Tuesday 6 October 2015

Unpicking Channel 4's Sex Diaries: Gigolos

The selling of sex isn't usually regarded the stuff of light-hearted film making. That is, unless, it's men doing the selling. To women. And this was the topic of last night's Sex Diaries, a series of pieces by Charlie Russell for Channel 4 exploring what you might call the margins of the popular sexual imagination (last week he looked at couples who bonk on webcam). On this occasion, Charlie was concerned with tracking down self-declared gigolos who advertised their services on particular internet sites. He managed to find three of them who were happy to speak on camera.

Up first was Ian (pictured), a 51 year old bloke from Eastbourne. He had had some success with women and was proud that he offered a 'luxury boyfriend experience'. A date with Ian typically begins with flowers or chocolates and then to dinner and drink. Often times the venue for the encounters are at his home, so he cooks the meals himself and is able to entertain his client in a homely, welcoming space as opposed to the anonymity of the hotel room. At £80/hour the service doesn't come cheaply, and Ian said it always ends in a sexual encounter. He was keen to stress this was very different to a walk-in walk-out date, which is tacky. As the programme wears on, he tells us the work has somewhat dried up, but it was never a career for him. He maintains it's not about the money but rather an occasion to connect with people. It's a hobby, basically.

Our other two gigolos are somewhat different. Joe from Normanton in Yorkshire decided to give it a go after losing his job. His motivation, again, was neither monetary or sexual but was, apparently, about having "different experiences". As we met him for the first time he hadn't had any luck, though one woman had offered to cook him a meal. On our second visit he was having a bit more success, but this was from men. He'd been asked to go dogging, and another had requested him come round his to do cleaning in a pinnie and bow tie. As a straight guy he wasn't keen on meeting this particular section of the market, but admitted he would be prepared to offer some sort of non-sexual service to gay men - such as a massage. Apart from this, Joe was establishing himself as a personal trainer and was open about his escorting "job" to these clients. Alas, in the end, his adventure in the sex industry saw him make a few hundred quid from mucky phone calls to other men and called it a day.

Our other victim was Ivo, a Latvian escort working in London. In stark contrast to Joe, he was making £800/week at an average of one booking a day. Musing on his circumstances, he said "Which guy wouldn't enjoy this job?". However, as it took off - he'd begun taking appointments from men as well - the fun aspect disappeared as he was run ragged by a growing list of clients. It was also eating into his training. Ivo was a martial artist and regular prize fighter, so by the end of it he was looking exhausted and unsure of what was going to happen next.

So much for the provider of services, but what about the client? Charlie had a very difficult time tracking down a woman willing to speak about her experiences. He turned up Laura, who was an escort herself. She paid £200 for two hours and deliberately set out to discover what it'd be like to receive a boyfriend experience. She enjoyed it, nor did she feel as though she had cheapened herself by paying for it.

What to make of it all? Of course, it highlights some of the gendered sexual hypocrisies we're very well aware of. At worst these men were portrayed as a bit lonely (all three lived alone at the time of filming), at best a little bit fruity and adventurous. Female escorts would get no such treatment in a documentary of this character. They might alternatively be women to be pitied, or objects to be reviled - especially had they followed Ivo in saying they enjoyed their work. Where I thought it really fell down, just like the week previous, was a lack of narrative. It didn't work as voyeurism as sex and the gigolo were strictly separated. The nearest we got was an unnamed woman asking Charlie for a bit of intimate footsie under the dinner table. Nor did it work as a morality tale a la Louis Theroux. We just got snippets of the participants' lives in their own words that left them banal, rather than exotic. Perhaps I've got it wrong and that was the point.

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