TELEVISION / New York's sex industry laid bare

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The Independent Culture
THERE were several moments in Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and Their Johns (C4) which brought tears to my eyes. The moment, for example, when Mistress Scarlett, a successful New York dominatrix, applied a condom made of rough-grade sandpaper to her client's genitals. Channel 4 had thoughtfully interposed one of those electronic bathroom windows between the viewer and the offending object but even that wasn't enough when she brought out the cheese grater. My convulsive reflex was so strong that I momentarily lost sight of the screen altogether. Unfortunately I didn't have any hands free to block out the awful rasping noise on the soundtrack.

If prostitution is the oldest profession then reporting on it must be a close second. There are probably cave drawings which purport to expose the workings of 'the sex industry', with a little warning daubed above them - 'Some Cro-Magnons may find the drawings in this cave offensive'. In truth Beeban Kidron didn't bring much new to the genre apart from an unusually bold and unapologetic prurience. Don't get me wrong on this - I'm broadly in favour of prurience, on the grounds that it is inextricably linked with a concern for and interest in your fellow man. People who 'just don't want to know about all that' frequently turn out to be good at closing their minds to other unpalatable truths as well.

Kidron does want to know - everything - from what the clients actually do to whether passers-by have paid for sex (her film was stitched together with vox pops in which startled New Yorkers replied to this impertinence - itself a little study in human character). She seems never to have made her excuses and left. With concealed cameras and night-time filming she laid bare the sexual geography of New York, from the streets where you need a hefty limit on your credit card to afford an hour's company to the bleak avenues on which crack whores hustle for a hit. If your budget is really tight you go to a peep show, where, for a few bucks, you can stick your arm through a hatch and fondle the employees, a rather literal case of touching bottom.

Kidron's nerve was admirable - she ventured into places that would make the Terminator edgy and when the raw material proved intractable she put herself before the camera; after it had proved impossible to pin down any women who paid men for sex she tried calling up an escort herself. But the film that resulted was more troubling. That last scene, for example, seemed to reveal nothing beyond the fact that you can hire someone to have dinner with you and you'd be foolish to expect a Robert Redford look-alike.

Elsewhere too there were times when I began to wonder whether there might be something to be said for looking the other way, now and then. I think we should see the damage done to women by drugs and poverty, the crack addicts for whom prostitution isn't a 'valid economic option' but a last resort. And there's no harm in seeing the casualness with which many people accept a transaction that is persistently treated as out of the ordinary. But should we watch an old man have his nipples pulled into dugs by crocodile clips, wincing at the pain? The only reason he exposed himself to such humiliation on television was presumably because his mistress had ordered him to. I don't suppose Kidron would have laid hand-to-lash herself if asked outright but what's the difference, frankly? The camera had become an instrument of humiliation just as surely as the whips and clamps. Which maybe means, in this topsy-turvy world in which the servant pays the master and pain equals pleasure, that we should praise her for being nice to old folk.

I can't honestly say that it wasn't an interesting sight, one that made your head whirl at the variety of human appetite. But it made you wonder at the limits of your own curiosity. There weren't many voyeurs on show in this otherwise comprehensive parade of sexual preference - maybe they were all at home, watching something on television.

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