REVIEW / Parading the pleasures of male prostitution

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The Independent Culture
'TRICK OR TREAT', an Open Space (BBC 2) documentary about male prostitution, opened with a conventional silhouette, television's standard shadow- play of shame. But after a few seconds of sombre confession ('I've been involved in the profession for more than seven years or so now') the lights came up and you could stare John Bratherton in the face.

In a jokey way this was presented as a gesture of sacrificial candour, even bravery, and for most of the film you were inclined to take it as such. Certainly Bratherton made a reasoned, unsensational argument that his own life story - from Cambridge philosophy graduate to male prostitute - wasn't a matter of some appalling slippage into the lower depths. He had weighed up the need to earn a living against the desire for personal control and this is where the scale had finally poised itself - a job ('profession' is surely a bit much, unless someone has recently founded the Institute of Chartered Sex Workers) that didn't appear to offer immense material rewards but that allowed him to travel and, by his own account, broadened his mental horizons considerably. A case of join the rent-boys and see the world.

By the end, though, you began to wonder whether something else was involved here - not so much courage about coming into the light as a horror of remaining unseen in the shadows. It didn't seem to be a matter of unhappiness masquerading as control; there was none of the tremor you get when people try to talk and whistle in the dark at the same time. Bratherton had been working out his raisons d'etre and they were as lean and fit as his body. Prostitution, he implied, should be viewed as a branch of the social services, rather than some sort of shameful secret.

But his confident display didn't just flow from the insouciance of self-possession either. There was too much pleasure in it. Bratherton, complete with eyebrow piercing and immaculately cropped head, did not strike you as the sort of person who is indifferent about how others look at him. Indeed, there was a sort of over-compensated revelation throughout the film, as if the opportunity for display was simply too good to miss. He was seen in his bath in an early scene, reading the morning mail (mournful postcards from love-lorn clients, that sort of thing), a scene which certainly added to the general sense that he was concealing nothing but didn't actually amplify his argument - even male prostitutes proud of the name are presumably entitled to wash themselves in private.

Later, he made even more of an exhibition of himself, performing arabesques in a swimming pool, his naked body weaving through the water like an Attenborough seal. Even when clothed he was sometimes placed in the centre of the frame, like a precious object, as when he lay on the immaculate grey floor of the Saatchi Gallery, a studied contrast to the mannered obesity of the paintings on the walls. Bratherton walked and posed with the careful tension of those who know they are being watched, a bearing that you felt he was well able to maintain in the absence of television cameras.

He is too bright not to have thought of this himself, confessing to the 'danger of getting your own sense of self-worth from other people's valuing of you'. The idea that the client's desire is a deep pool in which you can gaze lovingly at yourself would obviously not be entirely new to him. But I wonder if, in his calculated self-exposure, he was aware quite how revealing the film would be. More often than not it looked like an advert for a body, rather than a defence of a lifestyle. Future clients will have the satisfaction of employing the services of John Bratherton, 'as seen on television'.