Rupert Everett in Soho. Photograph: William Baker/Channel 4
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Rupert Everett’s prostitution documentary, Love for Sale, seeks fantasy not reality

In reality, prostitution is not the world’s oldest profession – it is one of the world’s oldest oppressions. 

Rupert Everett introduces his Channel 4 documentary, Love for Sale, with an explanation. Prostitution and acting are "the world's oldest professions," he says; the only difference between the two being that, while actors "sell their feelings," prostitutes "grind away at their pussies with much less fuss but with more wear and tear". In fact, Everett considers himself "the greater whore" and is "frustrated" that despite the "fine line between acting and whoring," actors are given greater rewards and privileges in this world.

This misogynistic and ignorant introduction sets a tone that persists throughout the first episode.

While the series claims to explore how and why prostitution happens, the reality of servicing strange, often violent men, day in and day out and of being physically used and abused as a means of survival is glossed over. In reality, prostitution is not the world's oldest profession - it is one of the world's oldest oppressions.

One of the greatest failures of the first episode is Everett's unwillingness to acknowledge that which is most evident. The first episode asks "why people sell sex," but avoids the most obvious answer: demand. "People" (the vast majority of whom are women) sell sex primarily to men. If there were no male demand for paid sex, there would be no prostitution. Another unaddressed truth is that prostitution is not and has never been about female desire or fulfillment. Rather, it exists because of male power and entitlement. We, as a society believe not only that men have the right to access women's bodies, but that buying sex doesn't simply fulfill a desire, but a need. Everett himself believes that in order to abolish prostitution, we would need to "re-wire" men's brains.

This grim outlook on men's nature, wherein we assume men "need" sex with women who don't desire them shows little concern for how that supposed "hard-wired" "need" impacts women.

When writer and exited prostitute, Rachel Moran, who authored a powerful memoir detailing her seven years as a prostitute in Dublin, speaks with Everett, he is dismissive. When she tells him that "unwanted sex, even if you are paid for it, is damaging" and that society need not include prostitution, Everett doesn't listen, lecturing her as though she is delusional. "There is no way of changing this fundamental thing," he says.

But Everett's notion of a "safer, cleaner, more comforting" industry is the real delusion. It exists nowhere in history or in our current world. What he is defending is institutionalised oppression.

"Half of me don't want," an escort named "Juliana" who sends most of her earnings back to her family in Brazil, tells Everett, "and half of me needs." The camera stares at Juliana's breasts as Everett explains to her that she "lives like a movie star". He speaks on her behalf, so we'll never know if she agrees.

"I never liked this work and never wanted to do it," a male prostitute working in Tel Aviv tells Everett. The young man is an illegal immigrant from Jordan who doesn't have the ID card needed in order for him to move to Israel. He sells sex because he has no other choice. The man is Muslim and says: "if suicide was permitted, I would have done it."

A high-end male escort named "Bruno" tells Everett that he lost eight friends to suicide in the last 18 months and that the work leaves you "in very dark places" psychologically. Yet Everett concludes that the only harm of prostitution is that those in the industry are made into "social outcasts." When Everett discusses his friend Lychee, a transwoman who was murdered while prostituting, he fails to acknowledge that the violence came, not from abstract ideas such as social stigma, but from individuals – men, specifically. Often the very men who pay for sex.

Despite what happened to Lychee, Everett is unwilling to stop romanticising the industry, saying about Paris's Bois de Boulogne, where many transwomen work as prostitutes and where Lychee was murdered: "I adore this place, the notion of have sex outside in the trees – to me, this is a place of great romance and mystery…" "…And danger of course," he adds, as an afterthought. What Everett calls "eccentric" and "human" is violent and destructive to others and for that reason, people's "eccentricities" are of less interest to me than the lives of those impacted and destroyed by what Everett sees as "funny games".

Blaming abstract ideas like "social stigma" and religion functions as a means to avoid addressing a more unpleasant reality – that prostitution is physically, mentally, and emotionally damaging and that most people enter into prostitution because they are marginalised and have no alternative. "It isn't the stigma we need to eradicate," Moran tells Everett, "it's prostitution itself."

"We aren't doing it because we love it," a British woman, working the streets to pay for her drug addiction tells him, "it's a case of survival." Does Everett think she would feel differently if "stigma" weren't a factor?

On a whiteboard at an escort agency he visits, there are notes about certain clients (Everett calls them "the naughty boys"). Next to the name "Johnny12" is the word "rough." Everett jokes: "Johnny12 sounds my type." As though the violence suffered by women in prostitution is nothing more than a kinky, sexy little joke.

Everett claims he wants to "get behind stereotypes" that say prostituted women are either "immoral slags" or "powerless victims" but it feels as though he simply wants to replace one stereotype with another – that of the "happy hooker."

Everett visits Amsterdam, where prostitution is legal, in an effort to show how "empowering" it is when prostitution happens "out in the open". But in this supposedly "safe" atmosphere, women continue to be murdered and abused in the legal shop windows. A woman he speaks to there spends her days "screening" the gangs of drunken men who walk by her window, trying to guess which ones might rip her off, beat her, or worse. Is this what "empowerment" looks like?

Everett wants to sell a notion of prostitution as glamorous, sexually liberating, and economically empowering, but reality gets in the way. "A teacher can nearly double her weekly take-home income with just a good day's work with this agency," Everett proclaims. As though living in a world wherein a teacher must resort to selling sex on the side in order to survive is a great social achievement.

Everett claims to have set out to uncover the "truth" about prostitution in Love for Sale, but it's clear he – like so many others in this world – is unwilling to see the truth, lest his fantasies be destroyed. The title of the documentary speaks to this – in prostitution, it isn't "love" that is for sale, but rather power, sold by those who have none.

Meghan Murphy is a writer and journalist from Vancouver, Canada. Her website is Feminist Current. Meghan advocates for a model of law known as the Nordic model, which decriminalises prostitutes and criminalises the johns. You can follow her on Twitter @meghanemurphy.

 

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war