Documentary ‘investigations’ of the commercial sex industry have been a significant presence in the network schedules since the mid-1990s. This has contributed sub­stantially to the increase in explicitly erotic sexual imagery on mainstream television. This was also the case earlier in the twentieth century with cinema, when documentary acted as a stage in the development of film pornography (Williams 1990). The pro­liferating documentaries whose purpose is entertainment through erotic display and talk have been joined by others that are designed with more ‘proper’ purposes in mind. Social histories and anthropological studies, current affairs journalism and personal perspectives from celebrity film-makers have added to the quite extraordinary number of documentaries addressing this topic. The blurred boundaries between legitimate investigation and erotic entertainment in these cases have provoked a hostile reaction. The Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC) reported that ‘The increase in docu­mentaries about the sex industry has contributed enormously to the perception of an all-pervading filth on the air waves’ (Millwood Hargrave 1999).

Should all these documentaries be dismissed as worthless voyeurism, a symptom of the decline in our public service broadcasting system, as some commentators believe? Or do they overcome a long history of stigmatization of sex workers, as others have argued? What are the ethics involved in the production of these documentaries? How can producers give participants a voice and escape the charge of exploiting them? This chapter compares a range of documentaries on the sex industry, from late night ‘docuporn’ to prime time journalism and ‘auteur’ documentary, in order to explore these questions about quality, exploitation and empowerment in the representation of sex workers.

The forms of documentary on television changed during the 1990s to enhance their entertainment value for a wider audience, or they were pushed to the margins of the schedules (Dovey 2000; Winston 2000). This development began in the 1980s when
the deregulatory impetus of the Reagan era ensured the disappearance of ‘serious’ documentaries from the US television networks, to be replaced by ‘infotainment’ formats of various kinds. On cable, niche audiences watch educational documentaries on the Discovery Channel while other cable channels have been free to develop what I will call ‘docuporn’; that is, cheaply produced ‘investigations’ of sexuality, such as G-string Divas or Real Sex (HBO). These proved popular with subscribers and then spread to mainstream television (Winston 2000: 45-9). This trend crossed the Atlantic as a result of the increasing commercialism, tight production budgets and reduced regulatory restrictions that have accompanied the rise of multichannel television. Nevertheless, in the UK, public service regulations still require that terrestrial broad­casters include in their schedules a certain proportion of ‘serious’ factual programmes, despite their minority appeal, thus guaranteeing that some, at least, of these sex industry investigations are made with more than their erotic appeal in mind. The increase in documentaries on the sex industry is part of a more general rise in the number of documentaries about sex in this period. Analysis of the trends1 shows that on terrestrial television in the UK between 1995 and 2001 the numbers doubled in 1998, peaked in 1999 and then fell back to a midway point in 2000 and 2001 (Appendix, Figure 1).

More extensive analysis of the peak year, 1999, shows that if the statistics for some of the more popular digital channels are also included, there were literally hundreds of documentaries about sex in that year (Appendix, Figure 2). The regulatory effects of the watershed are shown in the fact that 95 per cent of these were scheduled after 9.00 p. m. The effects of the regulated time bands of the schedules are also apparent in the marked variation in generic address at different times of the day. The emphasis during the daytime is on educational programmes, some specifically for schools, with 75 per cent being historical or educational and only 25 per cent categorized as infotainment (Appendix, Figure 3). In the early evening the emphasis is on current affairs (46 per cent) with infotainment staying at around the same level as in the day (Appendix, Figure 4). After the watershed the emphasis shifts heavily to infotainment, constituting almost three-quarters (71 per cent) of the total output (Appendix, Figure 5). After 11.00 p. m. infotainment dominates almost to the exclusion of all else (87 per cent). A very high proportion of these are sex industry ‘docuporn’; that is, they are intended to be sexually arousing (Appendix, Figure 6).

The differentiation across channels is also very marked (Appendix, Figure 7), with the mainstream, public service channel BBC1 showing very few sex documentaries of any kind, while the minority BBC2 has mainly current affairs. Both the minority Channel 4 and at a lower frequency the mainstream commercial channel ITV are evenly divided between current affairs and infotainment. Channel 5 is heavily skewed to infotainment, as are the digital channels Living, Bravo and Sky One, which account for the vast majority of the documentaries shown (see Appendix, Figure 8). This pattern reflects the differentiated audience address arising from channel branding within a public service regulatory framework (see Chapter 2).

