted is considered their ‘work’? Liz had drink and alcohol addiction issues, and the documentary mentions that she got treatment for those via the NHS, but nothing about specific help for exiting the sex industry (perhaps because Amistead doesn’t offer such services? From their website: “Armistead Street Outreach. Armistead Street Outreach is carried out across the city of Liverpool on streets and in areas where female and male sex workers base themselves. Outreach workers work in pairs and can be identified by the NHS identification they carry. They offer free condoms and lube, sexual health information, free needles and work as part of an emergency street based needle exchange service. Armistead Helpline. The helpline can be accessed for information and advice on a range of issues, including sexuality, gender, coming out, sexual health, drugs and alcohol, sex work and referrals to TSS [Trans Support Service] and other services.”).

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