When I asked Channel 4 for a preview of Sex Actually with Alice Levine, they sent me a link – the jokers! – to something called Tool Club, which turned out to be about the other kind of DIY (drills, not dildos). All in all, though, their mistake was for the best. It meant that I ended up watching the first part of Sex Actually after breakfast rather than after dinner, which helped greatly with the queasiness, even if I did fear just a little for my toast and jam during the bit when presenter Levine listened to a man called Sam do a “special request solo show” for a subscriber on OnlyFans (she was sitting on the stairs of his house in Bournemouth; he was in his bedroom). I can’t remember when I last felt so relieved to hear the snap of a pair of male underpants being pulled back on.
In her new series, Levine travels around Britain investigating the state of “real” people’s sex lives. The first film is devoted to the newest frontier in the gig economy, a job that involves not bicycles and tepid chicken jalfrezi (oh, you innocents!), but putting your bedroom activities online for cash. Apparently, everyone’s doing it. The hours are flexible, and you can work from home, the washing machine churning away while you and the one you love get through yet another set of sheets upstairs. Sam, who used to be a restaurant manager, and his girlfriend, Nikita, began “camming” (as in: using a sex cam) in lockdown, and he has no plans, now, to go back to his old life. “I’m so much happier,” he told Levine. And how had the solo show gone, incidentally? “A nice, relieving five minutes,” he replied, in a voice so level he might have been tapping out a spa review on TripAdvisor.
[See also: BBC drama The North Water is bloody and brutal]
But this line of work isn’t all feather pillows and pass the baby oil, darling. Callum and Cole, who recently won “best couple” at the Grabbies (the Oscars of the gay adult erotic video world), claim to earn £200,000 a year via a site called Chatterbate. Crikey, their routine’s exhausting. These boys offer a long menu to subscribers – it ranges from the boring (“lick foot”) to the very dirty indeed (insert your own image here, this is not a porn magazine) – and because they have so many fans with so many predilections, rushing through requests of an evening is at times like performing a bizarre version of the children’s song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”. And regulars don’t like to be ignored. So while they knead each other’s genitals like PlayDoh, they also have to remember to shout, “Thanks, Nigel!” or, “Nice to see you again, Brian!” (I think we all know what would happen should they get a name wrong.) I sound like I’m laughing, and perhaps I am. None of this frenetic activity, however, could disguise that their eyes looked dead; that the movements of their pale limbs seemed utterly mechanical.
Sadder still was the case of Layla and Jack, known online as Foxy and Jay. Jack is a decorator, though he doesn’t plan to use his paintbrush again any time soon, and Layla used to work in a Newcastle branch of Subway. Levine watched them have sex at a distance of two metres, and though at first proceedings were certainly a touch empty-seeming and (for Levine) embarrassing, no one seemed to be getting hurt. Layla, in underwear that resembled red Sellotape, giggled her way through Levine’s questions, and Jack was so solicitous. “Sorry if you felt out of place,” he said, a statement that might have been addressed to either woman.
It’s true that the sums involved are, for Layla at least, better than at the sandwich shop (she used to earn £6.10 an hour; for this session, performed to each subscriber for the price of £1 an hour, they made about £40). But at what deeper cost? Standing by her gleaming kitchen counter, Layla insisted that, no, she felt no shame, except… Suddenly, she began to cry. She spoke of her father. “He doesn’t understand,” she sobbed, her face crumpling. Levine combines her deadpan approach to her subjects with a refusal to ask hard questions. If she comments at all, her talk is carefully affirming, though usually she’d rather just pull a funny face. But in this instance, her disingenuousness hardly mattered. Layla’s tears were the real story: low-wage Britain and low self-esteem in one painful, climactic shot.
Sex Actually with Alice Levine
Aired 10pm, 22 September, Channel 4; now on catch-up
This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play