The legitimacy of documentaries about the sex industry can never be assumed, but has to be achieved. The first hurdle is for the audience to be reassured that they don’t need to feel ashamed for watching it. The BSC found that viewers were far less tolerant of explicit sex in what they perceived as a ‘tacky’ as opposed to a tasteful documentary, a distinction that depends on all kinds of markers of class status (Millwood Hargrave 1999). In current affairs documentary, a genre closely tied to a journalistic agenda originating in news stories, these markers map on to a difference in the mode of address of ‘quality’ and ‘tabloid’ journalism. ‘Quality’ depends on an elite perspective embodied in expert opinion, while ‘tabloidization’ is characterized by melodramatic forms of storytelling and is widely regarded as ‘dumbing down’ to an ostensibly depoliticized agenda. But, as already discussed in relation to news scandals in Chapter 4 and science documentaries in Chapter 5, this evaluation is complicated by the gendering of these aesthetic approaches. In the case of current affairs docu­mentaries, the issue is how to give a ‘voice’ to the political interests of sex workers, who are predominantly women, while avoiding the voyeuristic potential the topic invites and the normalizing effects created by ‘official’ disapproval and, in some respects, criminalization of their activities. The constraints are rather different in the documentaries of celebrity film-makers, who are able to distance themselves from the generic requirements of journalism. An ‘authored’ perspective carries more idiosyncratic markers of ‘quality’ bound up with aesthetic complexity, in terms of its visual and narrative form.

There are also ethical concerns over declining standards of professional conduct in the production of programmes and the exploitation of the participants in docu­mentary. Sensationalized and intrusive treatments of intimate sexual experiences are of particular concern in this respect. In the current conditions of production in the British television industry, Brian Winston (2000) is concerned that these issues are being ignored, with casualization leading to a decline in professional standards of conduct. Reliance on economically insecure, independent production companies and a decline in budgets has led to more ‘hit and run’ productions that have no budget for proper research, and film-makers who have no proper training or purpose beyond survival in the industry (Winston 2000: 160). Even with the best of intentions, documentaries designed as critical interventions have been subject to criticism. At the height of the feminist campaigns against pornography, Not a Love Story (Klein 1982), for example, a film intended to expose pornography to more widespread condemnation, was criticized for its moralism and sensationalism (Rich 1986). There is always a danger that films about exploitation will be exploitative.

Unequal power relations between film-makers and their subjects is a concern in this respect. The Good Woman of Bangkok (O’Rourke 1991), a much-debated docu­mentary made by an Australian male film-maker about a Thai female prostitute, is a case in point (Berry et al. 1997; Winston 2000: 147-8; Stones 2002). Challenges from feminist and lesbian film-makers to the long history of male dominance in the film and television industries have since the 1970s created a critical practice designed to counteract these inequalities. Since the 1980s in the UK there has been an influx of women into the television industry, enabled by the growth in independent production. Is women’s involvement any kind of guarantee against exploitation and, conversely, can male film-makers ever escape the charge? In considering the ethics of making these documentaries, what difference does it make whether the participants are male or female, ‘First’ or ‘Third World’, rich or poor? Industry guidelines emphasize ‘informed consent’ as a guarantee against exploitation, but is this effective? Or is it the case that these documentaries are inevitably voyeuristic and exploitative whatever the relations between the participants?

An emphasis on how sex workers are represented has overshadowed an equally significant issue, namely the limited perception of who is involved in the industry as clients. Documentaries on the provision of sexual services to the mentally and physically disabled (Forbidden Pleasures, Channel 4 2000) and to single women (Under the Sun, ‘What sort of gentleman are you after?, BBC2 1998) have offered interesting interventions in this respect. Nevertheless, given the long history of debate on the progressive representation of sex workers that has emerged out of feminist activism, the focus of this chapter remains with the sex workers themselves.